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A Refocus on Disaster Recovery

The feds are increasingly swamped, so how do we rein in the costs of disasters?

Sandy (4)
Beach house destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
The script seems distressingly familiar: A disaster — a hurricane, a flood, a tornado, an earthquake — causes billions of dollars in damage. After arguments about fairness and federal responsibility, the federal government comes up with money to help the affected communities recover.

“When huge amounts of infrastructure get wrecked, the only place that can pay for it is the feds — but increasingly, the feds are swamped,” said Claire Rubin, an independent researcher and consultant with a focus on emergency management.

The cycle is not sustainable.

“If you look at the loss of life from disasters in the United States, it’s really quite low compared to other places. We’ve done a good job with that,” said Robert B. Olshansky, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But we have expensive stuff. When it floods, gets wind damage or shakes in an earthquake, it’s expensive to fix it. The public cost of disasters is going up. There has been a continued increase in expectations of what the federal government should do, and it gets harder and harder each time.”
The question is how to cut down these costs. One potential answer: an increased focus on disaster recovery, which is often overlooked as communities scramble after a disaster to get roads cleared and the power back on. Better disaster recovery plans could help make future disasters less costly.

Recovery is one of the four phases of emergency management; the others are mitigation, preparedness and response.

“It’s a cycle,” Olshansky said. “When doing recovery, you’re also mitigating for next time.”
Response deals with the immediate problems caused by a disaster: making sure residents have food, water and a place to live, for example, and getting the infrastructure functioning. This is where most of the media focus is, and thus what most members of the public imagine when they think of emergency management.

“Our emergency management agencies focus on that because that’s a basic function of government,” Olshansky said. “People get unelected if they can’t get the electricity going again or plow the snow.”

Once the initial response is over, it’s time to address long-term issues, from physical reconstruction to helping people get their health and livelihoods back. This part of the process often gets less attention.

“Response evolves into recovery,” Olshansky said. Long-term recovery may involve more community development and urban planning professionals, not just emergency management agencies.

Because recovery is the phase where infrastructure is being rebuilt, this is the time when many communities consider upgrades. One reason is that usually, it’s the oldest, weakest or most poorly located elements of a community’s infrastructure that don’t withstand the disaster.

“Everyone’s hope for recovery is that it’s not exactly the way things were before,” Rubin said. “You want it to be better and less disaster-prone than what was there.”
Because of this, there is “some overlap between mitigation and recovery,” she said.
“In my opinion we are not investing nearly enough on the front end,” said Gavin Smith, professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence. “Government agencies should be planning before disasters occur for how the recovery from them should look.”

Rubin cited California as an example of positive state action before a disaster because of its frequent earthquakes. “They have done quite a bit,” she said, citing construction standards and the state’s ability to use federal money when it’s available. 

Often state and local governments have not developed recovery plans before a disaster, so when they receive huge amounts of money to help with the recovery, they have to figure out how to organize and use these resources. This can leave the agencies scrambling to plan major development and infrastructure projects while simultaneously trying to help their citizens recover from a disaster.

“Trying to do all these things in the aftermath of a disaster — in my opinion we should actually be surprised when recovery does go well,” Smith said.

The federal government does encourage planning. For example, the National Disaster Recovery Framework was mandated by Congress after Hurricane Katrina. It is meant to give state and local governments an incentive to develop the capacity for a strong recovery.

“More than 10 years after that mandate, I would argue that we haven’t reached the full potential of what I think is a good idea,” Smith said. “My belief is that if we invested much more on the front end, building local capacity, when a disaster happens and we have planning in place, recovery would be much more effective. It would be much more timely. It would better integrate with existing planning policies within state and local governments.”

State and local governments face several challenges in planning for recovery in advance of disasters:

 Planning is complicated.  Even simple rebuilding efforts require complex multijurisdictional cooperation, Smith said. Different agencies need to have established working relationships and trained staff members who can analyze how policies and programs can work together.

 The next disaster is unknown.  Recovery may include replacing significant parts of the city’s infrastructure, for example — but since it’s not clear ahead of time which parts, planning can be tough.

