Before Disaster Strikes


Disaster Recovery

Faculty Researchers Herman “Dutch” Leonard, Baker Professor of Public Management and Faculty Co-Director, Program on Crisis Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School; Arnold Howitt, Executive Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Faculty Co-Director, Program on Crisis Leadership, Harvard Kennedy SchoolChapterActing in Time Against Disaster: A Comprehensive Risk Management Framework, from Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response

Normally, we cannot foretell exactly when or where a catastrophic event will hit. Nevertheless, we can be confident that somewhere — and sooner rather than later — one will strike, causing great devastation. When that happens, we’re frequently caught off guard and have to scramble to muster resources and support to ease the suffering and repair the damage. The question that Herman “Dutch” Leonard and Arnold Howitt wrestle with, as codirectors of the Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership, is whether we can be better prepared for events that are both unpredictable and inevitable. What steps might be taken in advance, they ask, “that would make disaster recovery quicker, less expensive, and more complete?”

In their current work, Leonard and Howitt advocate thinking about crisis management in a broader context — and over a longer time frame than the response period alone — through a “comprehensive risk management framework.” Under this approach, planning for, responding to, and recovering from catastrophe — be it a natural disaster, a dramatic and widespread technological failure, or a terrorist attack — can be broken down into five kinds of actions and in three different time periods: before, during, and after an event. The first action is prevention and mitigation — trying to either avert the event altogether or reduce the harm it would cause. The second involves what’s typically called “emergency preparedness”— training first responders such as firemen and EMTs and acquiring and deploying the requisite equipment. The third action, advance recovery, involves (as the term implies) measures taken in advance to make disaster recovery “more efficient, rapid, and effective.” The fourth, emergency response, occurs during and after the disaster and involves coping with the crisis as it unfolds. The fifth, recovery, is the long-term process of returning a region to normalcy.

Leonard and Howitt call for pursuing the most cost-effective interventions, drawn from any of the five categories, to minimize future losses with the least expenditure. “You can’t make that determination until you assemble the complete picture,” says Leonard. Significantly, however, “most crisis management is concentrated on just two of the five buckets — preparation of the response and the response itself — which is too narrow a focus given the full range of possibilities.”

Advance recovery, for example, has been almost completely overlooked, yet it could yield a big payoff with only nominal investments required up front. Despite years of neglect, some governments are finally starting to think along these lines, perhaps because the frequency and severity of major disasters seem to be increasing. In fact, advance recovery is a central element of the project that Leonard, Howitt, and their fellow researchers have been developing since 2007 for and with the City of San Francisco, where the threat of a major earthquake constantly looms. This effort, led by Kennedy School project director Arrietta Chakos, has made progress by, for instance, making arrangements to ensure that financial resources will be available to cope with the aftermath of a major quake. “You shouldn’t wait until after the event, when your credit is not nearly as good,” Leonard explains.

Steps can be taken in advance — at little or no cost — to streamline the rebuilding process. “You want to be able to move quickly and not be hampered by red tape,” Howitt says. “So special emergency regulations can be in place to allow you to issue permits and contracts more quickly.” The partnership with San Francisco has been a two-way street, he adds. “On the one hand we are advisors. On the other hand, we are learning from them with the goal being to pass on new ideas to other jurisdictions and other countries as well.” — by Steve Nadis

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