Acting in Time for Disaster Recovery

August 4, 2009
by Arrietta Chakos

Leaders in the city of San Francisco worry that they may be due for another “big one.” Scientists estimate there is a 62 percent chance that a 6.7 magnitude or greater earthquake will occur in the San Francisco Bay Area within the next 25 years. Disaster loss estimates forecast up to 30,000 homes destroyed with billions of dollars in damage.

What can San Francisco do to prepare for catastrophe and make recovery after an earthquake more effective, reliable and less expensive? More broadly, how can all cities located in high hazard areas subject to periodic earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, be better prepared?

A team of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) researchers has been working with municipal leaders in San Francisco on HKS’s first Advance Recovery Action research project, building on the intellectual framework of Dean David Ellwood’s Acting in Time(AIT) initiative.

The foundation for this Advance Recovery Action project is based on the HKS Broadmoor Project, a multi-year New Orleans-based recovery collaboration with local community leaders coordinated by Doug Ahlers, adjunct lecturer and Belfer Center senior fellow. Ahlers’ long-time connections with both New Orleans and San Francisco spurred the new alliance.

San Francisco sent delegations to the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans to study HKS-supported disaster recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together, HKS researchers and San Francisco officials outlined plans for recovery before the next disaster, an evolutionary leap in natural hazards research.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s staff team, led by City Administrator Ed Lee, crafted a proactive strategy to prepare for the inevitable earthquake recovery needs of San Francisco. An interagency project work group was convened to “create a recovery roadmap...to accelerate the long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts...” Before long, HKS alumnus David Chiu MPP 1995, president of the Board of Supervisors, was briefed on the partnership and reacquainted with his former professor, Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, the project sponsor.

The HKS Advance Recovery Project team, led by Leonard along with Ahlers and project director, Arrietta Chakos, began working with the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) in May 2007. This fall, Ahlers will be teaching a course at HKS, “Disaster Recovery Management and Urban Development: Rebuilding New Orleans,” based on the New Orleans experience. Ahlers will bring in disaster recovery experts from Washington, D.C. and the Gulf Coast region to convey lessons learned from catastrophic disasters and to provide MPP and MPA students with an array of practical risk counter-measures.

The larger Acting in Time initiative was launched in 2007 by Dean Ellwood to identify effective public policy interventions for consequential public problems approaching a crisis stage. With HKS faculty, he harnessed school and university research to examine why particular problems are not addressed early on and to foster effective interventions promoting human and societal well-being. As several HKS research teams pursue different areas of concern, they are considering analysis, governance, policy design, political mobilization, and leadership as factors in the ability – or inability – to act in time.

San Francisco, California

A team of Harvard Kennedy School researchers is working with municipal leaders in San Francisco on disaster preparedness.


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