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Lessons from the United States:
Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2010-1

Lessons from the United States:
Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction


Gavin Smith, Associate Research Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Executive Director, Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, Chapel Hill North Carolina, USA. Email: gavin_smith@unc.edu

Keywords: disaster recovery, planning, sustainable development, disaster resilience

Gavin Smith

Associate Research Professor
Department of City and Regional Planning
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Executive Director, Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
Chapel Hill North Carolina



The failure of federal, state and local governments in the United States to engage in pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery has several negative consequences: 1) following a disaster it is unclear who is in charge of community recovery; 2) land use planning tools and collaborative techniques are underutilized; 3) the collection and analysis of data is not effectively linked to the creation of policy options; and 4) the nexus between hazard mitigation, sustainable development and disaster resilience remains uncertain. While these problems are endemic to the United States, a critique of the existing disaster recovery process is intended to provide important lessons for others so that similar mistakes can be avoided and planning for post-disaster recovery is more widely recognized and embraced by others, including the professional land use planner.

Lessons from the United States:
Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction


This article describes disaster recovery lessons derived from the natural hazards literature and experience as a practitioner following Hurricanes Fran and Floyd in the State of North Carolina, United States of America (USA) and while serving as the Executive Director of the Office of Recovery and Renewal in the State of Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. A critique of the USA disaster recovery policy framework, particularly the implications of failing to effectively plan for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, should prove instructive to other nations.

Recovery Planning in the United States

USA recovery policy has tended to emphasize the administration of financial programmes that focus on the physical repair of damaged infrastructure and housing following disasters (Smith & Wenger 2006). In many cases, these funds pay to reconstruct communities that have experienced repeated disaster-related losses. This approach has created disincentives for states and local governments to proactively plan for post-disaster recovery (Platt, 1999). Further hindering such efforts are the unrecognized benefits of pre-event planning among federal, state and local government officials who are drawn into the recovery process after a disaster. Tangible benefits of planning for post-disaster recovery include improved participatory decision making, the incorporation of hazard mitigation techniques into the reconstruction process, enhanced inter-organizational coordination, and better access to pre- and post-disaster aid (Rubin & Barbee, 1985; Schwab et. al., 1998; Smith & Wenger, 2006).

Local recovery plans that include a sound participatory process and establish a nexus between local needs and policy objectives have been found to elicit positive recovery outcomes (Oliver-Smith, 1990; Schwab et. al., 1998). In the USA, state-level recovery plans have yet to be studied by hazard scholars (Smith & Wenger, 2006). While less is known about State recovery plans, the plan quality literature suggests that they should strive to improve vertical linkages between local and federal planning initiatives (Berke & Godschalk, 2008). Smith and Wenger (2006) assert that state plans should include an evaluation of agency policies and how they influence local recovery options. For example, there are no known state programmes that train local government officials how to plan for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. At the federal-level, the National Response Framework is focused on the administration of post-disaster aid programmes rather than the means necessary to build local capacity, facilitate inter-organizational coordination, or address land use planning issues (Smith, 2008a).

Who’s in Charge of Long-Term Community Recovery?

It is unclear which agency, organization, department or individual in the larger network of aid providers is responsible for planning for post-disaster community recovery. Local officials often begin planning for recovery after a disaster occurs and fail to involve their land use planner in decision making activities, including the development of a disaster recovery plan. State planning tends to mimic the federal approach, which is driven by the post-disaster administration of narrowly defined programmes rather than developing a strategy that effectively addresses local needs. There is evidence to suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is beginning to recognize the value of disaster recovery planning (Schwab, 2005). Examples include the creation of post-disaster recovery planning teams and the development of a National Recovery Strategy.

FEMA’s Long-Term Community Recovery group assists local governments conduct social and economic impact assessments and provides long-term community recovery assistance, including the development of recovery plans following major disasters ( USA Department of Homeland Security, 2007 ). The quality of recovery plans generated by FEMA is hindered by several factors. FEMA relies on private sector contractors with little disaster experience or familiarity with existing federal programmes (Smith & Wenger, 2006). Plans created using this approach have focused on post-disaster reconstruction projects rather than a more systematic evaluation of policy and land-use planning options. Historically FEMA has been reluctant to address land use issues in training efforts or policy making processes. Ironically, the majority of contractors involved in the Long-Term Recovery group are professional land use planners. The disinclination of FEMA to apply land use techniques following a disaster significantly weakens the emerging programme.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the USA Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. The Act requires FEMA to develop a National Disaster Recovery Strategy that addresses many of the shortfalls found in the National Response Framework, including a clarification of the federal roles in long-term recovery and proposed improvements to existing programmes that better reflect local needs (Topping, 2009). As of March 2009, a draft of the National Disaster Recovery Strategy had not been released for public comment.

This article suggests that any effort to increase the capacity to plan for recovery should involve professional land use planners. Capacity building efforts include training stakeholders in planning techniques as well as developing a coalition willing to advocate on behalf of the process. Scholars and practitioners have argued that varied institutions, including government, the private sector and non-profits should assume this role (Olasky, 2006; Patterson, 1998; Smith, 2008a). Members of the planning community reside in each sector and are uniquely qualified to bring together the diverse group of stakeholders involved in disaster recovery and apply land use planning principles to the act of recovery plan-making and implementation. Any attempt to initiate this process requires getting the support of FEMA and the larger emergency management community as existing policies and programmes strongly influence recovery options.

