Steps Integral to Healthy Rebuilding
Industry leaders and government officials are not only witnesses but instrumental players in the emerging paradigm shift in the emergency management field. In regions prone to hurricane and tropical storm activity, the tide is turning away from traditional policies based on practical approaches of preparation and response to long-term recovery. Grounded in the foundations of first responder training, this mindset has consistently dominated the emergency management field and was later reinforced by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The responsibilities of an emergency manager during a disaster have traditionally related only to the duration of the disaster’s incident period and have recently begun to include administration of FEMA grants for emergency protective measures and debris removal. However, the mindset is based in the incomplete assumption that all the effects of a disaster are mitigated upon final execution of immediate emergency protective measures.
The recovery of a city is an arduous, time-consuming process that requires interaction with state and federal agencies to restore order and costs, specifically through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA) grant and the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG DR) programs. The recovery process requires a high-level of technical expertise, foresight, innovation, and fortitude. A community must train with professions and apply outside expertise and guidance to effectively divide its day-to-day operations from those related primarily to recovery. This distinct separation of tasks curbs the recovery turnaround time. As part of laying the groundwork for the funding of a recovery effort, it is recommended that communities prepare a functional budget and financial review, thereby generating an everyday increase in functionality. For that same related purpose, an overall financial recovery plan enables communities to simultaneously plan for the loss of revenue following a disaster and recover expended funds in a timely manner.
The Emergency Management Life Cycle model illustrates the experiences a community faces following the strike of a disaster in a straightforward manner. However, there are complexities and nuances along each step of the way. There is room for error on the road to recovery if communities deviate from the path.
Municipalities and communities alike must thoroughly understand the roles and responsibilities of applicants in the federal grant programs, in order to minimize delays and disruptions caused by administrative and logistical obstacles present on the road to recovery. It is vital to remember that the recovery from a disaster event both begins and ends with the affected municipality or agency itself. The applicant is ultimately responsible for managing and administering the course and pace of that particular recovery process. The applicant must establish and maintain accurate records of events and expenditures related to disaster recovery work. Accurate records serve as the foundation for thorough project formulation, validation, approval, and funding processes.
Moreover, identifying and integrating all available recovery funding sources, whether federal or private, grants the applicant the freedom to successfully administer and manage a personalized recovery program.
According to the FEMA Public Assistance Guide, the “first line of defense when a disaster strikes” is always the community itself. Federal relief, as delineated in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, is and should be interpreted as an auxiliary service. Community applicants referred to as subgrantees are accountable to their state, otherwise noted as grantees, for the use of the funds provided by FEMA. In order to be reimbursed for all eligible disaster recovery costs, subgrantees must identify all damages to the state and FEMA. Communities can rebuild and restore public services and infrastructure in a manageable fashion not only to pre-disaster status but to a higher standard with the appropriate type of planning, resources, comprehensive project formulation, prioritization, and management.
By focusing on three basic functions of recovery management, applicants ensure the steady stream of financial resources following a disaster event are properly monitored and maximized to their greatest potential while allowing for the normal, daily cycle of government operations. Through the incorporation of techniques for program integration, the monitoring and measuring of program status, identification of deviations from both positive and negative expected performance, the provision for alternative analyses and facilitation of the flow of communication to project participants, community applicants can comprehensively plan their route on the road to recovery as it relates to federally-funded recovery projects.
FEMA statistics show, on average, there are 54 presidentially-declared disasters each year affecting approximately 7,722 local governments, political sub-divisions, and non-profit organizations. FEMA prepares an approximate number of 40,380 public assistance grants yearly for applicants worth an estimated $2,752,626,851.
Emergency management experts draw direct correlations between the type of disaster that impacts a community and the resulting types of policies enacted, the actions taken, and the lessons learned. For communities on the Gulf Coast that have been directly affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and continue to face the threat of an active 2008 hurricane season, it is pivotal to have budgetary systems and administrative plans in place to maximize federally subsidized recovery efforts.
