Remembering the Pilger Tornadoes (Part 2)

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Last week we remembered the tornadoes that devastated Pilger, Nebraska in 2014. June 16th marked the 8th anniversary of the twin tornadoes that changed Pilger forever.

In the aftermath of the event, the future of Pilger was in doubt. The population of Pilger had dropped by almost one-third, from 352 residents before the storm, to 200. There was a rebound in the population to 212, but the future of Pilger was still of concern. Residents had a desire to look forward to the next chapter and what that could look like.

In last week’s post, we looked at short-term recovery efforts and how they utilized non-profit organizations to help guide their recovery path. But there’s also the long-term plan that a community needs to consider as well. Although it is almost inconceivable to think so, it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity that residents would of course rather not have, but an opportunity nonetheless.

Recognizing a Need

Keith Marvin of Marvin Planning Consultants (@marvinplanner) had helped Pilger with their community planning activities in the past. So when the tornadoes tore through the community, Keith felt a need to help. Knowing of the American Planning Association’s (APA) Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program, Keith and APA Nebraska (@APA_Nebraska) President Derek Miller looked into how the CPAT program could help Pilger.

Pilger Nebraska

What is CPAT?

So what is CPAT? According to the APA website:

“The Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program organizes multidisciplinary teams of planning professionals that volunteer their time to work with local stakeholders to create a vision plan and implementation strategy. CPAT offers expertise in a diverse range of issues facing communities. CPAT brings planning resources and opportunities to communities and strengthens the ability of residents and other stakeholders to influence and determine decisions that affect their quality of life.”

APA’s CPAT program has helped a number of rural communities through volunteer planning action. This includes Lyons, a community of 2,033 in Colorado that had been ravaged by floodwaters in September 2013. The CPAT program also helped Mandeville in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers forged a redevelopment strategy for this town of 13,192 residents in Louisiana in the wake of the massive storm.

Pilger Nebraska

How CPAT Helped Pilger

Unfortunately, Keith and Derek concluded that the APA National level CPAT program wouldn’t work for Pilger. But that didn’t hold them back from creating a state-level CPAT effort in Nebraska. In March of 2015 President of APA Nebraska, Derek Miller, sent a call out to his membership asking for volunteers to lead the CPAT effort for Pilger. About 15 planners from across the state responded to the request (including the author of this post).

With the team of interested volunteers in place, Brenda Jensen of Miller and Associates volunteered to lead the effort. Miller & Associates was the community’s engineering consultant, which made Jensen an ideal fit. Their task was to complete an update to the community’s comprehensive plan, and zoning regulations, and to create a strategic plan to set everything in motion.

In September 2015 this team held a two-day on-site planning session with town hall meetings in the evening. The first was centered on the strengths, weaknesses, and goals of the community. On the second day, the team used their findings from the previous night to hold group sessions on more specific topics. The roundtable discussions centered on the topics of housing, economic development, zoning, and community development. Through these small group discussions, residents prioritized their goals and discussed how best to implement actions to achieve the goals they set forth.

With the completion of the town hall meeting, the CPAT volunteers had the base information they needed to start work on the plans and regulations. These important documents helped to set the path moving forward for the community. After receiving input from the village staff, planning commission, and village board, the plans were accepted.

Pilger Nebraska

Setting the Stage for Future CPAT Efforts

The Pilger CPAT effort was the first of its kind in Nebraska. It set the standard for future CPAT projects in the state. It was used once again in Winslow, Nebraska, where repetitive flooding conjured up the idea of moving the town to higher ground.

APA National isn’t currently accepting applications for new CPAT projects. This is likely a temporary halt to the program due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Regardless, I’d reach out to your local state APA chapter to inquire about CPAT in your state. Whether it’s a project led at the National level or one led by your state chapter, CPAT can help communities in need.