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Long-Term Recovery Planning: What You Need to Know

Long-term planning starts with partnership-building, encompasses economic revitalization and ultimately keeps a community viable.

One day something large and very bad will happen in Los Angeles. That’s a given. With training and preparation, emergency managers will be ready to respond on that day. What comes next, however, is a topic seldom discussed.

Whether in advance of a crisis or in the wake of a disaster, long-term planning is both vital and often overlooked. How will the community survive and thrive 10 years down the road, or 20 years?

“The thing about that kind of recovery is the fact that it is so big. It is so difficult for people to wrap their heads around, thinking of everybody that is involved and what their role is going to be,” said Ryan Rockabrand, program specialist in the Office of Emergency Management for Los Angeles County.

And yet the work must be done. How does long-term planning happen? It starts with partnership-building, encompasses economic revitalization and ultimately keeps a community viable. It’s up to emergency management to bring all those pieces together.

Assembling the Team

The floods in historic Gays Mills, Wis., demonstrate the need for partnerships. In 2007 and 2008, the village drew presidential disaster declarations when the Kickapoo River twice overflowed its banks. In planning the community’s return, Wisconsin Emergency Management drew together a diverse group of state and federal players, historic and cultural organizations, environmental groups, economic development officials, public facility managers, urban planning experts and landscape architects.

“You have to get all the leadership on board,” said Brian Satula, administrator of Wisconsin Emergency Management. “As the representatives of the community, you need their support for whatever plan is going to be developed. They are the ones on the front lines who will be answering the questions.”

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) has been leaning on such teams since a series of tornadoes in 2011 took out 31 of 32 businesses and much of the housing in Hackleburg. In forging a five-year recovery plan, the agency has drawn extensively upon community relationships that were established before the storms, including university scholars who have helped fill the dearth of planners and engineers that a bigger city might have been able to work with.

“The role of emergency management is in making sure that network has been established prior to a disaster. That is essential to the success of that community, not only in the response but also in the recovery aspect,” said Rocky Milliman, Disaster Recovery coordinator at ADECA.

While all agree that interagency relationships, paired with ties to local community organizations, are vital to long-term recovery, it’s equally true that establishing such ties requires some finesse. Partnership means more than just the occasional tabletop exercise.

First, success requires broad thinking. “I am not an advocate of specifying individuals within each agency,” Rockabrand said. While personal ties help cement cooperation, “ultimately it’s not about a name. It’s about a mission or a function. Ten years from now, those particular individuals probably aren’t going to be there.”

To add real depth to these ties, sustainability is required. “Once you create that plan, then you do the exercises and revisit the plan. All that needs to be routine,” Rockabrand said. “It has to go into that full cycle repeatedly until it becomes second nature.”

Second nature means knowing intuitively what aspects of recovery are going to kick in when it’s time to draw up a long-term plan. What, then, are the aspects of long-term recovery?

Money Comes First

It would be nice to be able to say, “Here’s what goes into a long-term plan.” But that’s not the case. “It’s really hard to say in the abstract,” said James C. Schwab, manager of the Hazards Planning Research Center of the American Planning Association. “It’s going to depend on the type, size and scale of the disaster, the spectrum of damages. All these will have a significant impact on the recovery choices you are going to make.”

For any given disaster, the extent and the form of the damage can vary widely, which will directly impact how long-term recovery is organized. Even for communities with mature recovery plans, the unexpected will often call for revisions on the fly.

That being said, there are some things that can be assumed in the broadest sense, first among these being that economic redevelopment will play a central role in recovery over the long haul.

A principal associate with planning and development consultancy Hamilton Swift and Associates, Charles Eadie led long-term recovery of Santa Cruz, Calif., after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake when economic recovery played a central role. “The issue was primarily that the beloved downtown, a historic district, was devastated in both a commercial and aesthetic point of view. There are 1 million square feet, and a third of it was demolished, a third was OK and a third was in between,” he said. “It left gaping holes in the downtown.”

It took 18 months to forge a plan that would combine insurance money, government investment and private spending with an eye toward rebuilding. “Recovery is really about one thing: It’s about investment and reinvestment,” Eadie said.

Such a renaissance is not easily achieved. In this case, government and business leaders had a history of mutual distrust. To move the needle, planners created a 36-member group, Vision Santa Cruz, with 18 members chosen by the business community and 18 drawn from the public sector.

Economic development is just the starting point. Physical rebuilding, community revitalization and a range of other factors also go in the mix. For guidelines on the content of a long-term plan, FEMA offers a National Disaster Recovery Framework, which lays out an explicit structure for designing long-term recovery plans ahead of a disaster as well as in the wake of a crisis.

FEMA’s Vision

Plans developed pre-disaster should encompass a range of elements. Among these:

  • clear leadership, coordination and decision-making structures;
  • stakeholder involvement among community leaders and private-sector entities;
  • testing and evaluation of pre-disaster plans through seminars, workshops and exercises;
  • integration of pre-disaster recovery planning with other appropriate community planning;
  • incorporating sustainable development, including environmental, historic preservation and financial elements; and
  • developing and implementing recovery training and education.

