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Disaster Recovery and Resilience

Three emergency responders wade through floodwater next to a residence. Communities can implement more resilient land use and infrastructure planning to reduce the impact of natural disasters before they occur and work to ensure an equitable recovery after disaster strikes.

In the wake of devastating flooding and destruction caused by recent hurricanes, affected communities must make important decisions concerning how to rebuild in the short term and ensure their resilience in the future. On September 14, 2017, a panel of experts convened at the Urban Institute to discuss how local, state, and federal governments should approach rebuilding communities and planning for future disasters. Panelists discussed topics such as developing resiliency through predisaster planning, strategies for building leadership capacity, and ensuring equity in the recovery process.

Predisaster Planning: Building Resiliency and Capacity

Although nothing can prevent natural disasters from occurring, communities can take steps to reduce their impact through more resilient land use and infrastructure planning. Philip Berke, professor of land use and environmental planning at Texas A&M University and director of the Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities, spoke about how rapidly growing coastal cities such as Houston have built environments that are increasingly sprawling. Land use planning that results in sprawl degrades the landscape’s ability to absorb the impact of extreme weather events. To reduce the severity of flooding, planners should discourage development in ecologically sensitive areas. Communities should also shift their infrastructure priorities away from highway construction that opens low-cost land for sprawling development and toward increased funding for stormwater management.

Local governments can improve their ability to respond to natural disasters by developing and strengthening their leadership and organizational capacity. Berke observed that building and maintaining relationships with neighborhood organizations and residents is crucial to ensure that when disasters happen, the trust developed with these groups eases aid provision and the rebuilding process. Developing these relationships is especially important in small rural communities and central city neighborhoods with limited resources. Both Berke and Carlos Martín, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, noted that community leaders must be willing to anticipate risk and identify their strengths and weaknesses in terms of preparedness. A specific step that local governments can take to improve their capacity is to coordinate their various planning documents, such as the consolidated plan, comprehensive plan, and hazard mitigation plan, so that a community’s goals for the future can be seamlessly incorporated into rebuilding efforts. Local and federal governments would also benefit from better data collection; determining the extent and demography of damage can help leaders target their emergency response efforts, and more accurately determining who is at risk can help planners gauge the amount of recovery resources that will be needed.

Postdisaster Recovery

After a disaster strikes, local and federal officials must ensure an equitable recovery process in which the most vulnerable populations have a voice and access to resources. Martín stated that to ensure that resources truly meet the needs of those most affected, these groups must be involved in the recovery planning process and their concerns must be addressed. The low-income rental population is particularly vulnerable. Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, sees disaster recovery as an opportunity for local governments to rebuild affordable rental housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

An Ongoing Effort

Although communities can adopt the panel’s recommended strategies to improve the efficacy and equity of their response efforts, some resources for those requiring aid will always be scarce. Angela Blanchard, president and chief operating officer of BakerRipley, suggested that individuals must to a certain extent act as their own first responders to decrease their reliance on the community’s strained emergency resources. Capacity and resilience building is a long-term process and must be an ongoing effort within communities. With better preparation at the individual, local, and federal levels and more dedication to resiliency, communities impacted by natural disasters can more quickly return to normal.