September 20, 2019

Born for Storms: What Makes Long-Term Disaster Recovery Work? 2008

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” — H.E. Luccock

Long-term recovery begins after emergency services are depleted or no longer needed. After newly arrived residents are safe, (temporarily) sheltered, fed, and treated for emergency medical needs, the longer term response must kick in. The social, faith-based, and private business sector organizations are best suited for this role. They are accustomed to working collaboratively and are better positioned for the flexible and more finely tuned responses needed for individuals and families.

Long-term recovery/integration resources are housing, employment, education, health, and financial services. Resources required to assist people in the longer term response will be disjointed. Displaced persons will need assistance with navigating disjointed systems. Few cities “pre-position” case managers or service navigators (social workers, employment counselors, housing advisors, etc.) with the requisite training or in the numbers required to respond to a disaster or major refugee crisis.

Cities do not routinely store clothing and furniture for donation at levels required for the scale of current disruptions. In most communities, these services and supports must be drawn from the existing human service sector (philanthropic, charitable, and voluntary service organizations) by building a collaborative entity. Each crucial service organization commits to the collaborative entity and chooses a representative. After Katrina, the “Long Term Recovery Committee” was charged with the responsibility to deliver all long-term recovery services, including permanent housing, employment, school enrollment, etc., for as long as it took to permanently settle every evacuee.

Faith-based organizations play a critical role in long-term recovery and resettlement. A leader or lead organization, with the ability to work across faith organizations, should be appointed to lead the faith-based effort.

Churches, temples, and synagogues can provide vetted volunteers. The role of volunteers is to provide the flexible and sensitive assistance needed for long-term recovery. They can act outside of formal command and control structures and service bureaucracies, and may be called upon to assist with complex family cases. There is a need for one organization willing to maintain a roster of volunteers and tasks suitable for volunteers, and willing to host the social media communication to match volunteers and bring them out for specific tasks.

It would be hard to exaggerate the need for a collaborative style of leadership for this phase. While command and control must drive the early phase of response, the hand-off for longer term assistance only works with collaboration and coalition building. Every city must have a leader to shepherd this collaboration — someone with sufficient energy and power to call together housing, health, job-seeking, and education organizations into a collaborative structure.

In Houston, the Mayor was one leader who brought every service sector leader to the table after Hurricane Katrina. These assembled leaders were responsible in two directions. They provided constant updates to City leaders, tracking the movement of newly arrived into housing, jobs, schools; identifying problems and barriers as they arose; and monitoring capacity in these systems. They also fed information about resources and system supports to the service providers. This team met weekly for months to examine bottlenecks and report on progress.

Social sector leaders must commit to the long-term process. Current disruptions are causing the numbers of displaced persons and the time for recovery to be much greater than in the past, and the time to integration is longer as well. From the first — to the last resettled person after Katrina — took about five years.

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