Preparing for the Next Disaster

HKS Hosts Conference on Disaster Recovery

March 7, 2016
by Maisie O'Brien, Ash Center

On Jan. 22, 2016, academics and practitioners from across the world traveled to Harvard for a conference on disaster recovery. Entitled “Accelerating Disaster Recovery: Strategies, Tensions, and Obstacles,” the event provided a singular opportunity for participants to discuss the complex challenges underlying recovery efforts and to explore ways to more effectively rebound from future disasters. 

“Recovery from major disasters is hugely important and a fundamental part of the human condition,” said Dutch Leonard, faculty co-director of the Program on Crisis Leadership (PCL) at Harvard Kennedy School, providing opening remarks for the conference. “There are massive social costs that exist not only as a result of the disasters themselves -- but also as a result of our inability to deal with them as effectively as we would like.”

Leonard emphasized the need for increased scholarship on recovery issues:  “Given how important recovery is, it is poorly understood, sometimes poorly executed, and greatly understudied.  There aren’t enough people looking at this very substantial phenomenon and we lack a comprehensive understanding of how to best help people to mobilize because there will be a next disaster.  What we want to talk about today is what we know, what we still need to learn, and how we can deploy what we know to help people going forward.” 

The conference featured four sessions during which panelists described their direct experience with disaster recovery or drew on academic expertise.  Microphones were placed on tables throughout the room, facilitating extended and interactive dialogue between the panelists and attendees. 

Organized and supported by several members of the Harvard Kennedy School community, “Accelerating Disaster Recovery” was largely based on work conducted by faculty and researchers associated with the Program on Crisis Leadership, including – in particular – PCL Senior Fellow Doug Ahlers, and the Belfer Center's Broadmoor Project, a collaborative redevelopment effort between the hurricane-devastated Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans and HKS, which Ahlers helped establish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Panel I: “Tensions in Disaster Recovery: Building Back Better, Faster, Safer, Cheaper, Fairer, and More Familiar. Can we Have Them All?”

The first panel of the day focused on the conflicting aims and sizeable tradeoffs often associated with recovery efforts. Program on Crisis Leadership Co-director Arnold Howitt served as the moderator and began the discussion saying, “Many people think of recovery as restoring the community or making people whole, and yet as we all know that is much too simplistic a way to talk about the issues of recovery.  There are multiple goals that surface when any recovery is being planned or carried out.” 

The goal of relocating a community to a safer area that is less prone to flood damage, for example, conflicts with the desire of residents to rebuild on the sites of their original homes and to restore their community to as familiar a state as possible. 

Several themes emerged from this session, including the importance of government transparency, managing expectations, setting realistic timelines, and involving community members in the recovery planning process. Doug Ahlers summarized the comments of his fellow panelists, saying: “Designing a recovery planning process that engages citizens is absolutely important, though it should not turn into a wish list of sorts.  It should be reality-based planning that takes into account the resources the community has to rebuild, working with citizens in the context of priority setting, and determining what the community can actually afford.”

Panel II: “Coping with Loss, Adapting to New Realities”

In the second session, panelists with backgrounds in urban planning, medicine, community organizing, and religion examined the manifold nature of loss following a disaster, as well as strategies to help communities process grief and move forward. Panelists described their experiences living and working in disaster areas; places characterized by chaos and confusion where residents felt little control and predictability. 

Loss, several panelists attested, is experienced on a deeply personal level as well as in the context of being embedded within a community.  Involving citizens in the recovery planning process can have a number of psychological and social benefits, including helping citizens to heal from the experience and regain a sense of control over their lives and neighborhoods. Professor and Co-Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University Daniel P. Aldrich explained: “I think the most successful processes for recovery come from ‘bottom-up’ plans that haven’t been imposed from the outside, where the vision of the community is the one driving the future, rather than something imposed by outside experts or planners.” 

The importance of social networks existing prior to and formed following a disaster was a central theme of the session. One panelist described how communities with stronger social networks and more human capital tend to experience better health outcomes following a disaster than those with weaker community ties.  

Panel III- “Governance of Disaster Recovery”

In contrast to the second panel, the third session of the day examined the process of recovery from the “top down,” exploring how governments can effectively facilitate recovery efforts. Panelists discussed challenges related to the management and financing of disaster recovery, which often involves multiple government agencies, NGOs, independent contractors, and massive sums of money.

Panelists with experience managing recovery efforts in Louisiana, Indonesia, and New Zealand discussed strategies to coordinate and collaborate with the various groups involved in disaster recovery, and ways to communicate effectively with the press and public. A core theme of the panel was the importance of effective political leadership and support from qualified practitioners. “Sometimes we elect good leaders who appoint talented people and sometimes we don’t,” said Andy Kopplin, first deputy mayor and chief administrative officer for the City of New Orleans and former executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority following Hurricane Katrina. “Some communities do better or worse [in recovery situations] because of decisions that are made in the selection of their leaders.”

Panel IV: “Planning Scenario— The San Andreas Earthquake of 2023: Acting Now to Improve Governance and Accelerate Recovery”

The final session of the conference analyzed a hypothetical scenario – The San Andreas Earthquake of 2023 – to spark discussion of what the disaster could look like and what actions could be taken ahead of time to make recovery more effective.

Laurie Johnson, who has worked on disaster recovery planning and modeling teams in Northern and Southern California in preparation for a major earthquake, provided a sobering introduction to the topic.

Holding a map of an earthquake model forecast, Johnson said, “The prognosis suggests that in the next 30 years there is a 99% probability that a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake is going to happen somewhere in California. Some of the “riskier” faults with even higher potential magnitudes are located in Southern California.” 

She outlined some of the challenges to a speedy recovery, including disruptions to water systems, telecommunications, and energy sources, the possibility of widespread fires and ground failure damage, and the prevalence of older commercial buildings and housing stock that is vulnerable to collapse.

General Manager of the Emergency Management Department of the City of Los Angeles and PCL Senior Fellow James Featherstone spoke on his efforts to update his city’s recovery plan, one of the first in the nation to be developed prior to a disaster. “The plan is constantly in motion,” he said. “We’ve actually merged recovery and response. Our recovery effort literally starts while the response is still in progress.” He described his department’s efforts to build connections across city agencies and partner with the private sector to increase the availability of essential services in the event of a major disaster.

Reflecting on the ideas presented during the conference, Featherstone said: “I have listened to a lot of really, really good discussions, and I’ve taken a lot of notes. My staff is going to get inundated when I get back to California.” 

The conference was organized by the Program on Crisis Leadership, jointly affiliated with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and the Broadmoor Project: New Orleans Recovery at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Doug Ahlers, senior fellow at HKS' Program on Crisis Leadership, participated in a panel discussion. 

“Recovery from major disasters is hugely important and a fundamental part of the human condition." --Dutch Leonard, faculty co-director, Program on Crisis Leadership at HKS


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