Why Can’t We Figure Out How To Do Disaster Recovery in the U.S.?

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We have had lots of time, we have many well-educated people, we are a wealthy country, and we have frequent major disasters. So why don’t we have the knowledge and guidance — at the federal, state, or local levels — to do recovery planning effectively and efficiently, either before or after a disaster? 

California Looks to Update Quake Plans, Wall St. Journal, April 1.

But San Francisco officials admit they have undertaken far less planning for what to do after an earthquake to ensure that residents are resettled and buildings are reconstructed quickly. Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the city’s Department of Emergency Management, said the issue was driven home by the slow pace of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, adding “there’s not a city in the United States” prepared for such recovery.

In 2008, then-city administrator Edwin Lee, who now is interim San Francisco mayor, began heading an effort to increase the city’s focus on recovery planning. Since then, San Francisco has tapped experts at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association. “We don’t want to lose our people” to other cities by not rebuilding quickly enough, said Sarah Karlinsky, deputy director of the nonprofit think tank.

One aim is to find ways to ease bureaucracy after a catastrophe, such as the city’s cumbersome building-permitting process, Mr. Dudgeon said. He said officials also intend to develop proposals that the city’s Board of Supervisors could approve immediately after a disaster, to streamline decision making about issues such as whether to demolish the remains of historic buildings and rebuild on unstable land—processes that often take years.

San Francisco, he said, is in the “toddler stages” of that effort.

So, here is why I posed the question in the heading of this post:

  • San Francisco had a major earthquake in 1906, which is 105 years ago.
  • FEMA was formed in 1979, which is 32 years ago.

Just how long does it take to get beyond the toddler stage of recovery? And who and what are needed to do that? Your comments are invited!
So far, we have 3 perspectives on the issue; please write in with your opinion.

2 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Figure Out How To Do Disaster Recovery in the U.S.?

  1. Nostalgia! People want it always as it was not viewing the disaster as opportunity to improve or mitigate the next disaster result. This means that all want it as it was and in particular the power structure of communities. Any change means they might lose their economic and social position to others. This is what killed city and urban planning as a profession. Read Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses “The Power Broker”! Those that understand the nitty gritty of a communities planning, organization for building code and zoning enforcement and approval of new development don’t want to lose out just because a disaster has occurred. That is what will be interesting to watch in Japan where clearly dramatic changes are in store for many on the coast and even inland in HONSHU island.

    FEMA has few experts in city government and community development and of course that is the precise reason disaster programs, functions, and activities were reorganized out of OEP in Nixon’s Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1978 and sent to HUD.

    From what I understand this time the President will not be sending to HUD but will be combining FEMA disaster programs with HUD’s in a totally new Community Development Corporation of some kind based on economic development. Time will tell. FEMA naturally always had to focus on response just to survive the political heat of those that wanted FEMA to distribute money with no accountabililty for it. The precise problem deceased Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin (an founder of the Golden Fleece Award) opposed the creation of FEMA. FEMA as ATM is a state government dream and even for the states poorly designed local governments. 90,000 of these make any recovery difficult.

  2. My take, especially in relation to your second bullet – FEMA tends to look at recovery as a financial program. Funding is given to the impacted state and local government for rebuilding, but there isn’t an agency specifically tasked with the effort. Why else was the Emergency Support Function (ESF) for “Long-Term Community Recovery” (ESF-14, if you were wondering) created under the NRF, as opposed to the direction things are finally starting to go with the efforts to develop the National Disaster Recovery Framework? Hopefully the NDRF will answer some of the questions raised.

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