Community disaster recovery

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This chapter defines disaster recovery in terms of its distinctive activities and explains how it differs from activities that take place during other phases of the emergency management cycle. The chapter begins with a brief description of the routine functioning of US communities and then turns to the housing, economic, and psychological recovery of households and the operational recovery of businesses. The chapter then turns to the recovery assistance that can be expected from state and federal government and from insurance. The chapter concludes with a discussion of local government’s preimpact recovery planning and the implementation and improvisation of that plan during a disaster’s aftermath.

The Routine Functioning of US Communities

The process of community recovery from disaster cannot be properly understood without understanding how communities function before a disaster strikes. First, a community is commonly understood to be a specific geographic area and is frequently considered to be equivalent to a political jurisdiction such as a town, city, or county. However, a community also has two additional elements—psychological ties and social interaction (Poplin, 1972). Psychological ties involve a sense of shared identity that arises from common goals, values, and behavioral norms (shared expectations of appropriate behavior) that lead “insiders” to distinguish themselves from “outsiders” (Lindell & Perry, 2004). Moreover, insiders interact with each other more frequently with each other than they do with outsiders and these interactions involve differentiated roles (e.g., parent-child, supplier-customer, citizen-bureaucrat) that involve the exchange of resources. Communities are ecological networks (Bates & Pelanda, 1994; Peacock & Ragsdale, 1997) in which the basic types of units are households, businesses, and government agencies. Each social unit has people (family members in the case of households and employees in the case of businesses and government agencies) and resources. As Figure 11-1 indicates, households supply labor to businesses in exchange for money. In turn, households pay money to obtain goods and services from private suppliers (ranging from grocers to doctors), infrastructure (water, sewer, electric power, fuel, transportation, telecommunications), and government services (e.g., fire protection, education, parks). In addition to these economic exchanges, households engage in behavioral interaction with peers such as friend, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. These exchanges sometimes involve goods and services, but they are more frequently characterized by exchanges of affection and emotional support.

Businesses use the labor they receive from households to produce goods or services, which they then sell (to the degree they are more successful than their competitors) to their customers. As is the case with households, businesses use the money they obtain from customers to pay suppliers, infrastructure, and government. (For-profit) businesses provide goods and services for a fee and government provides them in exchange for taxes. However, there are also (nonprofit) NGOs that provide goods and services at or below cost—and sometimes free. For example, Habitat for Humanity relies substantially on donated materials and volunteer labor to construct affordable housing. The American Red Cross and other NGOs use donated money, goods, and services to provide shelter, food, clothing, medicine, and financial grants to those in distress. The steady flow of money in exchange for goods and services, known as cash flow, is critically important to social units that have insufficient savings.

In a free market economy, government establishes broad rules within which individual parties can freely establish contracts for the exchange of resources. For example, government declares certain goods (e.g., heroin) and services (e.g., prostitution) to be unacceptable and, therefore, illegal. It also requires private parties to undertake certain activities (e.g., obtain a license to practice medicine; provide an accurate accounting and annual statement of corporate assets) and provides some services that the private sector cannot or will not otherwise provide at acceptable cost (e.g., rural electrification, routine mail delivery). It is important to recognize that the units in the community network differ in their resources and, thus, their power. Thus, units with more social, economic, and political power can force less powerful units to accept less favorable outcomes.

Figure 11-1. Routine Relationships Among Social Units.

Moreover, these basic community units act in cooperation, competition, and conflict (Poplin, 1972; Thomas, 1992). Cooperation refers to activities that result in mutual benefit. A prime economic example is a business relationship in which a supplier provides a good or service to a customer in exchange for money. Competition exists when two parties strive toward a goal that only one can achieve. In fair competition, the parties abide by methods of goal achievement that are mutually accepted as legitimate. For example, two businesses compete to sell a product to customers on the basis of quality and price. Conflict occurs when one party attempts to directly frustrate the goal achievement of another. For example, one business might attempt to use its greater resources to force its suppliers to refuse to serve its competitor. There are many social institutions, such as schools and churches, that seek to promote agreement on basic values and legitimate methods of goal achievement by socializing their members. Complete consensus is never reached, so political institutions exist to resolve differences and to provide an authoritative allocation of public resources.

