Disaster Recovery: A Local Government Responsibility

With each disaster come new lessons that guide long-term recovery for the next disaster.

ARTICLE | Nov 6, 2012

Once again Mother Nature has shown her power.  Hurricane Sandy barreled up the east coast leaving destruction in its wake – more than 100 deaths, floods, fires, blackouts, gas shortages, shattered lives –and expectations that government will be there restore normalcy.  In hard-hit New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, local, state, and federal officials are still dealing with disaster response to meet urgent day-to-day needs including food, water, electricity, warmth, public safety, emergency housing, operating transportation systems, and more.  At the same time, they should be gearing up for long-term recovery to reassure shattered and shaken people that life will someday, somehow get back to normal. 

Long-term recovery is the process of reestablishing a healthy, functioning community that will sustain itself over time.  It begins even before the response process is complete because decisions made while responding to the emergency affect the recovery process.  Frances L. Edwards, director of the MPA Program at San Jose State University and former director of Emergency Services in the city of San Jose, has said that recovery begins “when the situation is no longer getting worse, all the living have been rescued, and the community has found the floor. 

With each disaster come new lessons that guide long-term recovery for the next disaster.  Key factors to successful recovery include:

  • A recovery plan and vision
  • A strategy for restarting the local economic engine quickly
  • Diverse and accessible financing mechanisms
  • Attention to community care
  • Strong local leadership to maintain the momentum.


Creating a Recovery Plan and Vision

Existing strategic and master plans provide a foundation for long-term recovery.  But the scope of the disaster will introduce new needs that go far beyond most existing plans.  Experts recommend a recovery plan that

  • Emphasizes community involvement and local control
  • Uses a project-oriented focus that identifies and begins with actions that will have the greatest impact on recovery
  • Considers mitigation as part of long-term recovery to prevent or at least reduce the risk of similar damage
  • Balances the recovery needs of the most damaged parts of the community with the ongoing public service expectations to keep the entire community together over the long haul.
  • Takes into account retaining/recapturing unique aspects of the community in the recovery process
  • Sees long-term recovery as an opportunity to create a stronger, better community.


Restarting the Local Economic Engine

Getting the local economy working again is vital to launching a successful comeback. That includes getting people back to work, generating tax revenues, and restoring the flow of goods and services Restarting the economic engine depends on:

  • Willingness and capacity of businesses to reopen quickly if facilities aren’t severely damaged or a commitment to rebuild in the community
  • Affordable and available housing for workers to resume their jobs
  • Transportation to get people to jobs and to centers of economic activity
  • Large employers with business continuity plans who can get up and running quickly after the disaster to launch the economic comeback
  • Strong connections between government and business to facilitate a recovery partnership.


Financing the Recovery

Financing long-term disaster recovery poses significant and often frustrating challenges for local leaders who must rely on the state and federal government as major sources of disaster funds.  Those challenges are sometimes exacerbated in the heat of a crisis when action is urgent rather than optional or negotiable depending on available resources.  Financing strategies that can be put in place well before a disaster strikes include

  • Understanding all federal requirements for response and recovery grants including required documentation for reimbursement
  • Knowing about and having access to all potential funding sources for long-term recovery
  • Establishing lines of credit to provide cash flow for direct expenses and matches while waiting for federal funds
  • Assigning internal staff with special expertise and, if necessary, supplemental external expertise to manage the financial side of the recovery. 


Caring for the Community

Recovery from a major disaster is a long, slow, exhausting, and often disappointing process.  People want results faster than is realistic or possible.  At the response stage, needs are basic – food, electricity, a warm, dry place to sleep, transportation, and a sense of temporary safety and security.  When those needs are met, there is short-lived thanks and satisfaction.  As the process of rebuilding lives and rebuilding a community proceeds, needs become more complex, patience may be short, and the process wearying.  Caring for the community involves

  • Providing constant communication and easy connections to recovery information to assure a tired community that something is happening and there is a light at the end of the tunnel
  • Paying attention to psychological needs brought on by trauma, loss, exhaustion and providing resources to meet those needs over the long-term
  • Identifying especially vulnerable populations – the sick, the elderly, people with very limited resources – so that local officials can anticipate and respond to special needs
  • Identifying and understanding unique community interests and characteristics that will help people feel  something normal
  • Creating opportunities for celebration along the way.


Leading the Recovery

Most agree that the key factor in successful long-term recovery is local leadership.  A clear vision, a well-defined plan, broad and diverse funding, a supportive and involved business community, and effective partnership at the federal, state, and local levels are all important.  But the biggest determinant of success is effective local leadership. 

Local leaders must sustain the momentum and help the community weather the ups and downs of a process that may take 10 years or more depending on the extent of damage.  Keeping an eye on the pulse of the community—and on the pulse of the local government employees who are working on recovery activities every day—is important for sustaining momentum, creating confidence, and preserving community spirit.


Christine Becker is Association Liaison for the Institute for Building Technology and Safety in Ashburn, Virginia.  Cbecker@ibts.org.  IBTS is an ICMA strategic partner.


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