There is certainly no shortage of disasters. From increases in the strength and frequency of major storms like Hurricanes Irma and Maria, to an upswing in drought conditions leading to major wildfire activity, natural disasters are becoming commonplace. In addition to natural disasters, an uptick in man-made disasters including mass shootings like in Orlando and Las Vegas means there is an endless number of scenarios for which emergency managers must be prepared.
However, being ready for such events requires more than developing immediate response plans. These natural and man-made disasters involve potentially long recovery times for the impacted area. This is where the real work of emergency management happens.
A Fundamental Flaw in EM Theory
In the wake of Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew and Irma, which recently affected my home state of Florida, I was surprised by the amount of confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the transition from response to recovery operations. After all, this is Florida, a state that has experienced numerous major disasters in the past 15 years. Why would a place like this, which should be accustomed to recovery operations, continue to stumble in this area?
One possible answer lies in a fundamental flaw in the emergency management (EM) field as it is conceptualized, and taught, today.
Those involved in EM are likely familiar with the “Emergency Management Lifecycle” diagram, which includes four phases. This diagram shows the cyclical nature of EM, including preparedness, which leads into response, which then leads into recovery and is followed by mitigation, which then completes the circle by returning as a lead-in to preparedness again.
Picture from FEMA, IS-111 Course Training Materials Unit 4 (https://training.fema.gov/emiweb/downloads/is111_unit%204.pdf)
When I was thinking about why we, as a nation, fail to plan for recovery operations, at least when we compare that to the amount of attention we give to preparing for response operations, this oversimplified diagram immediately jumped out as one of the problem areas. In short, we train people to think that preparedness is all about response, but this could not be further from the truth! In a perfect world, preparedness would feed into each of the other three phases, not just response.
Granted, it is true that response is generally the most publicly visible phase of the EM lifecycle. It is the phase where everyone is in a “rah-rah mood,” with superiors and elected officials striving to telegraph the appearance that everyone is “on the same team” and working toward the singular goal of response. Daily reports trumpet the number of homes that have had power restored, the number of survivors that have been assisted by search and rescue teams, and even the simple arrival of additional utility work crews from other states. As long as we sense that “the cavalry is here, or at least on the way,” we can conceptualize the eventual end to response activities, and with these the presumed end of the “disaster.”
However, in reality, response lasts for a very short period of time. After a few days or possibly weeks, we then move into the potentially decades-long task of recovery (and key missteps in the very beginning of recovery operations can come back to haunt you years down the road!).
A Simple Equation
If you asked a 10-year-old child which requires more planning, a task that is over in one month or less, or a task that takes 12 years to complete, even the child understands that at a fundamental level, something that is going to take 12 years is going to be more complex than something that takes a month.
Given that reality, why do emergency managers write volumes full of plans for response operations (especially when we consider that the first responders, whose jobs are really where “the rubber meets the road,” have their own plans and procedures), and maybe write a couple of pages about recovery?
Even for those “enlightened” EM departments that do take recovery more seriously, the resulting recovery plan is typically full of general statements, unclear lines of responsibility, and a lot of “buck passing” where some higher level of government (i.e. the state, FEMA, etc.) is assumed to be on the way to run the show.
As a practitioner who spent his whole emergency management career focused on recovery operations, I think it is time to open the dialogue about how we, as an industry, can start better planning for long-term recovery.
20 Questions for All Local EMs
To that end, here is a starter list of 20 questions that local EMs can read and review against their current recovery plans. If the majority of these questions are not answered affirmatively, this is a good starting point for plan revisions.
- Do we have an inventory of all publicly owned property (land, real estate, equipment, vehicles, furniture, etc.), along with current estimated valuations? Are these items reflected on our governmental insurance policies (for both property and flood insurance)?
- Do we have a staffing plan, which is current and includes names of actual people, for a dedicated recovery section in the emergency operating center during response operations?
- Do we have a staffing plan, which is current and includes names of actual people, of recovery functional leads from all sub-entities within our local government? This includes contact information for individuals from each governmental unit who will be leading efforts once we move into recovery.
- Have we remembered to include the “private sector” in our recovery plans, and do we have a contact at the Chamber of Commerce (or similar entity) who will act as a liaison between the private sector and government?
- Does the local government have a communications plan and a dedicated public information officer (PIO) to keep the general public aware of how recovery is progressing? This person is also responsible for getting the word out about deadlines, meetings, etc.
- Do those in the emergency management department have a communications plan in place to keep elected officials informed of how we are progressing? This plan must also include ways to funnel questions, data requests and similar requests back to the department.
- Have we estimated how much help we should realistically expect from the state and/or federal governments? What will our cost-share be for that help (both in the response and recovery phases)?
- Do we have the monetary reserves necessary to pay this state/federal cost-share? If not, how do we expect to raise these funds?
- What is our plan for using stand-by and emergency contracting? Have we ensured that these plans meet federal procurement regulations (remember that the Governor’s Executive Order(s) can waive state requirements, but cannot waive federal requirements)?
- Do our current, day-to-day contracts for services meet federal procurement regulations?
- Do we actually understand what is eligible for reimbursement under federal (and possibly state) recovery regulations?
- What exactly do we have to do at the local level to get our county included in a federal disaster declaration?
- Do we have a staffing plan, which is current and includes names of actual people (and approval from their day-to-day work units), for teams to conduct initial damage assessments, as well as to work with FEMA on preliminary damage assessments?
- Do we understand how to classify damage to homes using FEMA’s Individual Assistance categories?
- Do we have the name of a dedicated person who will be collecting costs that may be eligible under FEMA’s Public Assistance program?
- Does our accounting/timekeeping system allow for the entry and storage of separate time records for employees—both for time spent working on the disaster (and their specific duties/tasks), as well as time spent working on non-disaster duties/tasks?
- Do we have a plan for capturing and reporting the value of volunteer hours and/or donated resources?
- Do we have a plan agreed to with the state for debris pickup and/or repair work on state roads/facilities (roads, buildings, parks, state submerged lands, etc.) that lie within (or run through) our physical jurisdiction? This plan should include who is responsible for what tasks, who pays for what, and who requests reimbursement from FEMA.
- If the disaster causes a housing crisis, what do we plan to do by the way of relaxing regulations, to allow for the long-term sheltering of citizens within our jurisdictional borders?
- Do we have a plan in place for regular and continued auditor/inspector general scrutiny of disaster finances?
This list is just a starting point to help local teams assess their level of preparedness for recovery operations. However, it is important to note that even the most-prepared jurisdictions will encounter challenges at the onset of recovery. Thinking through many of these issues in advance and collaborating with other agencies and entities will enable local governments to quickly recover from any stumbling blocks during recovery operations.
About the Author: Evan Rosenberg, MS, JD, spent eight years working in recovery for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, with four of those years as the State Recovery Chief. A nationally known expert on recovery and the Stafford Act, Evan spent two years leading NEMA’s PA & IA Subcommittees, under the auspices of the NEMA Response and Recovery Committee. Evan has served on a number of FEMA-industry workgroups. Since 2012, he has been an adjunct professor teaching courses in Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University. Evan left the Florida Division of Emergency Management in 2017 and is currently an executive with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, where he works on multi-family affordable housing issues in both disaster and non-disaster settings.