“Recovery has a lot of variables,” Rubin said. “There is no easy formula.” For example, even a community that gets hit repeatedly by hurricanes may find that the damage is different each time, with different parts of the community affected.

“Good planning would account for multiple scenarios,” Smith said. “It would also rely on the development of an overarching vision of what you want recovery to be, regardless of the nature of the event.”

 Timing is tricky.  Cities trying to rebuild after a disaster face the “ongoing problem of speed versus deliberation,” Smith said.

“Managing the tension between rebuilding as quickly as possible and rebuilding well is very tricky,” Olshansky said. “It’s important to do it quickly, but not so fast that you put back the same stuff and the same thing happens again. You always want to be smart about it.”

For example, rebuilding well might mean improving a city’s infrastructure by adding solar power or improving the transportation system. But this is difficult to plan and achieve on short notice while simultaneously recovering from a disaster.

This is why planning before the disaster is so essential — and the recovery phase is a good time for this long-term thinking.

“There are a whole lot of positive changes you can make after a disaster if you’re thinking ahead of time about that,” Olshansky said. “You’re trying to make your community as resilient as possible to all the successive disasters it might face in the future.”

 Plans can face opposition.  Communities need to “think about where and how they build in relation to hazards,” Smith said. In some cases, such as earthquake-prone areas, the best approach may be strengthening building codes so buildings are less likely to collapse. In flood-prone areas, the location may need to be rethought: Is it OK to rebuild a community in a flood plain?
Either type of policy can run into resistance from those affected.

“Is it politically feasible to relocate large communities?” Smith said. “In some cases, that happens. But you’re not relocating New York City.”

Even stricter building codes, which often add to the cost of construction, can run into hurdles, Smith said. “There can be opposition to the adoption of higher codes and standards as well.”

One outcome of better planning could be to help control the spiraling costs.

Each new disaster with a large price tag leads to an expectation that the victims of the next disaster will be taken care of as well. “People get used to getting their funds,” Olshansky said. “They say, ‘You gave those people that much in the last disaster, so now it’s our turn.’ You can easily see how this system will continue to expand.”

Olshansky is particularly concerned about the next big earthquake. The federal flood insurance program, even though it is in debt, at least takes in money through premiums. Tornadoes are often covered by private insurance, as is some of the damage caused by hurricanes. But earthquakes have much less of this non-governmental money flowing in for repairs.

“The amount of earthquake insurance is very low,” Olshansky said. “They’re going to go begging to Washington, and Washington isn’t going to be enthusiastic about paying it.”

Reforming the disaster recovery process so that it includes better planning for the next disaster could ultimately help keep costs down. “Hazard mitigation is the main thing that can reduce costs,” Olshansky said.

This could mean spending more money on planning to ultimately spend less on the aftermath of disasters.

“We spend virtually nothing on pre-event capacity building, and then we spend an inordinate amount of money in the aftermath,” Smith said. He has a proposal that “flips the equation gradually.”

“We ought to be, as a nation, investing more in pre-event planning for disaster recovery,” Smith said. This could include money, training or other resources for state and local governments.
Then, Smith said, the federal government should hold local governments more accountable for having solid plans before a disaster. “Over time, perhaps we could consider providing less recovery funding.”

Smith cautioned that this approach would need some safeguards, especially in communities that have struggled to find the resources for planning: “We need to invest resources and be careful not to withhold disaster recovery assistance too quickly. The poor in those communities will suffer.”
Another example experts cite as a possible model, or at least the beginning of one, is the National Flood Insurance Program. Although it has numerous problems, it is nonetheless a good example of the “carrot and stick” approach, Olshansky said. “The carrot is the availability of flood insurance, which wasn’t available because the private market pulled out of it. But the stick is that your community has to do flood hazard management.”

One part of the flood insurance program that could possibly be replicated in other areas is the idea of giving local governments — and private property owners — incentives to build in places that are less prone to disasters.

The feds have taken some steps to push state and local governments toward better planning. For example, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 requires localities to have hazard mitigation plans and allows for additional federal funding for hazard mitigation after a disaster.

“It recognizes the fact that nobody cares about hazard mitigation until after the disaster has occurred, but there’s always going to be another one,” Olshansky said.

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.