“If it's evaluated by how many homes and buildings are actually rebuilt or repaired, and how many are mitigated—if your outcomes are your measurement, and you're evaluated based on those outcomes, it’s a game-changer.”
Two ways to reform the disaster recovery process
With this context in mind, here are ways to improve the disaster recovery process and achieve real outcomes—while balancing speed, scale, and oversight priorities.
Have recipients and subrecipients take the lead and make recovery a state and local responsibility—again
Federal agencies often perform their own field inspections and cost estimates for projects prior to fund obligation and make it difficult for local authorities to contribute to those efforts, further hampering their progress. The current process requires a large ramp-up of a fully supported federal labor force that rotates frequently. The transition from response to recovery is often impeded by policy changes, logistics, and staffing.
Beginning field inspections and establishing a Combined Resource Center, or CRC, takes time and prolongs the initiation of the recovery process. “If a recipient and subrecipient were willing to take it on and could use their own engineers and contractors, they would move at a much faster pace, because they would not have to wait in queue on someone else’s schedule and would be pressure-driven to get to tangible results, as opposed to just reaching the mission complete obligation point,” says Blankenship.
According to Marko Bourne, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and disaster management for ICF—and a former senior leader and director of policy at FEMA—there are a handful of states that continue to have established state-wide disaster assistance programs to manage disasters rather than solely relying on the federal government. Those that have taken the initiative of doing so are typically larger states with a higher volume of weather-related events, such as Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and despite having state-run IA or PA programs, even they are not immune to bureaucratic challenges at the federal level.
“The rub with them is FEMA then discounts them in terms of their ability to get a disaster declaration, because it’s harder for them, under FEMA’s eye, to claim they need federal assistance, as it has not ‘exceeded their capabilities’,” he says.
“The vast majority of the costs of disasters, both from an actual implementation and a bureaucratic perspective, comes in recovery, that’s where the money gets spent; $30 million upfront turns into $3 billion on the recovery end,” says Bourne. “There is still a Constitutional and federal and state statute responsibility that says response and recovery is a state and local priority, and the federal programs are supplementary. For many decades recovery was that way, but over the past 25 years, it’s become a federally process-driven activity, as opposed to a support activity.”
To improve the speed and efficiency of those efforts, state and local governments need to be willing and able to take a more active role and prioritize state tax dollars toward managing most disasters themselves, to maximize federal aid. Federal agencies, meanwhile, need to be evaluated based on real-world outcomes, not financial commitments, and measures of activity.
Rebuild for resiliency
Disaster-prone communities are tasked with building more resilient infrastructure to weather the next major storm while still recovering from the previous one. A near-impossible task, to be sure.
But by placing the appropriate emphasis on infrastructure throughout the recovery process, communities can make real progress. Puerto Rico, for example, is folding this “rebuilding for resiliency” concept into its recovery efforts. It was listed as a key priority for Manuel Laboy, the former secretary for the Department of Economic Development and Commerce of Puerto Rico and current executive director of COR3, during a panel hosted by ICF in early March.
“We are moving now at full speed toward full recovery when it comes to permanent reconstruction, the permanent work that is going to allow us to modernize the infrastructure of Puerto Rico in the years to come,” he said, adding that the island is still “actively managing this disaster” more than three and a half years later.
A more meaningful way to measure success
So long as efforts are measured by the process and size of the fund, rather than the actual completed outcomes on the ground, the costs will continue to escalate, and recovery will get further delayed, causing additional economic and societal hardships. By shifting more responsibility to state and local recipients and baking resiliency considerations into the recovery process, we can make improvements to both the speed and cost of recovery—while allowing the federal government to provide needed support. But if we’re going to better manage natural disasters in the future, we need to rethink how we’re evaluating the success of recovery efforts.