Helping Communities Mitigate the Effects of Natural Disasters Through Participatory Planning

As we have seen all too often in the Midwest, flooding and other natural disasters can devastate communities. Carrie McKillip, a University of Illinois Extension Community and Economic Development Educator, has spent the last twelve years helping Illinois communities plan and prepare so they are better able to weather the storms.

McKillip’s work in hazard planning began during the spring and summer of 2008 when excessive snowmelt and rain caused record flooding up and down the Mississippi Valley, including West Central Illinois. This flooding caused levee overtopping and breeches, inundated many communities and shut down highways.  Many of the impacted counties did not have Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  According to the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (DM2K) only jurisdictions with approved plans are eligible for mitigation dollars from FEMA.  McKillip quickly realized that many of the flooding issues and mitigation projects would require participatory planning if they hoped to address riverine flooding and make the needed infrastructure improvements.

Using her background in participatory planning, grant writing, and her connections in the community and at the University, McKillip and her colleagues helped four counties apply for funding to help rebuild after the flood. Perhaps more significantly, the team partnered with the Illinois State Water Survey to facilitate the development of multijurisdictional hazard mitigation plans.

With this disaster, McKillip found her niche in the complex world of disaster planning, mitigation, and recovery.  Many small communities struggle with planning processes, especially complex processes that require expertise from a variety of disciplines and agreement from diverse stakeholders. To help communities create hazard mitigation plans McKillip draws from proven community development tools, including participatory planning, the community capitals framework, and asset mapping. These tools help stakeholders identify community resources and prioritize shared goals within a framework that supports diverse perspectives and potential power differentials.

By bringing together local elected officials, drainage district supervisors, county engineers, law enforcement and community leaders in the planning process, communities can identify areas of concern, use local expertise to find creative solutions to ongoing problems, and build the capacity of local leaders to identify and seek solutions. According to McKillip, she learns from every planning session. “The wealth of knowledge in rural communities in Illinois is immense.  By bringing a diverse group together, the planning process becomes richer and more operational, which is the ultimate goal.”

Within Illinois, McKillip continues to partner with the Illinois State Water Survey to support the planning processes in communities. Beyond Illinois, McKillip is an active participant in and the current chair of the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN).

According to McKillip, engaging communities in participatory planning can go a long way in not only helping them manage floods and natural disasters, but in building resilience, diversifying economies, and improving livability. “The concepts of engaging stakeholders in planning remain consistent, whether you are developing a plan to address Main Street Development, Hazard Mitigation or Watershed Drainage issues. By engaging local experts and leaders and drawing upon best practices research we can facilitate creative solutions to challenging issues.



Carrie McKillip, a native of Knox County, holds an Associate of Arts from Carl Sandburg College, a Bachelor of Science from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and an MBA from Western Illinois University. Prior to joining Extension in 2006, McKillip spent 20 years in not-for-profit management, including six years in higher education administration and business development.

McKillip works directly with community groups and agencies in participatory community planning, strategic planning, community development, resource development, and business development education. Partnering with other state agencies and local communities, McKillip has facilitated the development of Multi-jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans, and serves as a delegate and Illinois Point of Contact to the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). In September of 2020, she will begin a two year term as Chair of EDEN.

McKillip also works with communities in forming Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD’s) to help regions become more disaster resilient.

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