As a matter of fact, FEMA counsels in favor of the application and adoption of a post-disaster development self-help guide titled the “Long-Term Community Recovery (LTCR) Planning Process.” The training tool identifies the importance of engaging community stakeholders in the arduous process of identifying infrastructure development opportunities and articulating viable rebuilding options for the future based on the types and severity of disaster-related damages. Because the recovery and rebuilding process is highly involved, the federal government cannot implement this program in each community issued emergency declarations for disasters. For this reason, it is incumbent upon the communities to be proactive and choose this path following a disaster, thereby, personalizing the approach. In the teaching manual, FEMA directly refers to LTCR as “an opportunity to think big ... and not limit yourself to merely putting things back the way they were prior to the disaster.”
As part of these long-term recovery efforts, LTCR identifies the growing need for public education campaigns and increased civic activity to empower citizens in shaping their communities. The first step is to engage disaster response and management stakeholders and government technical staff. The process must be a cooperative effort from individuals, groups, and communities in an effort to avoid or alleviate the impact of disasters resulting from hazards and disaster events.
Communities can advocate on behalf of their citizens by providing the guidance to accurately and effectively request federal assistance, tactfully communicate during high-stress situations, and disseminate important information to the public regarding the recovery process. By increasing effective and strategic communication, a level of suitable transparency can be reached, thereby focusing the media attention on the important task of providing aid to the citizens and areas directly affected by a disaster. Communities can only benefit from the developing of a steady, free-flowing stream of accurate information to the media and, consequently, the public in the aftermath of a disaster. This transparency engenders a more profound understanding of emergency preparedness and disaster management for elected officials and citizens alike. Collaboration of this nature at the community level lends itself to the development of short, medium, and long-term policies to achieve each community’s personalized form of sustainable hazard mitigation.
Jurgen Weichselgartner, a leader in the forefront of the emergency management field, suggests in his journal article titled “Disaster Mitigation: The Concept of Vulnerability Revisited” that the most successful type of recovery blends practical, holistic, proactive, and unified approaches to rebuilding following a disaster. Effective emergency management relies on thorough understanding and integration of emergency plans at all levels of government and non-government involvement.
Hurricane Katrina set a precedent among natural disasters in this country. As a direct response, the need for a well-conceived approach to managing large-scale emergencies evolved. In U.S. Gulf Coast communities, public safety and infrastructure priorities are competing with the need to recover and rebuild properly. To support a community’s progression to sustainable development and to fortify resiliency against future disasters of any kind, planners must consider all the physical, social, and organizational factors. Natural, man-made, technological, political, and cultural factors directly and indirectly affect a community vulnerability to hazards or disasters, as emergency management scholar Dr. David McEntire explains in his vulnerability model shown below. Communities must prime themselves to respond to a full range of emergency events, disasters, and hazards that may potentially pose a threat.
Communities can manage their vulnerability to the effects of disasters by incorporating technical analyses, program development, and strategic planning. By merging in-the-field efforts with federal grants and assistance programs, applicants can successfully maximize their recovery efforts while minimizing the delays and disruptions caused by administrative and logistical obstacles. Through maximization of federally subsidized rebuilding funds, private donations, or other types of aid, communities can reduce their own rebuilding costs in the long-run and generate more opportunities for development.
The emergency management life cycle model described earlier in the article carries with it a new meaning now that emergency management experts are prioritizing the need for recovery and rebuilding strategies. Planning to recover and not only to respond is an emerging paradigm shift within the emergency management field. Ultimately, this will lead to the realization of true comprehensive emergency management, as illustrated by a full rotation on the cycle model.
Joshua Norman, president of Disaster Recovery Consultants, L.L.C. (DRC), was one of the first emergency response advisors “on the ground” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His 13 years of experience in emergency response and planning has served as a good foundation for his firm’s commitment to helping the City of New Orleans recover and rebuild by providing overall project control of the FEMA Public Assistance Grant Program and staff augmentation for the city’s emergency operations center during training and activation.