ON CHRISTMAS NIGHT, 1802, fire ripped through the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, destroying a seaport that was a crucial outlet for commerce in newly founded America. A few weeks later, Congress implemented the first act of federal disaster relief in American history. “What did the federal government do? It did what it would do for the next 200-plus years—it wrote a check,” says Brad Kieserman, acting assistant administrator for recovery at FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery (ORR). “We’ve been doing one version or another of that ever since. We haven’t been particularly innovative.”
But now, innovation is sorely needed. Officials say that the current model of relying on federal largesse for relief and long-term recovery is not sustainable. According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, the government spent $136 billion from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief.
“The federal government can’t fix it all. The federal government is not an endless pot of money,” says Daniel Craig, chairman of the Disaster Recovery Contractors Association.
Craig, Kieserman, and other disaster recovery experts came together recently to discuss ideas for a new model of response and relief at “Expert Voices–Future Innovations for Long-Term Disaster Recovery,” held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event was moderated by Admiral Thad Allen, a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who is now senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.
To bring more innovation to disaster relief, experts agree that a new paradigm must be established so that the roots of a strong recovery are planted before the event occurs. “My message to you is: Recovery doesn’t start after the disaster. It doesn’t start in the response phase. It starts well before the response phase,” said Joseph Nimmich, associate administrator at ORR.
Such a new paradigm would use predictive data on weather patterns to anticipate storm cycles and their likely effects. “We need to take that data and look at where the projections from science are and what the weather changes are going to be, and then we need to have our community and city planners plan ahead of time,” Nimmich advised.
“So we are not arguing at the time of the event, but we know—these houses can’t be built back up. And we are telling the people that, when a flood occurs, you’re going to be bought out,” says Nimmich. “We’re planning that buy-out long before the event ever occurs,” he said.
In addition, government can be more proactive in signing contracts with private companies for services that will be needed after a disaster, such as temporary housing. This type of up-front investment and preparation makes it easier for the government to control costs, and it is ultimately cheaper than a massive post-disaster aid package, such as the $60 billion Congress approved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, experts say.
And from the private sector side, such advance agreements are often welcomed because they allow a company to ensure that they will have clients during challenging times. “When no one else is buying the service because the community is devastated, I can guarantee that the government, or the utility, or someone else, will,” Kieserman said.
Contracts and relationships with nonprofit groups can also be forged before a disaster occurs. These connections can be important, experts say, because nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer a range of resources that are sometimes underused.
One of the primary strengths that NGOs bring to the table is flexibility—they can tailor service delivery based on circumstances on the ground, and they don’t require a presidential declaration to act, according to Jeff Jellets, territorial director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army. Moreover, NGOs are grassroots organizations, arising from the communities they serve. “They know the unique characteristics of those communities,” Jellets said. NGOs offer a variety of services, including health care, meals, shelter, reconstruction, and other resources.
However, those looking to better leverage NGOs in disaster relief efforts need also be mindful of a few challenges, Jellets added. The wide range of services they offer can make managing and coordinating them difficult. NGOs can also be dependent on fundraising.
Prevent preparation is critical because it is often difficult to make progress on long-term measures after a crisis, according to Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “It’s hard to get a community to think about long-term planning implications…or how to build resilient flood-resistant structures when they still are reeling from the impacts of that catastrophic disaster event,” Cannon said.
Allen, who directed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, agreed. He emphasized the importance of short-term efforts in the aftermath of a disaster that focus on helping private sector businesses get up and running again. “When you have a devastating event, you have loss of continuity of government...but you also lose the continuity of society. And that includes all the economic transactions that take place that actually drive the revenue base and let the city recover. So it’s really essential that you open the Walmart, the Home Depot, the Lowe’s—even the Waffle House becomes very important,” Allen said.
In the end, experts say that what is needed for a more innovative disaster response system is a change in mindset. The idea of greater focus on strategic predisaster preparation must gain currency in the minds of more Americans. Similarly, more people—such as those living in areas where rising coastal waters make some waterfront housing unsustainable—must move away from the idea that the object of a relief program is always restoration.
“At every level, we need to change our thinking, if we are going to move forward in the future,” Nimmich said. “At the personal level, when you go through a disaster, the expectation has become somebody will help you get back to exactly the way it was before. That’s not what a disaster is. A disaster is a life-changing moment.”