Sunday, May 8, 2011

Post-disaster wake-up call: Prompting nations to a recovery-ready mind-set

Can the world prepare to recover from disasters like Japan’s? Houston-based housing expert says yes, urges U.S. and world governments to forge recovery policy.

We can’t prevent them. In many cases, we can’t even predict them. Natural disasters will happen; they inevitably kill, destroy and displace. Whether a struck nation faces staggering losses or mild, a disaster’s aftermath is something nations can prepare for.

Japan’s plight following the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami begs the question: What can be done to minimize residual damage after nature wreaks its havoc? As crews work to recover more than 25,000 missing or dead, Japan also must tend to more than 320,000 evacuees who have fled ruined towns and unsafe levels of radiation.

Watching the post-disaster challenges unfold, other nations begin to explore their own ability to recover from disaster. How would we shelter hundreds of thousands of displaced people? Where would we find the food and water to sustain them if local supply is contaminated or wiped out altogether? How do we get that food and water to them when the usual delivery methods have been compromised? How do we supply required medicine and medical attention?

“We have the know-how to address ‘the disaster after the disaster,’” says recovery expert Guy Rankin, who led large-scale disaster recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast after an unprecedented series of hurricanes displaced more than a quarter-million people. He emphasizes that although we can’t control nature, we can adopt a controlled, systematic approach to tackling follow-on disasters of displaced people, destroyed communities, food and water shortages, access to medicine and health care, and more.

“First comes the understanding that one disaster often follows another,” he advises. “Expect it. That way, you understand the need for a recovery plan that can roll out even as you tackle the second or third crisis that comes.”

Rankin, executive director of Harris County Housing Authority in Houston, Texas, speaks from experience. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought 250,000 evacuees to emergency shelters across Houston. As Rankin and his small staff hustled to place evacuees in temporary housing throughout the region, Hurricane Rita was predicted to travel up the Houston Ship Channel with wind speeds that threatened to bring down the Astrodome. “This horrifying picture began taking shape: our biggest emergency shelter potentially collapsing on 25,000 people that we’re trying desperately to house!” Rankin recalls. “We were sending people all over the country to clear out the Astrodome, and then we had to evacuate Houston – a region of four million people – at the same time,” Rankin says.

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall near Houston, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage and leaving the fourth-largest U.S. city without power for 14 days (or 21 days, in some spots). Rankin’s team mobilized a points-of-distribution system that dispatched 3,000 18-wheelers from the Astrodome to deliver water, ice, and food throughout the three most severely affected counties. “We fed several hundred thousand people in the area, all while electricity was out,” Rankin says.

Moving a quarter-million evacuees from emergency shelter to transitional housing to rebuilt communities, Rankin recognized shortcomings in the United States’ approach to disaster recovery. “The way the system is set up – and you'll find systems like this worldwide – our disaster experts are not really recovery experts. They are emergency experts. They're the ‘firefighters’ coming to bring you water and food during a disaster, making sure you have medicine and kits. Now, those are crucial things that need to take place, but there is no office in America called the Disaster Recovery Office,” he points out.

Every administration, every president, every country, whether a democracy or a communist country, approaches disaster this way, he continues. “Take Haiti, for instance. When disaster happens [referring to the January 2010 earthquake that claimed 230,000 lives], we run out, we send a bunch of bulldozers, we move the bricks and debris out of the way, and then we let time fade … and nobody really addresses the problem after the disaster,” he says.

Rankin doesn’t downplay the heroism and good will shown by the governments, nonprofit organizations and volunteers who rushed to help in Haiti. Yet, examining the quake from a recovery standpoint, he says these forces often “show up in helicopters, do their thing, pull out, and then there is no coordination of strategy for step-by-step rebuilding. This creates disaster after disaster because some 400,000 people – orphaned children or evacuees who’ve fled to the Haitian hillsides – are still looking for help from someone. But who is that someone?” he asks.

That someone doesn't exist because there is no one person in charge to coordinate all the private relief donations, all the nonprofit funds and all the funds from federal and local agencies. Rankin points out a pressing need for a disaster recovery “czar,” a point person who coordinates the use of relief funds and oversees the disaster-torn area’s journey to put the community back together, step by step.

While arguing the need for a disaster recovery officer, Rankin also plans to advocate for laws to streamline recovery efforts, outlining the steps and timelines to be observed by those who receive money for recovery efforts. “We know what to do to put communities back together, and we know how long it should take,” he says. But often, delays come when those who carry out the recovery must wait on funds and approvals and bureaucracy.

The lessons Rankin has learned through Katrina and Ike recovery efforts extend beyond housing – even beyond U.S. borders. Any nation can plan for the known challenges to shelter, food, water, infrastructure and health care after a natural disaster. According to Rankin, the magnitude of recent disasters in Haiti and Japan must prompt them to do so, because “only then do nations become more agile in responding to the chaos and rebuilding from the rubble,” he says. “We have the engineers. We have the technology. We have the know-how. The question is do we have the will to set this kind of planning in motion?”

Disaster recovery expert Guy Rankin is available to speak about:
Ø  “Firefighter Syndrome” – when our instinctive response is to rush in and put out the flames, who then helps to transform rubble-strewn ruins into a habitable place where a productive community can be restored?
Ø  Disaster after the disaster – as seen in Japan, one natural disaster often spurs more disasters. The initial earthquake and tsunami take lives and destroy structures, but aftereffects can include a compromised environment (air and water quality; food and water shortages), a shortage of adequate housing, and health crises due to inaccessible care and medicine.
Ø  The necessity of planning – while the specifics vary, the basic plan for recovery is reproducible nationwide and even worldwide. Lessons learned from post-Katrina rebuilding can help inform recovery planning.
Ø  What recovery from natural disaster ought to look like in the States – timetables; “firefighting” vs. rebuilding; public-private partnerships that speed recovery and benefit an ailing construction industry.
Ø  Why we need policy that streamlines recovery efforts – a national policy for recovery; a distinct time line; efficiencies that a Disaster Recovery Czar could achieve.