Recovery Process Is a Disaster (Opinion)

We spend most of our time on preparedness and only 1 to 2 percent of our time on the disaster response phase — which can last years following a large emergency.

by / April 23, 2012
Benjamin Simeneta / Benjamin Simeneta/

There are four phases of traditional emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

We spend most of our time on preparedness, with a bit of mitigation planning thrown in. But we only spend 1 to 2 percent of our time on the disaster response phase. And when you have a big enough disaster, you’re engaged in recovery for years — even decades.

Obviously the more disasters you have, the better you become at the declaration and recovery process. First, your jurisdiction proclaims an emergency (if you don’t do this, the disaster must not be that bad). The governor must make a presidential declaration request, which is first sent to your FEMA regional office, then forwarded to the FEMA national office, which makes a recommendation to the White House and president.

The event’s severity determines how fast a presidential declaration will be processed. Sometimes the White House proclaims a presidential disaster even before a state takes action, as it did for the 1994 California Northridge earthquake the day it occurred.

If catastrophic damages aren’t blatant, you’ll undergo a preliminary damage assessment. When you get declared, your challenges get tougher. Jerry Quinn, a 30-year disaster recovery expert, told me how, on average, it can take eight to 10 years to close out a presidential disaster declaration:

The 99 declarations in 2011 took on average 38.4 days from the beginning of the incident period. Then FEMA conducts briefings and kick-off meetings, which take 30 to 45 days to complete. Then FEMA starts writing project worksheets, most of which undergo a protracted review process. If a sub-grantee gets an “expedited” project worksheet obligation, it’s roughly 90 days — then the money moves to the state treasury, and the sub-grantee must make a reimbursement request. If that can be processed in 10 business days, the sub-grantee gets its first reimbursement three months after the disaster started.

The National Environmental Policy and National Historic Preservation acts are enforceable, and FEMA can’t legally put federal funds into a project without completed reviews. If there are no detrimental effects, the quick turnarounds are another 90 days. But if the National Marine Fisheries Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weigh in, they have 105 days to “acknowledge your application,” nevermind make a decision. Then if you’re lucky, you only have to go to the federal and state permitting agencies, which are known to disagree with each other.

FEMA won’t typically begin reviews until a sub-grantee proposes a repair method (including materials) that the sub-grantee believes will get through all legally enforceable code requirements and permit agencies.

The sub-grantee has appeal rights. I can’t recall the last appeal that took less than a year to complete.

Three to five years more of paperwork follows a project’s physical completion.

Lastly, Jerry recommends budgeting for just 30 percent federal reimbursement of all disaster costs until approvals start to roll in.

As you can see, the process truly is a disaster.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

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

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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