Five Hacks for Local Officials in Disaster Recovery

Leadership tips to help your community recover more quickly

Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy rescues young girl during Tropical Storm Imelda (Photo: Harris County Sheriff’s Office, 2019)

We are still in the peak of hurricane season and Barry, Dorian and Imelda have already wreaked havoc on local communities with widespread devastation. They should serve as a fresh reminder that recovery is perhaps the most complex phase of the emergency management cycle. The response pales in comparison to the heavy lift of recovery.

Every dollar spent in the cycles of mitigation, preparedness and response help maximize every dollar put into the recovery phase. Nevertheless, relief and recovery are costly, timely and painfully slow — especially for those who are most devastated. To local officials it can be overwhelming and frustrating. To those hit hardest by the disaster, the hurdles can be debilitating.

For many communities, recovery happens few and far between, subject to the unpredictability of Mother Nature. In southeast Texas, we have initiated recovery for at least five presidentially declared disasters in the past four years. Will Tropical Imelda become the sixth? We are in a constant state of recovery. From that, come some practical lessons.

Local Officials are on the Front Lines

All disasters are local. While a substantial amount of state and federal recovery dollars eventually trickle down to locals, chief elected officials of cities and counties are faced with the great burden of pulling their communities up by their bootstraps in search of a new normal. They must tackle both public assistance (the funding stream to get government and some select non-profits reimbursed for losses and expenditures) and individual assistance (funding designed to provide direct financial aid through grants for individuals and households).

The focus here is on individual assistance. That is, programs that directly help the constituent.

Five Leadership Hacks

You will need to rely on the expertise of your team to tackle both public assistance and individual assistance. They are distinctly different programs and you are better served by delegating the responsibility for each separately, even though the leads for each should work in tandem on strategy, administrative responsibilities and to ensure compliance. If they need help with the process, ask for technical assistance from state and federal partners.

The five leadership hacks below are things I learned the hard way in helping lead recovery efforts for five back-to-back presidentially declared disasters in the greater Houston area.

Ask to see the menu

There are hundreds of programs that are available from either state or federal government to help local communities recover. Some of those resources are automatically dispatched to the impacted communities while others have to be specifically ordered. Because the state, not local government, is the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) direct customer you will need to request and coordinate the delivery of these resources with your state counterparts.

Resources at your disposal can include Disaster Recovery Centers where residents can apply for assistance in-person, the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for food benefits, intermediate disaster case management to help connect people with available resources to fill unmet needs not covered by government aid, workforce development and loans from the Small Business Administration that can go directly to affected residents and not just businesses.

This is only a partial listing of more than 200 programs that often are spearheaded by a multitude of federal agencies. FEMA designates a Federal Coordinating Officer to help coordinate this multidimensional effort but they are not directly responsible for successfully deploying those individual programs. That inevitably lies with each agency.

Hack: As soon as possible, convene a meeting with all relevant state and federal partners and ask to see the “menu” of services that are available so that you know your options. Keep convening them regularly because programs change and new initiatives may be kicked off. It is unfortunate when an untapped resource is not utilized.

Disaster Recovery Center in the Houston suburb of Katy after Hurricane Harvey (Photo: Harris County, 2017).

Call in the Cavalry

Need Something? Ask early. Ask often. Ask loudly.

Too often, local officials wait until after a resource is needed to ask for it. By ensuring an expedited damage assessment, working closely with community organizations to identify needs in the community and looking ahead you can see what problems are on the horizon. As a leader and community advocate, you should be looking ahead and not get bogged down in the present.

Confronting only the problems in front of you without seeing what is coming next will hamper your efforts and overwhelm you. See the bigger picture and know that small problems grow into bigger problems when they are unattended. You don’t know what you don’t know, so “phone a friend” or reach out to a trusted colleague for an extra set of eyes. Counterparts from across the country recently impacted by a disaster will have plenty of experience to share; learn from their frustrations.

Hack: Call in the cavalry. Don’t be shy about asking for help. State and federal disaster programs are often led by temporary employees or reservists that are called in to respond to disasters. They typically come from other parts of the country. Mobilizing these responders and organizing what they need to hit the ground running takes time; it’s a cumbersome process. It could be weeks, or months before they are fully operational. If you think you might need a resource, order it early.

It is much easier to wave them off and send them back if they are not needed than to watch your community languish waiting for desperately needed help.

So, order everything on the menu.

