Playbook Aims to Speed Up Disaster Recovery

Built on best practices and lessons learned, the Disaster Recovery Playbook puts the St. Bernard Project’s model online for any community to use.

by / September 12, 2014
Hurricane Sandy damaged much of Sea Bright, N.J. Liz Roll/FEMA

Sea Bright, a three-mile long peninsula on New Jersey’s shore, was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy nearly two years ago. The city of 1,400 full-time and 1,000 part-time residents was pummeled by 10-foot storm surges, at times connecting the ocean with the Shrewsbury River. A nonprofit, Sea Bright Rising, was created to help the community recover from Sandy’s destruction, and earlier this year it partnered with the St. Bernard Project, a national nonprofit organization, to focus on residential rebuilding.

St. Bernard Project employee Chad Carson arrived in the New Jersey community in early April with a tool based on best practices to help him run the rebuilding project. Using the Disaster Recovery Playbook, which was released earlier this year, Carson said he was able to quickly get a team up and running to start rebuilding homes right away, a contrast from the response to previous disasters. “The playbook was our framework to quickly go from zero to 60 in terms of rebuilding,” he said. “In Joplin, Mo., we had to cycle through staff, really work to build the capacity of the people on the ground. And here we basically had the recipe book, we knew exactly which steps to take next so we just executed it and started running.”

The Disaster Recovery Playbook is a living document based on best practices learned by other communities’ experiences post-disaster. Developed in partnership with Farmers Insurance, the St. Bernard Project wanted to create a document based on its institutional knowledge gained from the recoveries in New Orleans, Joplin, New York and New Jersey.

“They needed help recording everything that they had done, the processes they had in place and to put it into one place where anyone could access it,” said Carrie Bonney, Farmers’ director of disaster response. “And that's where we came up with the idea for the Disaster Recovery Playbook.”

The online document has eight chapters including volunteer management and construction and aims to accomplish one thing: “The model the St. Bernard Project created is truly designed to cut down the recovery time,” said Bonney.

There are three keys to speeding up the recovery process:

  1. Communicate a recovery plan right away — within the first seven days, Bonney said, because most of the resources and funding will come in during the week following the disaster.
  2. Understand your individual role in the recovery because the community leaders and citizens will be the ones working on rebuilding long term.
  3. Run the recovery as if it were a business. “You have to have goals, accountability and very specific, clear language,” Bonney said.

Sea Bright Rising is the first St. Bernard Project extension to fully use the playbook but this isn’t Carson’s first recovery mission. He worked in the New Orleans operations and then ran the Joplin affiliate before heading to New Jersey, allowing him to see the organization’s response structure change over time. “Traditionally St. Bernard Project would send a staff member who has to reinvent the wheel, that’s basically what we did in Joplin,” he said. “But here [in Sea Bright] with the knowledge of the playbook, I was able to quickly onboard and scale up a team from the jump that were able to read the St. Bernard Project way of doing things and start rebuilding right away.”

And those ways are evolving. Carson said experiences in Joplin changed how volunteers are tracked and the method of working with corporate groups was influenced by experiences in New York. Before a process is changed in the playbook, it’s tested in other communities. Carson’s operation is currently beta testing a better way to connect with volunteers using email outreach after their service. If that proves successful, it will change the way volunteers are engaged with in all locations the organization is working in.

For a community that has experienced a disaster, there are varying degrees to which it can work with the St. Bernard Project. The playbook, for example, is published online and available to anyone or location to access and use. If a community needs more instruction, project members can work with the area’s leaders over the phone or via on-site visits. This is the approach taken in Lyons, Colo., which was severely impacted by flooding one year ago. Carson said project staff members have participated in guided calls with the city and while it’s using the playbook model, Lyons isn’t branding its recovery as such. “They’re taking the parts that work for them and discarding the parts they don’t think their community needs,” he said, “and that’s what we want to happen.” The most involved participation is the form taken in Sea Bright: The St. Bernard Project sends staff to the area, where the playbook is used as a guide and joint fundraising is done for the rebuilding program.

Carson doesn’t have a timeline for when rebuilding will be completed in Sea Bright. However, he said Joplin is proof that the model that’s been put into print in the playbook works. While FEMA estimated it would take 10 years for Joplin to recover from the catastrophic tornado in May 2011, rebuilding will be complete in three and a half years. “And that’s a cool thing for disaster recovery in America,” said Carson.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

Platforms & Programs