Skip to content

From Response to Recovery

HAVING ESTABLISHED a national framework for emergency response and having instituted a common nationwide system for incident management, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reassessing an element of its mission that may be less urgent but no less complex: long-term recovery.

The push to establish a National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) is a departure from many earlier policy efforts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA’s parent agency.

Since DHS’s establishment, state and local partners have complained of policy handed down “from on high” without input. By contrast, NDRF development began last year with establishment of the Long-Term Disaster Recovery Working Group, a partnership between the White House, DHS, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The working group held 16 meetings around the country to hear stakeholders’ approaches to recovery and their needs before recently issuing a draft.

Moreover, the words “terror,” “attack,” and related forms are nowhere to be found in the 58-page draft, an omission that reflects DHS’s ongoing shift toward an “all hazards” approach to emergency management. Two years ago stakeholders welcomed the NDRF’s counterpart, the National Response Framework (NRF), following the failures of Hurricane Katrina. They complained, however, that it still focused too heavily on terrorism at the expense of an all-hazards approach. Like the NRF, the NDRF states that it is not a prescriptive plan or playbook, but is intended to “forge a common understanding of roles, responsibilities, and resources available for recovery,” emphasizing the need for structure, leadership, and planning, while acknowledging that like disasters themselves, all recoveries are local and must be managed by the communities affected.

While the goals of emergency response are matters of consensus, the federal officials heard different definitions of recovery depending on whom they asked. Some simply said recovery means that affected areas are brought back to “normal.” Others cited a “new normal” or affected areas that are “back better” with plans for smart growth that improve on systems and infrastructures.

The draft NDRF, which was open briefly to public comment after publication, lays out a “recovery continuum” that begins with the latest phase of response—stabilization—when government, businesses, and utilities start providing essential services, even if through temporary means. During “intermediate” recovery, affected populations return home, and community partners plan recovery specifics based on local priorities and assessed hazards. During “long term” recovery, communities implement their plans and work toward their own recovery. Commenters emphasized that milestones and metrics must be based on results, not effort and spending.

The draft urges ongoing assessment of risk, along with an approach to recovery that mitigates risk going forward, with a recommendation that communities “avoid simple restoration of an area that may not be sustainable.”

A few new concepts suggested in the draft raised questions among stakeholders. Two of them proposed personnel designations for federally declared disasters: federal recovery coordinator (FRC) and state recovery coordinators (SRCs). The titles echo that of principal federal officer, a designation created after Katrina to establish clear leadership and accountability in federal response efforts.

In its comments on the draft, the National Emergency Management Association, which represents state and territorial emergency management directors, asked for clarification of both the FRC’s and SRCs’ responsibilities, given that they must be incorporated into established recovery processes governed by federal law.

Further, the draft proposes six new recovery support functions (RSFs) for the FRC to facilitate: community planning and capacity building; economic development; health, social, and community services; housing; infrastructure systems; and natural and cultural resources. The approach mirrors the 15 emergency support functions (ESFs)—like communications, search and rescue, and mass care—that are the basis of the National Incident Management System.

The 15th and final ESF is long-term recovery. Multiple commenters raised questions about exactly how the six new RSFs would dovetail with ESF-15.

The draft’s recommendations for the private sector are familiar ones, such as engagement with partners and planning. Long-term business recovery begins with sound risk management, which includes mitigation, continuity of operations planning, and adequate insurance, the draft states.

The draft also notes the importance of robust communications, both internally and with outside recovery authorities, ideally through designated task forces. Companies must resume operations as soon as possible, but must at the same time support employees affected by the disaster. Companies must also provide what they can for the community, whether by donating goods, services, or facility space.

The framework should also recommend participation in DHS’s Voluntary Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program (PS-Prep), write four senators in commenting on the draft, among them Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. FEMA is considering three established standards, including the ANSI/ASIS Organizational Resilience American National Standard, for use in PS-Prep.