Recovery from disasters?

The difficulties are tragically underestimated.

In the hazards community much of the focus these days is on recovery – how societies rebuild after disasters. The academics are looking for a unifying theory of recovery…what is it? What works? Why? Is it possible to predict when community or regional recovery from a hurricane, or tornado, or earthquake, or drought will be rapid, and nearly complete, or when it will be slow? Is a return to the condition before the disaster, the status quo ante, ever possible? What are best practices? Meanwhile those practitioners – that is, the gaggle of political and business leaders in small towns, or cities, or states, ranging from Joplin to Tuscaloosa to New Orleans, to Christchurch, New Zealand or Sendai, Japan – are looking for anything that works. How to get people out of emergency shelters and back into their homes. How to restore the basic infrastructure: first the power and water and then the schools and hospitals and grocery stores, and how to reboot the local economy along the way. Forget best practices. Forget the longer term. How to cope with the challenge of the moment?

The end-of-the-year news highlights the fact that road back is always potholed – harder and less satisfying than it looks to those unaffected.

Sunday’s New York Times carried the story of life today in Joplin, how the tornado was followed by successive waves of people…first the emergency responders, then the news media, then the volunteers, then the politicians, then the businessmen (including the con artists), and finally the big-picture analysts. Imagine some 100 Joplin documentaries in preparation. Picture the President coming to town. The United Arab Emirates. The mayor of Tuscaloosa. More than 100,000 volunteers. Imagine trying to host all those folks politely while putting your own life back together. Read the article…then slow down your process of comprehension. Contemplate the events you’ve read in just a few minutes stretching numbingly over months and months.

In the same way the bereaved widow gets visits and attention in the early going after her husband’s death. But then the time comes when she faces an extended period of loneliness. The friends stop coming. She’s thrown on her own resources. Today the attention to Joplin is winding down…and the town is preparing to go it alone.

Tuesday’s Washington Post carried the story of Katrina survivors facing new bills from FEMA. Turns out that about 80,000 of them are being asked to return an average of nearly $5000 apiece (that’s a total of almost $400M) that FEMA says it overpaid. Perhaps as many as 14% of those receiving FEMA funds are now being dunned in this way. [According to the article, FEMA has put into place protections that have lowered this figure for disasters since 2005 to something more like 1%.] The full article is worth the read. Don’t spend too much time trying to figure out who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong. We all know this is an area that’s all shades of grey. Instead, take a moment to put yourself in the place of the people, many still dislocated, who are being asked for these funds, or imagine you’re one of the agency folks trying to sort this out from their end.

Nobody’s having fun, right? For the recipients, the on-again, off-again nature of the relief is emotionally draining, not much different from dealing with the IRS over disputed claims.  A nightmare whether they merited the funds or not. All the paperwork. Put on hold with the phone calls. In-person visits to the offices. As for the agency staff, who thought they were in the business of helping folks…they didn’t sign on for this.

And we’re in year six.

Across the Pacific, the Japan Times reports on the continuing repercussions of the Fukushima reactor meltdown resulting from the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11. Many of the nuclear reactors still operating in Japan are being scheduled for shutdown and maintenance. The Japanese have been struggling with power shortages for months. They’ve been sweltering in the summer’s heat as they cut back on air conditioning to conserve power for industry. Now they’re preparing to shiver throughout the coming winter. And it may get worse before it gets better. Trust of political and business leaders and their handling of the cleanup and recovery process is low. One president of Japan has already lost his job. Cynicism about the recovery is rampant.

These are but a few of hundreds of such reports. Take any disaster over the past few years. Google the recent news items. [You’ll find some. Guaranteed.] Most will be negative. Some focus on personal loss and suffering. Some cover the economic struggles. Some explore the politics. But they’re just different facets of the same overall tragedy, repeated again and again, multiplied by thousands upon thousands.

People who haven’t experienced disasters personally are often unworried about natural hazards. They feel lucky. They don’t think the hazard will hit them. They trust that their local officials have been conservative about such risks when regulating land use and building codes. They believe they’ll get warnings in time to seek and find shelter. They think their city or country or state has adequate plans in place for contingencies. They figure that federal agencies such as FEMA, SBA, and others will make them whole.

Such confidence in national, state, and local institutions is naïve and misplaced.

What to do?

Well, we all live somewhere. And that “somewhere” faces an exposure to risk and hazards that is a unique blend of geography, geology, climate, culture, technology, economic development, social equity, and politics. As individuals, if we’re looking for something to accomplish in 2012, we might consider digging into our local circumstances, identifying our vulnerabilities, inventorying our assets, encouraging our friends and neighbors to work with us to plan and prepare.

Maybe you’re even a local leader – a mayor or councilwoman, an emergency manager, a small-business owner or executive. Do you edit or report for a town newspaper? For that matter, are you an academic with some knowledge in these matters? Then you too count as a leader. Want to leave a real legacy? Step up in your community. You can play a special role in building your community resilience, in mobilizing others.

Looking for resources to help? There are hundreds of places to start. But here’s one: CARRI, the Community And Regional Resilience Institute. Check out their website, and go from there.

Have a resilient 2012. Don’t make this year’s disaster headlines.

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