Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Future of Long Term Recovery

Last week marked the 1 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the mid-Atlantic region. These large scale events offer an opportunity that many communities aren't afforded, an exact quantification of progress, a cataloguing of what's been done, and a questioning of what has not. Many smaller events, like the flooding in Texas or the recent blizzard in North Dakota are examples of disasters that strike, but that won't necessarily be revisited by our collective consciousness--they are blips that quickly fade into the noise of the 24 hour news cycle. While larger events like: the Haiti Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the Japanese Earthquake/Tsunami too will fade in time, their anniversaries are opportunities to refocus attention at the less straightforward side of disasters--Long Term Recovery.

Long Term Recovery as a topic for general discussion is one that doesn't get much attention even though it's a process that all communities impacted by an event must go through; partially because Long Term Recovery (LTR) isn't sexy, but more because it's incredibly intricate and difficult to distill into easily digestible stories. Last week there were countless articles asking why more hasn't been done, and whether the progress that has been made is the right direction to be headed in. And while it's great that attention is being paid to the recovery of communities that have largely fallen out of the spotlight, I'm not convinced that it's a viable way to impact the national dialogue on improving what's being done.
Recovery Continuum, NDRF: http://www.fema.gov/pdf/recoveryframework/ndrf.pdf

And therein lies the challenge--how do you change the recovery paradigm? How do you impact what's being done? In the world of response, both short term and intermediate, the loop from start to finish is anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This quick lifecycle makes it easier to try new things and track their relative success or failure. With Long Term Recovery, the identification of best practices and the integration of their revisions are different because LTR operates on timelines measured in years, not months. In addition to LTR's duration, there is no clearly identified "finish" line, what a completed recovery for one community looks like may not necessarily coincide with that of another. This discrepancy creates additional challenges when trying to compare the impacts of programming carried over from one LTR response to another.

In recognition of these challenges, FEMA issued a report spanning 7 years of Long Term Recovery, from 2004-2011. This report was created in an effort to provide guidance and a baseline from which to codify best practices implemented during the LTR timeframe. While shorter than many federal documents, clocking in at 69 pages, it's a long read that can be difficult to dig into if you're not a) interested in the subject or b) in the midst of navigating LTR.

So, LTR is tough to improve upon because it operates on a timeline that makes reviewing successful best practices and evolving them difficult, and the federal reporting to aid in that process isn't written for the audience it would benefit the most. So the question remains...how do you influence Long Term Recovery?

The best way to positively influence the recovery paradigm is to take the nuggets of wisdom compiled from previous events and integrate them into preparedness planning and frameworks (I realize that isn't groundbreaking). In working with communities that have gone through the paces of early recovery and are faced with the dramatic slowing of progress as LTR gets off the ground, people have generally said the same thing, that they wish they knew then what they know now. While papers have been written on the challenges of creating preparedness messaging that resonates with communities that creates action, the disconnect that exists between words and action in this realm is surprising given the facts:

In light of the above information and the fact that it's nothing many of us haven't been aware of for some time, why is making progress in the one area of the disaster lifecycle where it matters most, seemingly impossible? With so many organizations and state agencies out there who focus on building community resilience as a part of their mission, coupled with the availability of federal funding and the beginnings of a call for elected officials to become better versed in the language of emergency response, who would've thought that gaining ground in this area would be such a fight?

Nonprofit response and recovery plays catch up, always starting after the event has done the damage. Any efficiencies gained on the reactive side of the disaster spectrum would be welcome, but I believe there is near universal agreement that the opportunities exist within the realm of preparedness. So if history has illustrated the need, science tells us that the future is going to bring more of the same or worse, math backs up the economics of investing in preparedness, and the government has said that the focus should be on building community resilience--what exactly is holding things up?

The future of LTR doesn't exist in a new program or refinement of its model. The future exists in finding the political will to fund what we already know, and give communities a chance to implement changes before the articles written commemorating the next event that irrevocably altered the fabric of a community, are about them.


  1. Excellent post! You are so great at writing about these esoteric concepts. In my role, while preparedness and response are always what gets the attention of my audience, it is the LTR aspect that I am really working to improve. Our SEMA is holding an Emergency Human Services conference in December; my hope is that this longer view will be examined carefully in order to improve service delivery. It is much more difficult for people (especially vulnerable populations) to develop their own resiliency when they are finding recovery so complicated.

  2. Thank you for the kind words. And as you said, when recovery is fraught with so many questions and unknowns, building resilience becomes far more difficult. I hope that your Dec HHS conference is successful in generating conversation and ideas to help address this challenge.