The blog of the Urban Institute
September 4, 2019

How Our Disaster Recovery Should Improve in the Face of Stronger Hurricanes

September 4, 2019

As the record-setting Hurricane Dorian moves up the East Coast, national attention is rightly focused on preparation and evacuation. Response and relief will come in many forms as the hurricane passes. But as storm waters recede, we will again be asking questions about the quality and speed of recovery—like we do after every major disaster faced by the US.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005 showed what happens with poor governmental coordination and exacerbated disparities, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy made us think about the resilience of institutions and infrastructure to mitigate future disaster damage, and the devastating 2017 disaster season brought the issue of equity to the forefront.

Will post-Dorian recovery be any different from previous recoveries in our lifetimes? What can we learn from previous disaster recoveries?

In an upcoming report for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (which I previewed in testimony last year), Urban Institute researchers examine the federal Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program across a sample of 88 disasters from 2005 to 2015 to uncover patterns in recovery speed and administration over time.

How disaster recovery had been improving

The federal government made improvements to its disaster management portfolio after Hurricane Katrina, namely in how quickly it allocates resources and coordinates recovery.

We found that the time to grant completion declined an average of 5.4 percent per year across the 10-year sample—which means long-term recovery activities were increasingly completed more quickly through 2015. Overall housing recovery programs across all housing activity types took an average of 3.8 years from presidential disaster declaration to completion.

Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s experimentation with new technologies for assessing disaster damages and its multimedia options for applying for immediate temporary aid, the federal government has shown it wants to move from relief to recovery more efficiently.

Missteps in federal disaster recovery

However, the thresholds for Congress’s appropriation of long-term resources were inconsistent, as were the coordination between federal agencies and the eventual quality of programs pursued by state and local governments.

In fact, these problems have resurfaced since the study’s time frame. In response to the 2017 disasters, community activists and policy advocates have questioned the extended delays and inconsistencies in federal disaster responses and long-term recovery funds—especially in places like Puerto Rico, where funding expenditures have lagged by years compared with other severe disasters.

Of course, faster recovery doesn’t necessarily mean a better recovery, nor does it mean the right kind of recovery resources. Jurisdictions continue to emphasize the rebuilding of single-family housing over other types of critical housing supply needs. State and local governments used more than 80 percent of CDBG-DR funds for single-family rehabilitation or for compensating single-family homeowners for their rehab work. This focus on single-family homeowner recovery can disadvantage low- and moderate-income renters.

Housing that was likely needed before the disaster struck—such as affordable rental housing—typically receives fewer resources, even though the need for such housing is more acute after the disaster. Building multifamily rental housing also takes longer. Affordable rental housing activities took more than 4.7 years on average, while housing rehab programs—typically the largest and most recognized activity—took an average of 3.7 years.

Opportunities for improvement

Despite these problems, there are opportunities for policy and program reforms that can improve recovery.

Boost local capacity to manage recovery programs.

State and local governments face severe constraints when it comes to staff expertise and turnover, case management systems, and internal political transitions, all of which can weigh down federal recovery efforts. Integrating emergency management planning into communities’ long-term housing and growth plans and then making sure those plans lead to honest resident conversations during calm times will help determine appropriate housing priorities after a disaster.

Expand federal funding to help more communities.

Government-wide investments in disaster mitigation and preparedness are severely underresourced and underplanned for the frequency, severity, and variability of disasters that the country will face because of climate change and increased urbanization. HUD is increasingly supporting disaster mitigation infrastructure as part of its CDBG-DR funding.

But without permanent statutory authority, only places that experienced a severe disaster in the recent past can get the resources to prepare for future disasters. That requirement could leave many communities without the resources they need to prepare for the future.

Streamline the federal disaster management process.

Collaboration across the federal agencies charged with any stage of the disaster management portfolio must become more seamless for the localities and individual households that are in harm’s way. Our study found that CDBG-DR has many redundant or overly restrictive program rules for procurement, environmental impacts, and monitoring requirements.

And many of these rules vary widely between disasters because CDBG-DR is not a permanently authorized federal program. The addition of new rules, such as additional financial oversights for Puerto Rico since 2017, rather than capacity-building assistance is counterproductive to household recovery.

Center the affected households—especially low-income renters.

Reforming the national disaster management framework should always center the affected communities and prioritize providing the best security for as many families as possible. Concerns about who can access needed assistance, and how federal policy should ensure that the most vulnerable people receive resources have grown in recent years. Equitable disaster recovery includes having a better sense of who and where different populations reside before a disaster like Dorian hits and constantly assessing their needs after.

Gaps and inconsistencies in the national recovery framework become apparent after every disaster. The mix of private insurance, charitable donations, temporary and limited public assistance for shelter and food, and long-term publicly funded recovery of local housing, infrastructure, and economies is different each time. This is partially for good reason, as damages and local needs change with every disaster.

But a robust and principled recovery should comprehensively plan for any hazard--and no one should fall through the cracks.

A NOAA GOES-East satellite image of Hurricane Dorian taken on September 1, 2019, as the Category 5 storm (at the time) tracked towards the Florida coast. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images).

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