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Recovery Doesn’t Just Happen

Most communities lack disaster recovery planning experience, but examples of effective efforts provide lessons learned and help create best practices

Most emergency management report cards would read “needs improvement” when grading readiness for managing a disaster recovery mission in a local community.

When emergency managers and others responsible for protecting the public from the effects of disasters plan and prepare, they most often think of the immediate response to provide lifesaving services and prevent property damage. Restoration of the community’s lifelines, including debris clearance and restoration of utilities, must undoubtedly be performed as quickly as possible to protect lives and property.

The omnipresent live media coverage and pervasive social networking have resulted in worldwide attention being paid to disasters from the outset and usually continuing 24 hours a day until a more pressing story breaks. This heightened attention provides many opportunities to assist those in need. For example, 2010’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti resulted in millions of dollars being pledged through social networking sites.

FEMA lists four disaster management cycles: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Most emergency managers are familiar with the preparedness and response phases. Preparedness includes developing plans, which usually focus on immediate response activities. Emergency preparedness activities go on year-round.

The basic definition of recovery is the process of returning a community to “normal.” But what is normal? After my experience with Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when my house was destroyed and I had to leave my home and family to return to work at Miami-Dade (Fla.) Fire Rescue, I knew our community would never be the same. But I also felt there was no reason the new normal couldn’t be better from a disaster readiness and resilience perspective. Hurricane Andrew was finally closed out with FEMA 13 years after it struck south Florida. Clearly recovery takes a long time.

Recovery Starts Alongside Response

However, recovery also begins earlier than you might think. Many of the challenges that come with helping a community return to normal arise immediately after an event. An example is the need for temporary housing because people left homeless will need immediate shelter. And depending on the extent of the disaster, they’ll also need temporary or transitional housing before they can return to normal.

Recovery is the most complex, long-lasting disaster cycle phase. It affects the most people and is too often an afterthought when planning for disasters. There may be many reasons for this, including uncertainty of the unknown and the fact that medium- and long-term recovery missions aren’t as common as the response to smaller emergencies, which is learned and exercised more often. Elizabeth Zimmerman, FEMA deputy associate administrator for response and recovery, said historically disaster recovery has taken a back seat to response, the lifesaving phase that
everyone sees. Many communities think recovery just happens; they depend on others to accomplish it.

Zimmerman said local communities lack disaster recovery planning experience. FEMA helps communicate and coordinate with all the players, including city and county departments, the private sector and volunteer agencies.

Although many local communities turn to FEMA as the recovery expert, the agency is a small piece of the recovery effort; it helps start the process and provide guidance and resources. One key way FEMA provides assistance is through the Long-Term Community Recovery process, which helps communities plan for their recovery. In essence, one can look at recovery as an opportunity to answer the question: If my community was destroyed tomorrow, how would we capitalize on the opportunity to rebuild stronger and more resilient?

Best Practice Examples

Two examples of effective recovery planning include Greensburg, Kan., following the 2007 tornado, and Florida following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons with 12 named storms making landfall, seven of which resulted in presidential disaster declarations. 

In 2007, an EF-5 tornado — the highest intensity on the scale — estimated to be 1.7 miles wide with 205 mph winds struck Greensburg. More than 90 percent of structures in the city were severely damaged or destroyed. Richard Hainje, former FEMA regional administrator for Region 7, worked closely with local elected officials to facilitate FEMA’s support in the response and recovery. He said the community started thinking about recovery soon after the event. Hainje’s first conversation with local officials about recovery was with the mayor and city administrator and took place the day after the tornado. The response phase was still in full swing, and first responders were still going house to house searching for missing persons. The mayor mentioned that he wanted the theme to be rebuilding green to give the community something to rally around. They discussed the process of long-term recovery and temporary housing. FEMA offered to assist with temporary housing and economic recovery planning as well as long-term community recovery planning.

There was no specific recovery plan in the initial stages. However, the key to Greensburg’s success was that it had effective leadership in key positions that could adapt to dynamic situations and new challenges. Another factor that contributed to the city’s recovery was the process of conducting facilitated discussions for the community, primarily through town hall meetings that included people with experience in urban planning and recovery planning. Officials knew they needed community buy-in for the recovery to be effective. They gave community members the chance to ask questions and vent. The result was an effective plan for Greensburg’s long-term recovery that’s paving the way for a redesigned community that will be environmentally friendly, and through mitigation initiatives will be more disaster resilient.

David Halstead, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM), said Florida’s approach to preparing its counties and cities includes state and local briefings that state officials conduct before every hurricane season. The briefings include local elected leaders and are conducted by the director and his senior staff. DEM uses the briefings to communicate what to expect. For instance, during the recovery phase, reimbursement of eligible expenses will take time and they may have to rely on reserves. He also encourages local governments to begin preparing whatever paperwork will be required in the recovery phase before an event occurs. Once a disaster happens, DEM sends liaisons to the local level to assist in communicating and coordinating with elected officials as well as with the recovery planning process. Florida has led the way in disaster preparedness and response and recovery planning for many years, and Halstead pointed out that it all began as a result of Hurricane Andrew.

State-Level Support

In November 2010, Florida published Post-Disaster Development Planning: A Guide for Florida Communities. A postdisaster redevelopment plan is required for all Florida coastal counties and municipalities, and also is encouraged for inland communities. The guide enables communities to plan for recovery during the pre-disaster phase, and it’s flexible for use in different types of communities. Five counties and one municipality were used as pilots.

Greensburg and Florida took advantage of the opportunity to rebuild stronger, more disaster-resistant communities following catastrophic events. In the process, they provide many lessons learned that should be used by communities that have yet to be affected by a major disaster.

The disaster recovery planning process differs from action and operational planning that most emergency managers are used to, and it often involves different stakeholders than those who work exclusively in response. However, most of the emergency managers I have spoken with that have faced a complex, extended recovery mission wished they would have prepared better.

There are many resources available to help emergency managers prepare for recovery missions. has many documents related to federal disaster assistance and the recovery process as well as links to training courses. In addition, FEMA’s long-term community recovery process provides an effective way to deal with the long-term challenges by using a community-focused process. Florida’s post-disaster planning guide is available at

Additional Lessons

  • Include stakeholders who will deal with recovery in your planning, training and exercises. Don’t forget the private sector — its members accomplish their mission daily and if you can help them continue to operate following a disaster, your life will be much easier.
  • Listen to those who have faced complicated and drawn-out recovery missions with little or no preparation or idea of what to expect. They’re usually willing and able to help prevent others from having to learn the hard way.
  • During an emergency operations center planning meeting immediately following an event, try to determine how long recovery will take. Once there’s an agreement on a time, multiply it by 10.
  • Approach recovery planning as an opportunity to improve your community and make it more resilient to the effects of disasters.

Carlos J. Castillo is a senior adviser for PricewaterhouseCoopers public-sector consulting where he applies his 30 years of emergency and disaster management experience. Previously he was the FEMA assistant administrator for disaster assistance and the emergency management director for Miami-Dade County, Fla.

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