Recovery is a Team Sport and it’s Your Job to be the Champion

Emergency managers get much of the credit for a response to a disaster, but they have a limited role in the larger picture. By and large, they lead the mitigation, preparedness and response phases of the disaster cycle. They might even play a significant role in the initial recovery phase. But, the heaviest lift in recovery is done by nonprofit partners through organizations like your local Long Term Recovery Committee and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters.

Disaster case managers are my heroes. It is their job to help people get back on their feet. The harder the client is impacted, the more uphill the fight to make them whole again. It will also be an emotional roller coaster ride for both the client and case manager. The disaster survivor will see the case manager as a best friend at the start when they can quickly be connected to short-term help. As time passes and more robust or specialized services are needed, that will turn to impatience and frustration. The case manager will be at the receiving end of those emotions. In the end, and it could months to years, when homes are rebuilt or a new normal finally takes shape, the case manager is once again the client’s best friend. This simply comes with the turf and experienced disaster case managers are angels through it all.

Hack: Be the champion. If non-profit partners are running into bureaucratic inertia, step in and move it for them. If an organization needs a rule change, ask for it. If they are running out of resources, go to federal partners and get the money moving quicker. Embed a member of your team on the Long Term Recovery Committee so they have a consistent advocate. It is helpful to regularly hold meetings between the leadership from state and federal agencies and executives of local non-profits to prioritize issues to keep things moving and help keep small problems from growing.

Blue tarps are visible all over the Florida coast two months after Hurricane Irma struck (Photo: FEMA, 2017).

Disasters Are Social Events

No matter how historic the rainfall of a flood, magnitude of an earthquake, acreage of a wildfire or accumulation of a snow storm, the greatest measure of a disaster are not the physical metrics. The greatest measure is the social impact. Scope and size aside, a great natural occurrence is not a disaster if it does not impact people, their routines, their customs and sense of normalcy. That is true for any disaster. In the end, all disasters are social events.

Government measures recovery in dollars and years; people measure recovery in more personal terms and by the community impact. It is easy to get bogged down in the mechanics of damage assessments, declarations, requesting resources, negotiating reimbursements, collaborating with privately raised relief funds and asking Congress to allocate and expedite the release of federal recovery dollars. In that flurry of activity, you can’t forget to keep an eye on the most immediate needs of the community. They will be looking for real and meaningful relief, but it matters to be tuned in to less pressing issues that show progress and demonstrate recovery in action.

That is one of the reasons debris removal is critically important. It may not be at the top tier of needs like sheltering, providing basic utility services or security. Getting the lights back on and making sure people are fed are vital but debris is something people see on their streets. Neighborhood streets lined for miles on end with towering piles of debris are a reminder of the disaster and how quickly they are cleared serves as a window into how efficiently the recovery is working. Know this; no matter how quickly debris is removed chances are you will be criticized for not doing it quickly enough.

Hack: Always remember that disasters really are social events. Getting schools, libraries, grocery stores, major roads and community landmarks open again is important to customs and routines. What becomes important is unique to your community and to the context of the disaster it is facing. You will need to strike a delicate balance between operational priorities and social healing. You can do this best by listening to what is important in the moment for the residents you serve while not losing sight of the long game.

Get As Much You Can, As Quickly As You Can

The disaster you are facing will be atop the headlines across the country and perhaps around the globe. That won’t last long. As the rescues wane and things stabilize, the media spotlight and public interest will quickly decline. The caveat here is the local media that will actively pursue the story for much longer. The cycle of local media coverage goes from partnership in the response, cheerleaders of the community, analysis of the disaster and putting it into context, and eventually a candid critique of what went well and what went wrong.

There is a narrow window of opportunity to leverage the impacts and headlines into getting dollars flowing, be they government dollars or private dollars. Chances are, based on the Congressional calendar, that your disaster will get lumped in with another one. It is rare to have dollars appropriated for a single disaster alone. The scenario will be juggling how much to allocate and to who. Who got hit when and how hard will come into play. This takes time and there is little chance that Congress will disrupt regularly scheduled summer, winter and holiday breaks to come to your aid. This can lead to fierce competition between impacted communities, but you can overcome that by finding opportunities for collaboration.

Hack: Get as much as you can, get it as quickly as you can and give back as little as you have to. Recognize that asking for those state and federal dollars is a full court press and you have a limited time to make the most of it. This also applies to raising money for private relief funds. Don’t forget that you should negotiate to keep use of those dollars as flexible as possible. Evolving rules will slow down the process. As the cumbersome process drags on you will be losing political capital each day.

Even on a fast track, it will be months to years before you get the most substantial tranche of government dollars for the heaviest lifts in the recovery process.

FEMA graphic listing federal funds to Florida nine months after Hurricane Michael (2019).

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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