In an effort to better support planners facing post-disaster recovery, the American Planning Association (APA) and the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University partnered to undertake a two-year research project, funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Cooperating Technical Partners program, resulting in a “Disaster Recovery Guide for Planning Practitioners” that will be tested and evaluated through APA’s Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) volunteer-based local technical assistance program.
Phase One of the project involved designing and executing a mixed-methods approach to collect evidence of what planners want and need from an “at-your-fingertips” recovery guide. The two primary research questions asked how planners perceive the disaster recovery process and the role of planners in it, and what they need to know about disaster recovery to better support their communities.
The result of the first phase of the project is two reports which detail the research findings.
The Quantitative Survey Report contains the results of an online survey of a random sample of 1,000 APA members, with a response rate of just under 200 participants.
The Qualitative Interview Report summarizes the responses of 33 interview subjects, which included 11 planners and 22 allied professionals. ***
Key findings from the Quantitative Survey Report found that few participants had experience making plans for post-disaster recovery and do not regularly utilize existing recovery resources. Although the research suggests that there is currently a lack of education and training for disaster recovery planning, participants were receptive to future educational resources, specifically workshops, conferences, symposia, and other interactive training and tools. The most pressing topics are disaster-specific funding information and guidelines for using disaster-and-recovery specific data, including a considerable need for technical support beyond Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
In the Qualitative Interview Report, themes similar to the survey findings emerged with more specific examples that portray the recovery context today’s planners are dealing with. Across the board, coordination and collaboration at various points in the recovery process is lacking. Notably, planners do not often perceive themselves —and are not perceived by other recovery professionals —as being central to the disaster recovery process, and this inevitably leads to a last-minute scramble for leadership. Fostering pre-disaster relationships and opening lines of commun-ications between planners and other professionals working in disaster recovery at the local, regional, and national levels could alleviate these unneeded delays. Finally, in the post-disaster environment, planners are often tasked with efficiently coordinating an influx of volunteers and aid —a task that might be unusual to planners who often only coordinate small departments or public meetings. This is merely another example of how planners need support in translating their existing skills to larger-scale, time-compressed disaster recovery situations.
Learning about disaster recovery can be overwhelming and isolating. It goes without saying that education should come in various forms to accommodate all types of communities, situations, and planning styles, but the research indicates that the most effective method is through coaching and mentorship. Planners seem to learn best from peers who have experienced disaster recovery before and could guide them through the process or warn them of upcoming challenges. Planners who do not have the opportunity to learn from peers must navigate policy options for recovery on their own, improvise based on what they know, and quickly review the daunting and ever-growing list of best practices. In the end, they are often swamped with general recovery information, but lack access to specific information for community-based processes that incorporate planning tools.
Navigating funding, data analysis, and public participation is a ubiquitous struggle for planners, and it is only intensified by approaching deadlines, inaccessible data, and emotionally exhausted residents in a post-disaster environment. Recovery funding processes are particularly difficult to manage due to lack of clear guidelines and the conditionalities of various funding streams. Planners find it difficult to translate indicators and goals for equity and inclusivity into tangible outcomes, especially when public participation processes in disaster recovery planning are still primarily expert-led rather than community-centered.
Based on the findings of both reports, the research indicates that the forthcoming disaster recovery guide should focus on:
- Setting the standard that planners have a leadership role in recovery
- Emphasizing how recovery and resilience are compatible with daily planning practices
- Developing formal peer-to-peer learning opportunities and planner-specific training for disaster recovery
- Building stronger social networks of recovery and disaster professionals
- Creating accountability measures for the inclusion of equity, health, and housing components in pre-disaster recovery plans
- Streamlining the process of gathering sources of funding, data, and community input in post-disaster recovery environments
Phase Two of this multi-year project is now underway and will result in a guide that takes into consideration the research findings. The guide will be tested and evaluated through a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT), which provides specialized, place-based technical assistance to communities that lack the resources to address planning challenges. In the next few months, APA will be locating a community-in-need to collaborate with. Travel for CPAT volunteers will be funded with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Disaster Guide for Planning Practitioners will be released in fall of 2020.