Within each of these three categories, social units vary in their assets. Households, businesses, and government agencies have human assets such as cognitive, psychomotor, physical abilities, and personality characteristics which, together with their time and effort, constitute what economists consider to be labor (Schneider & Schmitt, 1986). In addition, they have physical assets such as land, buildings, equipment, furniture, clothes, vehicles, crops, and animals, which economists classify as goods. Finally, they have financial (capital) assets such as cash, stocks, bonds, savings, insurance. In many cases, these assets were accumulated by incurring financial liabilities such as loans, mortgages, and credit card debt. However, the assets they have accumulated generate income from employment, rental of physical assets, interest or dividends from financial assets. (Of course, government derives most of its income from taxes.) This income must be balanced against expenses for consumption (e.g., households’ purchases of shelter, food, clothing, medical care, entertainment and other goods and services), and production (e.g., businesses’ and government agencies’ payments for raw materials, infrastructure, and employees’ labor), as well as investment in additional assets (e.g., training/education to increase human assets, equipment to provide more efficient production). Finally, social units vary in the amounts of resources they possess. As noted in Chapter 6, households with certain demographic characteristics such as ethnic minorities, aged, and female-headed status frequently have fewer resources. Similarly, small businesses (i.e., those with few employees) and small local jurisdictions (i.e., those with small tax revenues) also have fewer resources. This makes it difficult for them to withstand an extended disruption of the community system that is, as Chapter 6 indicated, precisely what a major disaster produces.

Household Activities

Households engage in a variety of activities over the course of the day and the amount of time spent in different activities can be described in term of their time budgets. Table 11-1 reports the results of a recent time budget study conducted by Wiley, et al. (1991). The table lists 26 different categories of activities that were combined from a larger list of nearly 100. The activities are listed in terms of their population means (averages) for minutes per day. Some activities are performed by all people (e.g., sleeping) whereas others are performed by only a small part of the population (e.g., singing and dancing), so the mean number of minutes per day is listed separately for the entire population and doers (i.e., those who engage in the activity).

Table 11-1. Community Residents’ Activities.


Population mean (min)


mean (min)*


Population mean (min)


mean (min)*




Child care






Active sports



Electronic media



Outdoor recreation






Cultural events












Car repair



Personal care















Animal care









House cleaning









Dry cleaners



Yard work






Adapted from Wiley, et al. (1991).

These time budget data reveal two significant aspects of people’s daily activities. First, some activities such as sleeping and eating are essential, as indicated by small differences between population means and doer means. By contrast, other activities such as cultural events and singing/dancing are highly discretionary, as indicated by large differences between population means and doer means. Discretionary activities can be substantially reduced or eliminated when the need arises. Second, some of the activities with large differences between population means and doer means arise from the household division of labor in which some activities are age or gender stereotyped. For example, adult males are more likely to be the household members involved in yard work and car repair, whereas adult females are more likely to be the ones involved in shopping and child care. In recent years, it is increasingly likely for both adult males and females to be involved in work outside the home. However, children of both genders participate in education. As will be seen later, households attempt to maintain their normal patterns of daily activities in the face of disasters—especially what are considered to be the most essential activities—as well as household members’ division of labor in performing those activities.

Business Activities

The businesses in most towns and cities produce a wide variety of goods and services. The Bureau of the Census devised the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS, revised in 2002), which was formerly known as the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC). NAICS categorizes all businesses into 20 industries and assigns a numerical code to each. Table 11-2 shows the two digit codes for these industries, but this is a very coarse grouping. These broad industrial classes are divided into finer categories that are identified by six digit codes (see

Table 11-2. North American Industry Classification System (2002).






Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting


Real Estate & Rental & Leasing




Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services




Management of Companies and Enterprises




Administrative and Support and Waste Management and Remediation Services




Educational Services


Wholesale Trade


Health Care and Social Assistance


Retail Trade


Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation


Transportation & Warehousing


Accommodation and Food Services




Other Services

(except Public Administration)


Finance and Insurance


Public Administration

Each community has its own pattern of reliance on these 20 industries, which can be assessed in terms of its location quotient,

LQ = (ei/et)/(Ei/Et)

where ei is local employment in industry i, et is total local employment, Ei is national employment in industry i, and Et is total national employment (Blair & Bingham, 2000). Some of the industries in Table 11-2 generate more exports from the community to other areas of the country and, thus, define its economic base.

