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A Tale of Two Recoveries: 5 Lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy

How the social contexts in Mississippi and New Jersey affected recovery.

More than half of the houses were fully recovered by the six-month anniversary of Sandy.
Recovery is the least understood (and least studied) part of the emergency management cycle with little systematic information about tracking progress geographically and over an extended time. Unfortunately, once the disaster field offices close in local communities, recovery activity wanes. For hard-hit communities, recovery is a long-term process of rebuilding lives, livelihoods and the sense of place that once characterized the community. Recovery takes months to years in some places and decades for other communities.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy afforded an opportunity to conduct a natural experiment to compare recovery from two different storms and their effects on two different locales: coastal New Jersey in the case of Sandy and coastal Mississippi for Katrina. While the storms were different in magnitudes and timing, each resulted in significant storm surge impacts affecting a large section of the coastline. For New Jersey, storm surge flooding occurred from Upper New York Bay south to Delaware Bay, ranging between eight feet at Sandy Hook to four feet in Downe Township. The entire Mississippi coastline was affected with storm surges ranging from 28 feet nearest to Katrina’s track close to the border with Louisiana and Bay St. Louis to 17 feet farther to the east in Pascagoula.

The social context for recovery in these two places is also different. The population density of coastal New Jersey counties is roughly 14 times greater than coastal Mississippi. Also, wealth is more pronounced in New Jersey where the median income and home value in coastal counties is nearly double that of coastal Mississippi. In addition, New Jersey coastal counties have fewer residents living in poverty. Finally, 38 percent of coastal residents in Hancock County, Miss., have flood insurance, while in Monmouth County, N.J., it was around 9 percent.

Measuring Recovery

There have been relatively few attempts to measure long-term recovery after hurricanes. A methodology developed by researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute documents and systematically tracks the recovery process using residential structures as a proxy. By employing GIS-based techniques including geo-coded reference points, photography and repeated visits, the team was able to create a spatial recovery surface to monitor recovery not only at the individual parcel scale, but aggregated to neighborhoods, communities and the state. The spatial data and maps enabled the detection of areas where recovery was lagging and when coupled with ancillary data such as building permits, water inundation levels and federal assistance, helped to pinpoint where additional assets and support can be most beneficial to disaster survivors. Such information also helps explain the geographic variability in recovery, an outcome that we term “the recovery divide.”

For coastal Mississippi, the team collected data at six-month intervals for the first five years, and then annually thereafter until present. In the case of Sandy in New Jersey, the team also collected data every six months for the first two years. In comparing the results of this effort there are many lessons that have been learned and challenges identified about recovery.

Lessons Learned and Challenges Identified

There are five important lessons learned from this fieldwork that may be useful for emergency managers at the local, state and federal levels.

1. Know your exposure. It doesn’t take an extreme event to cause major damage.

In the first six months after the hurricanes there were major differences in the number of recovered properties. In New Jersey we estimated a little more than half of the houses were fully recovered by the six-month anniversary of Sandy, while in Mississippi fewer than 25 percent of our sampled structures met this mark. This is because of two factors: the event itself and the configuration of the shoreline. In Mississippi the entire coastline experienced storm surge on the order of 17 feet or more, resulting in catastrophic impacts.

This was not the case in New Jersey, where storm surge inundation was geographically more variable, with damage concentrated in the most low-lying and least protected areas. The location of the damages was also important in both areas. While barrier islands took the brunt of the storm surge in New Jersey, inland bays and streams experienced significant flooding due to the high water and rain. The same was true for Katrina where the National Hurricane Center’s SLOSH model predicted the coastal and near coastal flooding from storm surge quite well, but was less effective at pinpointing inland creek and back-bay flooding.

2. Pre-existing social vulnerability influences when and where recovery is complete.

The demographic makeup of communities influences the patterns of social vulnerability. The pre-event social character of places either enhances or attenuates the ability to adequately prepare for, respond to and rebound from disaster events. Social vulnerability describes the apparent inequalities in who recovers and where. It is more than just wealth and poverty or race and ethnicity. In fact, social vulnerability is the dynamic intersection of race, class, gender and employment across a landscape and this, in turn, influences a community’s capacity and ability to prepare for and absorb disaster impacts.

Given its greater concentration of wealth and access to personal assets (a lower level of social vulnerability), recovery was much faster in New Jersey than in Mississippi. On the other hand, for socially vulnerable residents — such as renters and residents with hourly wages employed in the service sector or those working in agriculture or fishing — recovery was much slower. Displaced residents lost their apartments or jobs in the wake of the storms, and this was more of a factor in explaining differences in recovery for residents in Mississippi than in New Jersey.

