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Learning from Disaster Recovery Efforts

Image of a flooded street in a residential area. A truck is visible in the water. At the 2017 Solutions for Affordable Housing National Housing Policy Convening, a panel presented lessons from past postdisaster recovery and housing efforts and explored strategies to better protect people and communities.

Disaster preparedness and recovery have become important topics in the wake of recent, devastating natural disasters occurring throughout the nation. Moderated by Jenn Fogel-Bublick, partner at Capitol Counsel, a panel at the National Housing Conference’s 2017 Solutions for Affordable Housing National Housing Policy Convening presented lessons from past postdisaster recovery and housing efforts. Panelists explored strategies to rebuild more efficiently and better protect people and communities while more carefully managing public resources.

The Continuing Threat of Natural Disasters

From summer through early fall 2017, multiple hurricanes and wildfires occurred in quick succession, damaging many U.S. communities. “We have never experienced so many [natural disasters] so close together. Over a million homes, many affordable, were damaged or destroyed [by these disasters],” remarked panelist Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, highlighting the magnitude of the damage. The threat of natural disasters is not expected to disappear in the future, and natural disasters need not be large in scale or occur back-to-back to create issues for communities. According to panelist Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, the third-largest loss year for the National Flood Insurance Program was in 2016, when floods caused extensive damage even though no major storms occurred. Yentel highlighted how natural disasters also have the potential to strike places still recovering from a previous disaster, complicating rebuilding and recovery efforts.

Panelists pointed out, however, that communities can mitigate some of the damage created by natural disasters. “Communities that recognize and plan for risks can recover and rebuild much quicker and stronger,” noted Fogel-Bublick. For example, Marion McFadden, vice president of public policy at Enterprise Community Partners, noted that some housing developments in New Orleans have been elevated to reduce the risk of flooding. This measure prevented or reduced flood damage for some residents after the city experienced heavy rains in August 2017. To help communities prepare for and recover from these natural disasters, the panelists shared their insights.

Considering the Needs of Low-Income Residents

Low-income individuals may be disproportionately affected by natural disasters. They may no longer have access to transportation, or their jobs may no longer exist, noted Ellis. Low-income renters displaced by natural disasters may find that replacement housing comes with higher rents. According to McFadden, understanding and addressing the needs of low-income residents is crucial to predisaster planning and postdisaster recovery efforts. McFadden emphasized that communities must prioritize the needs of the lowest-income people, consider how best to support them, and ensure that they are a critical part of the conversation. Yentel concurred, stating that “low-income people need to be central to [those decisions].” To determine what efforts have been successful in supporting low-income residents, McFadden also suggested conducting studies to explore how low-income individuals and households have fared in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Encouraging Cooperation and Flexibility

Ellis and McFadden highlighted the importance of community feedback and support for disaster recovery and mitigation efforts. Both panelists discussed how community buy-in is essential for major changes to reduce natural disaster risk, such as moving out of flood-prone areas. In addition, McFadden and Yentel noted that disaster recovery efforts can benefit from cooperation among federal, state, and local agencies and other organizations involved in disaster relief. Creating a coalition of stakeholders and developing a unified voice for how the process should occur is an important step toward implementing successful predisaster planning and postdisaster recovery plans.

The panelists agreed that disaster recovery programs should be flexible in meeting local needs, but they should also include some guidelines. According to McFadden, flexibility allows disaster recovery programs to adapt to avoid past errors. Yentel noted that communities should have the flexibility to target resources to areas with the greatest need, but they should be required to use data to locate those high-need areas. Transparency regarding the dispersal and use of funds is also an important component of disaster recovery efforts. “Flexibility is good,” said Yentel, “but without some parameters, you can’t know that the money is going to be used to meet the greatest needs.”

Focusing on Long-Term Recovery and Rebuilding

Panelists also discussed the need to focus on long-term disaster recovery, rebuilding, and preparedness. There is a period following a natural disaster during which disaster recovery is in the public consciousness. Recovery and rebuilding efforts, however, often stretch out beyond that period. McFadden stressed the importance of investing in disaster preparedness after media coverage of disasters fades. Yentel agreed, stating, “We also have to be prepared to stick with this for the long haul. The recovery will take months; the rebuilding will take years.” In addition, research indicates that within the disaster recovery process, tension exists between the drive to quickly implement relief and rebuilding efforts and the need to make deliberate, informed decisions and develop comprehensive disaster recovery and mitigation plans. According to Ellis, disaster recovery efforts must have the dual goal of addressing needs quickly while also ensuring that any strategies implemented manage public resources responsibly and support long-term recovery.