More specifically, the economic base model identifies the relative amount of the community’s production of goods and services that is derived from basic (export) economic activities, internal investment, and internal consumption (Chapin & Kaiser, 1985). More money is available for internal investment and consumption when exports, the sale of goods and services outside the community, exceed imports. Indeed, a multiplier effect is set in motion when money that is received from outside the community is spent inside the community. As a result, urban areas obtain between $1.50 and $2.50 in induced local income for every dollar of revenue from exports (Blair & Bingham, 2000). The size of the multiplier for any given region can be determined from input-output analyses that use detailed information about the degree to which the firms in each sector obtain their inputs (raw materials and infrastructure) from inside the community and export their outputs to firms outside the community. This is modified by the size of each economic sector in that region. In general, mining, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, banking and finance, and high quality service facilities (e.g., nationally renowned medical clinics) are considered to be significant contributors to a community’s economic base. However, there can be exceptions to this rule and it can be difficult to clearly classify businesses as basic or service activities, to define the base area, and to measure the size of the base and service sectors (Chapin & Kaiser, 1985).

These economic concepts also have significant implications for disaster recovery. First, communities having a weak economic base characterized by low exports, low investments, and high internal consumption will need considerable assistance in recovering from a disaster. Second, basic industries that produce exports should receive immediate attention in the disaster aftermath so they can generate income whose multiplier effect will stimulate local investment and consumption. This will spread the recovery to other community industries.

Government activities. The governments of most local jurisdictions—towns, cities, and counties—perform a variety of functions that cannot reasonably be performed by businesses in the private sector (Caiden, 1982; Graham & Hays, 1993; Nigro & Nigro, 1980). Each function is assigned to governmental subunit called an agency or department. All of the departments report to the jurisdiction’s CAO, who might be a mayor, city manager, or Chair of the County Board of Supervisors. Figure 11-2 displays an organization chart listing the departments typically found in local jurisdictions and indicates the direct reporting relationship by the solid line connecting each department directly to the CAO.

Figure 11-2. Sample Jurisdictional Organization Chart.

The seven departments at the bottom are usually called line agencies, whereas the six departments at the top of the organization chart are labeled staff agencies. In general, line agencies deliver services directly to the public, whereas staff agencies provide services to the line agencies and each other. By this point, it should be clear what Emergency Management does, so that department will not be discussed further. Among the other staff agencies, Intergovernmental/Public Relations provides information about the jurisdiction’s activities to those outside the organization. The Human Resources department develops and oversees the jurisdiction’s systems for personnel recruitment, selection, training, and performance evaluation. Finance & Administration is responsible for budget preparation and control, accounting, property assessment, taxes and licenses, procurement, and property and records management. Planning assesses population and economic trends, develops the comprehensive plan and the capital improvements plan, formulates policies for land use regulation, and grants permits for land development. Legal Counsel is responsible for drafting ordinances, resolutions, and business contracts, as well as rendering legal opinions about proposed administrative actions and representing the jurisdiction in lawsuits.

Among the line agencies, Law Enforcement conducts patrols and criminal investigations, and operates jails. Fire/Rescue is responsible for fire prevention, fire suppression, hazmat response, and EMS. Public Works is responsible for constructing and maintaining public buildings, streets, and lights; traffic engineering; sewers and storm drains; and garbage and trash collection. The Social Services department administers public housing and welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. Public Health monitors environmental contamination, epidemics, and immunizations. Parks & Recreation maintains public parks and administers programs for children’s athletics and some noncredit adult education. The department of Building Construction reviews and approves building blueprints, inspects new construction at critical points in the construction process, and inspects existing buildings to determine if they must be condemned as unsafe for habitation. In some communities, an Electric Utility that purchases power and operates the electric distribution system would be added to this organization chart. The figure includes no Education department because this function is usually performed by an independent school district.

An Overview of Community Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery is the phase of the emergency management cycle that begins with the stabilization of the incident and ends when the community has recovered from the disaster’s impacts. The term incident stabilization refers to the point in time at which the immediate threats to human safety and property resulting from the physical impacts of the primary and secondary hazard agents have been resolved. Thus, the sense of uncertainty and urgency that is the hallmark of the emergency response is beginning to be replaced by thoughts about how to rebuild damaged structures, restore infrastructure services, and return the community to its normal patterns of activity. For example, earthquake recovery could be said to begin after most buried victims have been extricated, buildings in danger of collapse have been shored up, and fires have been extinguished.