3. Rate of owner-occupied housing is an important indicator of recovery likelihood.

There are considerable financial incentives for homeowners to quickly rebuild damaged properties as these are their primary living quarters. In both areas, it was the owner-occupied housing that recovered the fastest. Renters are at the mercy of property owners to rebuild, and in some instances, the reconstruction changes from rental units to condos, which generate more revenue for the building owner. In Mississippi, the low-to-moderate-income rental housing was slow in rebuilding. The pattern of home ownership is also producing a phenomenon we call stagnant recovery where there is no movement in repairs on structures until the resources for reconstruction are organized either through private means, insurance claims or other federal, state or local programs.

Another issue is seasonal homes. Many of the homes in vacation communities like Bay St. Louis and along the shore in New Jersey are second homes and thus not eligible for federal flood insurance. In New Jersey, much of the housing stock (27 percent) along the shore is vacation or vacation rental properties, which accounts for the slowness of recovery in some places such as Seaside Heights where 80 percent of the housing units are vacation homes. The conversion of the small seasonal bungalow to larger and more expensive rental, income-generating housing in high-risk areas along both coasts increases the exposure for the next storm. Rebuilding bigger (for personal reasons or to generate more income from rental units) doesn’t mean the structures are rebuilt better.

4. There’s conflict between rebuild quickly or rebuild correctly.

One of the most significant factors governing recovery is the flood insurance program and requirements to meet minimum base flood elevations. The uncertainty regarding building heights manifests itself in two ways. First, those that can rebuild quickly do so to have construction under way or nearly completed before either the advisory base flood elevations or final base flood elevations are determined. This means many houses were rebuilt the same way as before, slab on grade with no elevation. Because the homes were reconstructed prior to new base flood elevations, their insurance premiums remained the same. Second, recovery is slowed for residents who want to meet the new requirements for affordable flood insurance.

The length of the federal delay in producing advisory base flood elevations leads to longer time periods in the planning stage of the recovery process. Given that some homes in Mississippi required an 8 to 9 foot elevation above grade meant an additional cost of access to the home (elevators), which also delayed recovery. For many residents the inconvenience of accessing these new raised dwellings, especially among the elderly and families with small children, meant many have not and will not return. The added cost of elevation in New Jersey was for elevating existing homes. Permit delays, confusion over the process and lack of certified companies to do the work were just some of the factors resulting in waits of six months to two years in elevating structures even when the homeowners wanted to do it quickly. The result is an odd mix of elevated and not elevated housing within the same block, which can be seen in both Mississippi and New Jersey.

5. Scale matters and creates a patchwork pattern of recovery.

State and local decisions on rebuilding the business infrastructure (the Port of Gulfport and Biloxi casinos in Mississippi, and the boardwalk and seaside businesses in New Jersey) meant that resources aimed at residential recovery lagged, especially those targeting affordable housing. Also, critical infrastructure (water and sewer) delayed recovery in portions of Hancock County, Miss. As a consequence of differences among neighborhoods, communities and counties, the overall recovery in both states looks like a patchwork quilt. Some places are fully functioning and have been rebuilt two years later (New Jersey), while in places in Mississippi, the cement foundations of previous homes are obscured by overgrown vegetation, creating a checkerboard effect on the landscape. It’s important to consider the neighborhood, community and countywide patterns of recovery and how these influence or constrain one another.


There are three suggestions for improving recovery outcomes. First, emergency managers would be well advised to understand and differentiate their exposure: How many homes in what location (seaside, bayside, stream/river) could be affected, communicate this information to residents, and encourage residents to obtain flood insurance even if they are in a defined “low-risk zone such as the 500-year flood.” Second, an assessment of existing social vulnerability is important as a means for determining where resources might be used more efficiently to assist in recovery. Such an identification can also be useful in pre-disaster recovery planning and citizen education programs for building resilience.

Finally, there is a need to coordinate services and help residents navigate the recovery process at the local, state and federal levels. A locally based “concierge of services” would provide the equivalent of a caseworker to each affected household to help with identification of claims adjusters, contractors, permits for reconstruction and elevation, added cost of compliance issues, and availability of financial resources for rebuilding. Such a concierge service (one caseworker for X households, for example) would be knowledgeable about local ordinances and requirements as well as state and federal assistance and relief programs. The suite of concierge services would help homeowners navigate through the red tape to rebuild their homes faster and better, while also reducing the frustration and psychological impacts that so often accompany recovery.

Susan L. Cutter is the Carolina Distinguished Professor and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Christopher T. Emrich is an associate research professor and associate director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.