Covering Recovery from Disasters

October 15, 2010

Reporter's Toolbox

Part I: Local Issues




Following the June 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, residents piled large amounts of debris from their homes curbside for eventual pick-up.
Photo: By CR Artist/Louis via Flickr

Name your disaster. A tornado, hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, or flood strikes your community. Covering the event itself may seem like fairly straightforward journalism: What was the extent and magnitude of the event, how many people were killed or injured, how much property damage occurred, where, and of what type? And what are local officials and utilities doing to restore normal life?


The impact of such events, however, can linger for years. Good journalists can follow that story in detail and ask the probing questions that may lead to real changes that improve public safety and quality of life. The result can be a series of intriguing articles about how well a community prepares, not only for the emergency itself, but for the long process of economic, social, and environmental recovery over time. In many cases, diligent reporters may find themselves better informed on such issues in the end than the local officials they are covering.

Dynamics of Recovery

The serious study of post-disaster recovery as a social process is probably no more than 30 years old. The early research literature on the subject is slim, but the volume has multiplied exponentially in recent years, spurred especially by Hurricane Katrina. That event in many ways was a departure from the normal pattern, particularly with the extent of its diaspora. But every process of long-term community recovery involves certain essential questions that tend to determine its trajectory:

  • Scale: Is it a small disaster, such as a tornado largely affecting a single small town, or a regional catastrophe, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which together affected a declared disaster area the size of the United Kingdom? Small areas may prove far more manageable when adequate resources are brought to bear on the problem, while the sheer scale of disaster on the Gulf Coast has left many people feeling daunted.
  • Impact: Pre-existing social and economic inequities can produce differing rates of recovery within the affected community. It is axiomatic that poor neighborhoods have fewer resources with which to rebuild, may have lower rates of flood or other hazard insurance, and may experience greater levels of social isolation than wealthier neighborhoods. On the other hand, you have to examine the political cultures of the areas in question. Some poorer areas may find effective champions, while some middle-class areas may prove stunningly dysfunctional in the face of crisis. But these differing recovery rates can make for some fascinating journalism if you are willing to dig into the details to find out what makes recovery tick.
  • Preparation: How well did local authorities anticipate the nature and magnitude of what happened, and why? Look at the tools they should have used to conduct a risk analysis beforehand: local hazard mitigation plans (now required for eligibility for most federal mitigation grants), emergency operations plans, hazardrelated elements of local master plans (if either exist), and, in rare instances so far, post-disaster recovery plans that anticipate issues the community will face after a disaster. More on some of these plans will appear in Part 2 of this series in the next issue of the SEJournal.

Silver Linings in Dark Clouds

The impact of failed or ineffective recovery on a community can be devastating. Communities already in economic decline typically see that decline accelerated. On the other hand, communities with imaginative leadership, like Greensburg, Kansas, may find in recovery a silver lining allowing them to refashion their pattern of development in ways that revitalize their economies for years to come. Greensburg, nearly obliterated by an extremely powerful tornado in May 2007, has reinvented itself as a poster child of green post-disaster redevelopment. Mayor Bob Dixson has become a national spokesman for the concept, showcasing the town’s eco-friendly designs for public buildings, new wind energy business, and compact development. I had the chance to observe the rare missionary enthusiasm he brings to this topic while moderating a session at the 2009 American Planning Association National Planning Conference, in Minneapolis, in which he spoke along with Stephen Hardy, the consultant who developed the 1,200-resident town’s new “Sustainable Comprehensive Plan.” One result is that an aging, shrinking community has begun to attract younger families with children who want to attach themselves to a new, inspiring vision of what a small town in western Kansas can become in spite of the obstacles.

The statistics on small businesses surviving disasters are grim. Typically, at least one-third do not make it, largely because they lack the means to overcome existing vulnerabilities and cannot weather declines in business while repairs are done, workers disappear, and delays in reopening sap profits. However, a flip side of every disaster is that some businesses do very well — those primarily involved in building repairs or supplies, for instance. In the absence of strict local controls, the vultures may also descend on the carcass in the form of repair scams and other consumer ripoffs. These involve important local stories if someone is prepared to investigate and report such schemes.

Recovery also entails opportunities for communities to undertake major environmental improvements if local advocates are prepared to make compelling connections between issues like floodplain land use, open space, and the losses people have suffered. This article is not nearly long enough to explore such considerations, but ample literature exists concerning the role of green infrastructure in alleviating natural hazard vulnerabilities at local and regional scales. The most powerful example is perhaps the steady erosion of coastal wetlands in Louisiana and how it exacerbates disaster impacts on inland areas. It is important for communities to incorporate such longer-term considerations into post-disaster recovery plans as well as into their comprehensive planning and plan implementation efforts.

Rallying for Recovery

The élan of a community is critical in mustering civic effort toward recovery. New Orleans suffered mightily after Hurricane Katrina from widespread distrust of local and state government and a weak tradition of public involvement in planning. That situation has improved significantly, but at great initial cost. A major part of the story of recovery is how citizens participate in planning their future, both before the event happens, in shaping hazard mitigation and post-disaster recovery plans, and afterward. FEMA has the authority to provide assistance for long-term recovery under Emergency Support Function 14 (ESF-14) of the National Response Framework. The resulting interaction is a key focus of Part 2 of this Reporter’s Toolbox series, but a reporter who misses this piece of the action after a disaster is missing a lot. Look closely at plans to engage the public in planning its own future and at public attitudes toward the process.

One intriguing, if wildly idiosyncratic, example is the process that took hold in Galveston, Texas, often over the objections of federal recovery officials. The city invited all interested citizens to join the planning effort, and more than 300 signed up. They were divided into numerous committees, worked diligently, and produced a plan. Whatever its strengths or flaws, the plan mustered widespread participation that won vital support for any measures the city chose to implement.

It helps for a community to have a civic culture that expects to participate. If that does not exist, it is worth asking why. The answers may expose a number of other issues affecting the viability of local post-disaster recovery.

Post-Disaster Journalism

This is but a brief overview of the range of significant issues reporters can pursue in the midst of the post-disaster recovery process. The key is to find out what opportunities communities face after a disaster — and yes, I did say opportunities — and whether and how well they have positioned themselves to take advantage of them. If you can describe for readers not only the pathos, but also the silver linings, you will create valuable context for understanding the road to a restorative future.

Next Issue: The opportunities disaster presents. Really.

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.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2010 issue. 



A number of websites provide useful information on issues related to post-disaster recovery:

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