As Chapter 6 indicated, most people’s objective in disaster recovery is to restore the patterns of household, business, and government activity exactly as they existed before the disaster struck. To do this, they typically assume they must rebuild the buildings and infrastructure as it was. Of course, it is now understood that restoring the community to its previous status will also reproduce the hazard exposure, physical vulnerability, and social vulnerability that led to the disaster. Thus, there are four questions that must be addressed. First, do stricken communities recover from disasters and, if so, how do they acquire the resources needed to replace those that were destroyed? Second, what happens to households, businesses, and government agencies as they struggle to recover? Third, can communities do to promote a more rapid, complete, and equitable recovery? Finally, what can communities do to reduce their hazard exposure and make themselves more resilient when extreme environmental events occur?

The answer to the first question is that US communities clearly do recover relatively quickly from disasters. There is general agreement with the explanation offered by Friesma, et al. (1979) that the local economic costs of disasters are redistributed over the entire country by means of an extensive network of social, economic, and political linkages. The paths to recovery appear to be determined by the physical characteristics of the disaster agent, the types and quantities of community resources that survive the disaster, the external aid the community can obtain, and the reconstruction strategies these communities adopt and implement. However, the fact that communities as a whole recover does not mean that specific neighborhoods or households within those neighborhoods recover at the same rate or even at all. Similarly, it does not mean specific economic sectors or individual businesses within those sectors will be able to maintain or even resume operations. Thus, it is important to anticipate which population segments and economic sectors will have the most difficulty in recovering. This will enable community authorities to intervene with technical and financial assistance when it is needed, monitor their recovery, and encourage them to adopt hazard mitigation measures to reduce their hazard vulnerability.

Disaster recovery has both physical and social dimensions that arise from the physical and social impacts described in Chapter 6. Thus, disaster recovery includes actions taken to cope with casualties—households must find emotion focused strategies for dealing with the loss of affective support from loved ones, as well as problem focused strategies for coping with the loss of physical resources needed to generate an income, manage the home, and rear the children. Moreover, injuries can add the emotional strain of reassuring those who have been hurt and the financial strain of their medical care. Similarly, businesses must cope with the unavailability of trained personnel who might be dead, injured, overwhelmed with caring for families and friends, or simply trying to find a place for their households to eat, sleep, and resume a semblance of a normal life.

Disaster recovery also includes actions taken to cope with property damage. Thus, households must repair minor damage and rebuild substantially damaged property. Businesses and government agencies repair commercial and industrial structures, critical facilities such as hospitals, police stations and fire stations, and infrastructure such as water, sewer, electric power, fuel, transportation, and telecommunications.

Perhaps the most distinctive, but unfortunately elusive, aspect of disaster recovery is the restoration of disrupted community social routines and economic activities. The process of “getting back to normal” involves restoring people’s psychological stability, learning positive lessons from the disaster experience, and restoring satisfying patterns of interaction with family, friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. It also involves returning to full-time employment that provides at least a preimpact level of income and reestablishing normal patterns of community governance.

Unfortunately, “normal” is almost inevitably what got the community in trouble in the first place. When cities allow too much development in floodplains, or in fireprone foothills, or allow substandard housing to be built that collapses in an earthquake, “normal” is an unsustainable condition. Consequently, a disaster resilient community learns from its harsh experience which areas of the community have excessive levels of hazard exposure. It also identifies the types of buildings, infrastructure, and critical facilities that have inadequate designs, construction methods, and construction materials. Finally, it recognizes which households, businesses, and government agencies have inadequate resources, lifestyles, or operational patterns that make them unable to recover effectively from a disaster.

Moreover, a disaster resilient community learns how to use the disaster as a focusing event that changes people’s beliefs about their hazard vulnerability, the availability of hazard adjustments to reduce that vulnerability, and the portfolio of hazard adjustments that is likely to be most suitable for their community. In addition, a disaster resilient community develops effective mechanisms for mobilizing community support to change development policies as well as government capacity and commitment for implementing those policies effectively.

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