Disaster: Response Is Not Recovery Is Not Response

January 15, 2011

Reporter's Toolbox


In the last issue of SEJournal, we discussed local issues and perspectives that merit attention from journalists writing about recovery from disasters. In the end, the impacts of most disasters are local or at most regional. Historically in the United States, responsibility was largely or entirely viewed as local or regional, but much has changed in the last half-century. Today, almost every disaster of consequence triggers at least state-level involvement, and the federal government is entwined in most disasters at least on a financial, if not operational, level. To understand all that is happening as a community or region recovers from disaster, it is crucial that reporters gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the current system of outside assistance. Excellent reporters will also learn how to critique both the benefits that system offers and the impediments to recovery it often creates, even with the best of intentions.


Collapse of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (CRANDIC) railroad bridge during June 2008 flooding on the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo: CR Artist/Louis via Flickr.

The only important words in the Federal Emergency Management Agency are “Emergency Management.” The others simply tell you it is a federal agency. Emergency management focuses on managing and responding to risk. It includes such immediate functions during and after a disaster as search and rescue, evacuation, and the restoration of essential services. Although there is no clear dividing line, it does not include the long-term reconstruction of a community, which is much more of a planning function. FEMA has long been far better equipped to handle the provision of immediate aid, as well as fostering hazard mitigation, than to address long-term community recovery needs, where local and regional planning play a larger and more sustained role.


That said, FEMA has in recent years inched its way gradually into the arena of long-term community recovery, mostly by providing assistance to communities for such planning. From the late 1990s until 2005, this aid was largely ad hoc and experimental. This aid is typically in the form of providing a lead planner for a defined period of time during which the community will produce a plan describing how it wishes to rebuild, what projects it envisions, and ideally how they will be financed. FEMA had no official functions in this area but provided such aid on a trial basis where it seemed potentially useful. Most communities involved, with the exception of New York after the World Trade Center attacks, were small, rural towns hit by tornadoes, with little if any local planning capacity.

The first major change in this pattern occurred in five Florida counties following the four hurricanes that crisscrossed the state in the fall of 2004. In that instance, the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state’s mandatory community-planning process, played a major role in shaping the outcomes. One critique, however, which endures to this day, was that the county plans that emerged looked more like lists of desired projects than like true long-term recovery plans. Be alert for this kind of wishful thinking without means when disaster comes to your community.

Federal assistance in post-disaster planning became formalized as Emergency Support Function 14 (ESF-14), part of an expanded National Response Framework replacing an older system, the Federal Response Plan. That framework now governs federal disaster response. ESF-14 was an untested rookie when confronted with the enormity of Hurricane Katrina, with many initial missteps in its first months. But note that this long-term planning assistance was grafted onto a response framework by an agency that employs relatively few professional planners, none of them currently in ESF-14. To say this is not to blame FEMA for trying, but the agency faces a daunting task with minimal expertise. Even five years after Katrina, it is not clear that FEMA has assembled adequate expertise to succeed when faced with major disasters. For reporters, the interaction between local planners and FEMA (or its contractors) in this regard is a crucial element of the recovery story. Do they share the same goals? Do they even agree on the process for establishing those goals?

In this context, it is important to know that FEMA (part of the Department of Homeland Security) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were engaged through early 2010 in developing a new National Disaster Recovery Framework that went to the White House for review last spring. The Obama administration has made no decision about it yet, but it proposes a new system focused on recovery that would parallel the response framework, with its own set of recovery support functions. While this would clearly separate response and recovery, it remains unclear who would manage the National Disaster Recovery Framework, particularly its planning components, or what federal resources will be devoted to it. But the proposal, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, does recognize a need for a clearer federal policy governing disaster recovery. Stay tuned.

Recovery Planning at the State Level

In the United States, land-use regulation is largely controlled by state law. Local plans and zoning ordinances are an extension of state law, governed by state-enabling legislation. As a result, state involvement in recovery planning is a somewhat different beast than the federal programs described above. In Florida, it is an integral part of the growth management legislation under which communities produce required comprehensive plans. Florida, however, faces an impressive range of natural hazards, and not to plan for them could well be foolhardy in view of the state’s development history.

For some years, the Florida statute has required coastal jurisdictions to produce a post-disaster redevelopment plan as part of that process, but until recently that requirement had not been activated. However, the state has now completed a pilot test of such planning with six jurisdictions, and in October the Florida Department of Community Affairs released a guidance document to help communities comply. The fundamental idea is to produce a plan guiding how the community will manage recovery after a disaster. Among the issues getting advance consideration is where to rebuild safely. Hillsborough County, for instance, designated priority redevelopment areas to which new development would be directed. This is a very different focus from the federal ESF-14, but one central to the purpose of community planning.

One big issue for the future is whether Florida remains a stark exception as the only state to implement such a requirement, or whether its approach becomes a model copied elsewhere. Most other states lack such a strong state planning agency, and many have no such agency at all. Louisiana did not before Hurricane Katrina, after which it created the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Iowa did not before the 2008 floods, after which it created the Rebuild Iowa Office. But such focused, short-term entities do not necessarily integrate long-term recovery into a larger planning scheme. Continued experience with major disasters may nonetheless eventually push state policy in that direction. It’s worth asking ahead of time if your state government is prepared for The Big One.

Issues for Reporters

Even from this all too brief article, it should be clear that state and federal policy pertaining to disaster recovery is in a state of flux. It is hard to say for sure what system will be in place even five years from now. That only heightens the importance of informed reporting on the local interface with state and federal recovery initiatives. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did not expect to be at the vortex of such discussions until faced with record floods in June 2008, nor did Nashville in early 2010 before flooding there. Each community faced with such circumstances works out its own accommodations between its existing planning and what state and federal policy and practice have to offer. At the moment, each case has its own historic implications in further evolving both a challenging relationship and policies that are still seeking both an adequate rationale and a higher rate of success. Reporters need to master enough of the complexity of that relationship to be able to tell their readers just how dramatically it may affect their lives.

Jim Schwab is the manager of the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Research Center, and editor and co-author of its recent report, “Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning.” He wrote an article on recovery planning issues, “Winds of Change,” for the October 2009 issue of APA’s magazine, Planning. He is also co-editor of APA’s monthly Zoning Practice.


A number of websites provide resources on post-disaster recovery:

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2010-11 issue.

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