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Focusing on Disaster Recovery with Bryan Koon

One of the nation’s most experienced emergency managers shares his knowledge.

Bryan Koon
AP/Wilfredo Lee
Bryan Koon, one of our nation’s more experienced, and now senior emergency managers, responded to a series of questions about disaster recovery. The following is an interview with Bryan Koon on the topic of disaster recovery.

Koon served seven years as the director at the Florida Division of Emergency Management and today serves as IEM’s vice president of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Koon is also serving as the chair of the Multi-hazard Mitigation Council, an independent, non-governmental entity of leading experts in mitigation that helps inform policy and advocates for smart mitigation practices nationwide. Additionally, Koon currently sits on the board of directors for the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, the country’s leading consumer advocate for strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and manmade disasters.

Koon was formerly president of the National Emergency Management Association. A military veteran, he served 10 years active duty in the Navy, his last five at the White House Military Office, in the president’s EOC.

What are you doing now?
I am spending a lot of time focused on 2017 hurricane issues. For IEM, a major duty is overseeing business development and spending a lot of time in Puerto Rico and other states. As my bio reflects, I’m also active on several boards and also working with the National Academies of Science.

What do you believe the status of recovery planning is here in the U.S.? For states and for cities and counties?
It certainly lags response planning. We are pretty good at focusing on immediate life safety and the functions of disaster response. Longer-term recovery is much more comprehensive and requires a different set of skills and many more organizations. Everyone — all entities, public, private and nonprofit — needs to be engaged. It can be a daunting task. Many communities and states have trouble wrapping their arms around the totality of the effort required.

What would you recommend to a jurisdiction, just trying to get started on recovery planning?

You need to acknowledge that it is a big thing. You can’t do it with just one single jurisdiction or one level of government. There is a tendency to delve too much into the dollars, instead of “what we would like to look like” post recovery. Come up with a vision for the future and how that relates to a disaster. What is the vision for the community today — pre-disaster? Capitalize on the existing planning.
I’m personally an advocate for regional plans. How do you define a region — generically?

How do the locals describe their region? What areas do the local TV and radio stations cover? Are they greater Chicagoland? Is there is a natural affinity there for what makes that area a region? Use what exists in people’s minds when they say “regional.”

What is emergency management’s role in recovery?  Are they the right people to lead a recovery?

This is a good question that I’m considering now. In New York state, emergency management has disaster response, but recovery oversight comes from a different organization. Different states do it differently. Recovery requires a different skill set, completely different from response. Yet there needs to be engagement by the emergency management community. For many emergency managers, dealing with the vast amounts of paperwork in recovery is not their thing. The jury is still out on the answer to this question.

Why does recovery take so long to achieve?

It is an issue. There is a combination of things, especially the complexity of the existing federal disaster recovery programs. Recently I heard academics express amazement and they were appalled when they heard that recovery in Puerto Rico could take 10 years. I was not surprised myself. In disaster recovery funding, there is a significant effort to protect the expenditure of public taxpayer dollars. With every disaster there are more requirements put on organizations taking the money. Meeting all these requirements makes it a very complex task.

The recovery planning is not as robust as it needs to be. Most of the time people only become engaged, post-disaster. It can take as long to rebuild as it does to build something from scratch.

People are talking about building resilience into recovery. There is a tension to rebuild quickly and to let resilience go by the wayside to recover faster. What can be done to have people invest in resilience?

One thing is to do everything possible to maximize the use of mitigation funding. How can we make it easier for decision-makers? There are a number of states leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table because they do not have enhanced mitigation plans. Jurisdictions need to focus on tightening down building codes. Don’t loosen them up after an event, which will only magnify the impact of damages for future events. A recent study I was involved with showed that you can obtain a 6-to-1 ratio (six dollars of benefit) for the investment in disaster mitigation. That is a great outcome if we can only focus on the investment to get this return. We need to continue to analyze who is paying for what in disaster recovery. It is not always clear about how the costs of disaster recovery are being borne. 

What should jurisdictions do to engage the private sector in recovery planning?

Paint the picture for what it means for them post-disaster. It is difficult. Most of the time we take too much of a government approach. Business is focused on daily operations. Think about it from their perspective. They are part of the community. What do they want their community to look like — post-disaster? They can help shape the environment of recovery planning. Buying insurance — is a good business practice.

To what degree does FEMA dictate the recovery process?

Right now they have a tremendous amount of influence. There would be more flexibility and control if jurisdictions were self-funded. Today FEMA dictates the “what and how” and you have to meet their requirements.

How do you feel about the next generation of emergency managers entering the workforce?

I am excited about the new infusion people coming out of colleges and universities with emergency management degrees. They can be innovative and building on what has been done before.

What do you think of [FEMA Administrator] Brock Long’s move to push more responsibility and accountability for disaster response and recovery onto the state and local jurisdictions?

I concur with what he is trying to do. FEMA should be focused on the truly large and catastrophic disasters such as a Category 5 hurricane or a very large earthquake. States have the ability to handle routine $2M floods, and they should be doing so without federal assistance. I think the current FEMA Strategic Plan is a good one and following it will benefit everyone.

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.