Then there are the recovery plans assembled after the fact. Often these may be more detailed, as emergency managers craft a response to a specific event. Here again FEMA recommends a range of measures, including:

  • Establish a process for exchanging information between the public and leadership.
  • Identify the priority redevelopment and reconstruction within recovery.
  • Determine the areas of concern and the impact these areas have on recovery.
  • Identify and incorporate areas that strengthen and revitalize the community.
  • Use existing planning documents as a guide.

Ultimately all post-event activity in the community must be looked at under the lens of recovery. “Evaluate projects and programs to determine their impact on recovery, feasibility, public support, sustainability initiatives, effective use of resources and other criteria as determined by the community,” FEMA advises.

As planners craft the content of a long-range plan, sometimes the best thing they can do is back off, omit the details and not over-plan.

Milliman, for example, describes an overall goal of recovery: “The plan has to make sure the community is vital enough to go forward.” Within this, though, planners generally have left citizens and their local institutions free to sort out the details based on local need. “We give them the resources, but they need to make those decisions for themselves.”

In Los Angeles, Rockabrand has relied on FEMA money to help encourage those locally based planning efforts. In fiscal 2010, his agency received $1.28 million from the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program, which he was able to spend supporting local players in their efforts to think through their recovery priorities and plans.

“We will provide the money. All we ask is the time — the time for you to review these things, to work with our working groups so that they meet your expectations,” he said. The money helps these local entities bring on additional workers to augment those who are taking time out to work on planning.

Immediate Impact

It’s easy to assume that long-range recovery plans aim to address issues that unfold over time. Downtowns aren’t rebuilt in a day. It takes time to plan out new construction. It requires consensus-building in the community, financing schemes and urban planning efforts. All these things unfold over years.

At the same time, there are short-term decisions to be made, especially by emergency management professionals. These choices made on the spot, in the midst of a crisis, can have a lasting impact on how long-term recovery plays out.

“The important thing for emergency managers is to understand the continuity of recovery, the notion that decisions made early on in the response phase will have long-term implications,” Eadie said.
In the Santa Cruz earthquake, for instance, “we had a lot of situations with buildings that were red tagged; we knew they had to be demolished. The public safety perspective was just: Bulldoze, take them down and eliminate the hazard,” he said.

The business community, on the other hand, wanted to save anything that was even remotely viable. The businesses knew that salvaging their records and inventory would matter in the coming years. “So the first thing we did was to slow down the demolitions,” Eadie said. “We needed to explore the extent to which businesses could recover their records, their inventory, other critical items.”

If the rush to demolish presents one possible snag, so does the rush to rebuild. Raising new structures can open the possibility of a repeat crisis down the road, or at least may limit planners’ options as they lay out a future direction, Schwab said. “Emergency management needs to be trained to think about the fact that some decisions made early after a disaster can either open up or foreclose opportunities to builder a stronger and more resilient community down the road.”

Ounce of Prevention

Another factor bears noting here: mitigation. Certainly it is understood in the emergency planning community that one does all one can to shore up the infrastructure in advance of any disaster. In an ideal world, an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.

Ordinarily, mitigation may be based on certain assumptions such as population density, natural hazards and topography. When it comes to planning in the wake of a disaster, mitigation gets another arrow in its quiver. That is, the disaster itself.

“What you hope is that you will have learned the lessons, so that you don’t have to learn the same lessons again,” said Brent Woodworth, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation.

One need not wait for a crisis to draw from past experience: Long-term recovery can find its inspiration from events anywhere. In drafting the Los Angeles regional recovery plan, officials visited varied areas in which disasters had struck that mirrored those likely to hit Los Angeles.

“We wanted to learn from the past, so we went to areas around the globe that have experienced catastrophic events,” Rockabrand said. “We looked at what they have done for long-term recovery, and we have adopted those pieces as they fit here.”

Much of what has been said here hinges on the notion that emergency managers will be the ones leading the charge, organizing the plan and generating buy-in from stakeholders. It’s a reasonable assumption. In most communities, emergency management already plays a central role in plotting crisis response in the near term.

How to ensure emergency managers will continue to be able to assert that role when it comes to planning for the long term?

“Emergency managers need to be the leaders in the community of professional planners: land use, planners, urban planners, people who are doing planning and zoning,” said Joseph L. LaFleur, business development manager for GP Strategies Corp. and a former emergency management coordinator in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“They need to be recognized and part of that overall community. You can’t come at planning just having been a responder. You need to be involved in all that planning activity over time,” he said.

As usual, emergency management has to wear many hats. Involvement in the planning community helps ensure a lead role when recovery is discussed. At the same time, emergency managers must be busy making the broader connections that will tie together whatever plan eventually emerges.

“The role of emergency management is in making sure a network has been established prior to a disaster. That is essential to the success of that community, not only in the response but also in the recovery aspect,” Milliman said.

So the story comes full circle. Recovery begins with forging links among all the key players in the community. Business, government, civic groups and nonprofits: Emergency managers hoping to chart a course for long-term recovery have to start by bringing all these to the table. 

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.