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Volume 31, Issue 4

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The federal government has identified efficacy problems with the traditional disaster recovery model (FEMA IG, 1995). And, why not? It is based on bureaucratic processes, established administrative practices and procedures, standard management structures and relationships, and traditional performance functions between the federal, state, and local governments. The priority of the traditional disaster management model is the process not the product i.e., disaster recovery services to affected victims and impacted jurisdictions.

To this day, the federal government continues to implement several incremental, single-loop learning corrective initiatives in response to the identified problem. The situation requires a more in-depth assessment as to the causal factors and evaluation of long-term solutions.

Economists don't agree on much, but just about every economist agrees that monopolies don't function very efficiently. It doesn't matter whether it's a private or government monopoly, customers get neglected. By having a government process that focuses on legitimizing itself, emphasizing its own indispensable function performance, you end up delivering rotten service to people who deserve better (Eggers and O'Leary, 1995) in times of disaster.

Catastrophic events overwhelm the existing government disaster management infrastructure and threaten its ability to coordinate and perform vital recovery functions. One option available to state and local governments for disaster management is the government-business partnership strategy. The business partner has a vested interest to get in, do the job, and get out. Government bureaucrats possess no such incentive.

In the Northridge earthquake (1994), California implemented a limited application of the partnership strategy when CalTrans brought in a private contractor to repair the freeways. The traditional disaster recovery model estimated the time of repair for up to two years. Neither the Governor nor the public could accept the estimated length of the recovery period using the standard disaster management model. In Hurricane Andrew (1992), the State of Florida implemented a limited application of the government-business partnership concept by hiring a consulting firm to provide technical and administrative assistance to local governments for developing and processing the administrative paperwork in compliance with state and federal disaster recovery policies and procedures. The national average for disaster recovery is seven years using the traditional disaster management model.

In 1994, a devastating flood in Alaska rendered several local governments incapable of performing their traditional disaster recovery performance functions. Federal disaster management officials estimated that the displaced victims would not be allowed to return to their communities for 2-3 years using the traditional disaster recovery management model. Neither the victims, affected local government jurisdictions nor state disaster managers could accept the extended length of the forced relocation estimate based on previous mental health studies of disaster victims (Meyer et al, 1980; Green et al, 1982). The State could not afford to interrupt routine administrative programs for an indefinite period by throwing its entire disaster management agency into the recovery coordination function without eventual repercussions based on prior disaster experience such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Utilizing the government-business approach for disaster recovery, the state managed the disaster with four full-time professional staff. The victims were returned to their communities within eight months, and the physical recovery of the damaged communities was virtually complete within eighteen months.

The Alaska experience also reflected private sector participants in the administrative management, administration, and accounting functions to be more qualified, more flexible and more adaptable to the challenging and changing environment in response to the vagaries of disaster recovery operations than tenured government administrative management-accounting practitioners. Private sector practitioners exhibited greater diligence in the administrative processing function which did not equate to job security as it did in the bureaucratic environment of government performance.

The government-business partnership approach is not without opposition. Bureaucracy is infamous for its resistance to change (Crozier, 1964; Abrahamsson, 1977; Meiners and Miller, 1992), and such was the experience in the Alaska case. However, after two years of audits attempting to discredit the government-business partnership approach for the disaster management recovery process, the bureaucracy unwittingly validated the new disaster management implementation methodology by failing to discredit the factual results of the out-come based recovery and customer satisfaction of the disaster victims.

The new disaster management implementation methodology may not be appropriate for routine, garden- variety events which only require an infusion of federal disaster funds to reimburse state and local recovery expenses. However, based on past large-scale disasters (Mexico City Earthquake, 1985; Hurricane Andrew, Florida, 1992; Kobe, Japan, Earthquake, 1995), and forecasted increase of frequency and magnitude for catastrophic events yet to come (Quarantelli, 1993; Engi, 1995; Rosenthal and Kouzimin, 1997), disaster recovery managers in both the public and private sectors will be required to reassess the cooperative strategy of combined resources for mutual reinforcement of capabilities for restoring impacted segments of the public as efficiently and as effectively as joint resources allow. The joint government-business partnership model for disaster recovery is inevitable.

The business community remains an indispensable partner in disaster recovery with an ever-increasing, undeniable role. Public sector disaster managers must recognize and integrate the resources available from, and provided by, the private sector in disaster recovery operations, to maximize the benefits of both parties in joint operations in the interests of the victims.


   Ervin Paul Martin was the Alaska Director of Emergency Services, 1986-1995. He has administratively or operationally managed the recovery of over 150 states, and 12 federal, declared disasters. He is a Ph.D. candidate with the Fielding Institute (Santa Barbara, CA) and the holder of three graduate degrees. This article is excerpted from his draft dissertation research material.