Book Review: “After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery”

After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery, by Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky. Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy 2017.   (380 pp.)

Reviewed by Donald Watson*

After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery, by Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky, makes a signal contribution to the essential library of disaster scholarship. The authors ably substantiate their introductory premise (p. 3), that “we now have enough examples to develop transferable theories about the process of rebuilding human settlements after disasters.”

If one were to convene an expert group to document the best one can learn from the most significant natural disaster events worldwide, one could not do better than to enter into testimony the case studies and conclusions set forth in this book.

Six case studies, each given a separate chapter, document the disaster recovery policies and programs following the most devastating earthquake, tsunami, and hurricane events in modern history, all within the past 25 years:

  • 2008 Wenchuan earthquake China.
  • 2010 Canterbury and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, New Zealand.
  • 1995 Kobe and Kanai earthquakes and 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami, Japan.
  • 2001 Gujurat earthquake, India.
  • 2004 Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, Indonesia.
  • 2001 9-11 terrorist attacks, 2005 Hurricanes Katrina 2005 and Sandy 2011, United States.

Each of these events was unprecedented in the scale of devastation and losses to their respective communities and nations. The authors give each event and multi-year recovery stories a vivid presence by deliberate description of phases and features. In spite of a quote from a leader of the Indonesia recovery efforts that “…all disasters are unique,” so that no commonly generalized conclusions can be drawn (p. 313), the authors provide a distilled set of recommendations.

The challenges of recovery from catastrophic disasters are enormous. The devastation to people, settlements and resources is beyond knowing. Nonetheless, the major message of these recovery efforts is positive: the aftermath of major disasters can improve lives and economies of a city or region. This message is epitomized by statistics represented in Table 6.1 (p. 232) that lists impacts and results achieved in the four-year recovery after the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman 9.3 earthquake, followed by a +30 meter tsunami that inundated Banda Aceh, Indonesia (635,384 people displaced, 221,000 killed or missing):

Disaster impact

 104,500 small/medium enterprises destroyed 195,726 enterprises assisted
139,195 houses destroyed 149,304 permanent houses built
73,869 hectares agricultural land destroyed 69,979 hectares agricultural land reclaimed
13,828 fishing boats destroyed 7,109 fishing boats built or provided
2,618 km roads destroyed 3,696 km roads constructed
119 bridges destroyed 363 bridges constructed
22 ports destroyed 23 ports constructed
8 airports/airport strips destroyed 13 airports or airstrips constructed


DATA SOURCE: BRR Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. Banda Aceh.

Everyone experienced with disaster recovery knows that each number in the “impact” column is a tragic loss, making each gain in the “achievement” column the more worthy of hope and acclaim.

In documenting U.S. experience in disaster management and recovery efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the authors choose to ask a question instead of making a more direct critique:

[In the U.S.]…the complexity and the disconnected timing and authorities of the different federal funding programs are, in large part, the reasons that each of these cases is so complicated and difficult to describe. …Is it possible for the federal government to provide funds and guidance but allow state and local governments greater freedom in implementation?  (p. 305)

The authors’ summary recommendations are given substance by details provided in the case study chapters. (p. 323) A full reading of the cases is needed to fully appreciate the importance of each findings:

1: Enhance existing structures / systems to promote information flow and collaboration.

2: Emphasize data management, communication, transparency, and accountability.

3: Plan and act simultaneously.

4: Budget for the costs of communication and planning: revise budgets over time.

5: Increase capacity and empower local governments to implement recovery actions.

6: Avoid permanent relocation of residents and communities except in rare instances,

7: Reconstruct quickly, but do not be hasty.

 The sixth recommendation may give pause to those who see “retreat and relocation” as the safest and surest way to avoid at-risk zones. The authors cite the connection to place and the social and economic networks inherent in multi-generational communities as a critical asset in community recovery. This premise, of all the recommendations, will surely be tested in future communities at risk of sea-level rise, surge and tsunami.

A common theme in nearly all of the cases is the importance of local participation in recovery efforts, from initial visioning and planning to execution. The experience and capacity for “self-help” and shared programs in participatory planning, micro-financing, owner-built housing, and local community development, the role of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), and shared governance mechanisms in each country are all critical factors in successful community recovery. Program responsiveness by monitoring and evaluation during the reconstruction process so that rapid course corrections are possible is a further ingredient of success that the authors cite. In every case, the initial disaster response planning time was required to establish a reconstruction plan. This set up time represents “time lost” in initiating a working plan of action, with the linkages in communication, damage assessment, funding and authorizations that large-scale recovery require.

 A deep understanding of disaster recovery management and the ability to plan in advance of disaster is the foundation of hope and resilience.

This book gives ample evidence that while the scale and pace of disasters increases, disaster   recovery knowledge and expertise is also expanding, with lessons to be learned   from and applied across the world. The international dialogue on disaster preparedness that this book supports is vital to governments, communities, and peoples around the globe. Every disaster professional will be well armed by a through reading of this book.


* DONALD WATSON has been planning and building technology consultant to international and U.S. governmental organizations for over 50 years, including earthquake and flood recovery assignments in Italy, Haiti, Mexico, Aceh, Nepal, and the United States. He is author of Design for Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change (Wiley 2011) and is editor of the website


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