Land Use Planning in Recovery

The practice of land use planning includes two themes that are vital to recovery - the application of specific land use planning tools and collaborative problem solving processes. Land use planning tools assist communities manage the type, location, density and spatial orientation of development. Zoning, subdivision regulations, and financial investments in community infrastructure can be used to guide development away from known hazard areas or influence development patterns following disasters. While land use planning tools provide an effective means to guide recovery and reconstruction, they are often underutilized after disasters or applied in ways that exacerbate hazard vulnerability (Burby, 1998; Smith & Wenger, 2006). Local officials, including town administrators, public works officials, building inspectors, floodplain managers, and land use planners are often drawn into recovery without a plan that defines roles or describes a series of goals framing targeted actions (Smith, 2004).

Land use planners have long recognized the importance of public participation and collaborative processes (Innes 1996). The use of inclusive decision-making techniques can empower those who have been excluded from past decision making efforts. Collaborative planning also helps to define a common purpose, educate participants, assess multiple policy options, create consensus-driven solutions and develop shared implementation responsibilities (Godschalk et. al., 1994). These skills are highly relevant in the pre- and post disaster environment as disasters are tied to the identification and management of scarce resources. Socially vulnerable populations, for example, often struggle to obtain aid following disasters and are frequently left out of recovery planning efforts (Cutter, 2001; Peacock, Morrow & Gladwin, 2000). Involving parties early and often in collaborative problem solving activities can help refine policies and programmes in a way that more equitably addresses local needs.

Establishing a Fact Base for Recovery Planning

Planning requires a sound fact base to guide the formulation of policy options (Berke, Godschalk, Kaiser & Rodriguez, 2006). A significant problem facing the hazards management community in the USA is the widespread failure of practitioners to effectively collect, analyze and display data in a manner that fosters informed decision making (Smith, 2002). Pre-event data that is useful in recovery plan-making includes measures of hazard exposure and expected losses across multiple scenarios (risk assessment) and an audit of existing federal, state and local recovery-related programmes and policies (capability assessment). Recovery goals and objectives are formulated based on this information and the input of participating stakeholders. The identification of the number, type and spatial distribution of damages following disasters (damage assessment), help to recalibrate policies generated before the event and highlight areas that may need to be amended or improved.

The ability to gather post-disaster information in a timely and accurate manner benefits from the development of pre-event procedures. In the post-disaster setting information is often incomplete or “perishable” (i.e., short-lived). Both types of data are shaped by time-related factors. Following disasters, a rapid series of decisions are made by those providing and receiving assistance. This requires using the information at hand (i.e. “best available data”), which is often incomplete, subject to change over time, or has not been fully vetted by others. For example, local and state officials submit estimates of damages to federal agencies when seeking assistance. The ability of local and state governments to gather, analyze and display this information in a way that accurately reflects local needs plays an important role in the amount and type of resources provided by the federal government and other members of the larger assistance network, including non-profits, foundations, corporations and insurance companies (Smith, 2008a).

Perishable data refers to information that is accessible during a timeframe of limited duration. Examples include “high water marks” following a flood, the impact of hazard forces (i.e. high winds, ground motion, and rising water) on a structure prior to its repair or demolition, and the memory of disaster victims. This information is used to develop or alter policies during recovery, modify plans, measure the efficacy of pre-event policies and projects, and provide lessons for others impacted by future events.

Planning for post-disaster recovery should include protocols for the pre- and post-event collection of data. The development of standard geo-referenced parcel-level databases containing information about existing and projected housing stock, infrastructure, public facilities and businesses should be maintained, including their location, square footage, contents, first floor elevation, building type and use, year built, codes and standards employed in its construction, standard hours of operation, and other characteristics as necessary. This information provides a baseline from which to measure a community’s hazard vulnerability and assess the positive and negative impacts of policy and project choices relative to attaining sustainable development and disaster resilience goals.

Institutionalizing Sustainable Development and Community Disaster Resilience

Achieving a sustainable and disaster resilient society requires acknowledging that many of our decisions and resulting settlement patterns are unsustainable (Beatley, 1998; Berke, 1995; Smith, 2008b). Poorly planned growth in areas subject to natural hazards sets the stage for disaster. Post-disaster assistance strategies that fund the reconstruction of communities to their pre-event condition perpetuate a cycle of predictable loss and ongoing repair. Disasters place additional response and recovery demands on communities that exceed their capabilities to address them without external assistance. Examples include evacuations that overburden transportation infrastructure; search and rescue activities that overwhelm existing staff; challenges associated with the adequate supply of water, food and emergency shelter; lengthy delays in the restoration of power; and the slow removal of event-generated debris.

Linking the complementary objectives of hazard mitigation, sustainable development and disaster resilience can be achieved through pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery (Berke, 1995; Burby, 1998; Mileti, 1999 ). While practicing land use planners in the USA advocate the adoption of sustainable development principles, including compact urban form, affordable housing, and energy efficiency, they have not embraced the incorporation of these principles into pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery on a widespread basis (Smith 2008a). Instead, disaster recovery plan-making is viewed as the responsibility of the local emergency manager, even though they possess a limited understanding of land use planning or experience working with local planning officials (Kartez & Faupel, 1994).

Disaster events provide unique opportunities to improve pre-event social, economic and environmental conditions, including the incorporation of hazard mitigation into recovery (Berke, Kartez & Wenger, 1993; Rubin & Barbee, 1985; Homer-Dixon, 2006). Others argue that disasters provide “opportunities” for those in positions of power (namely economic development interests), not necessarily disaster victims or the community as a whole (Vale & Campanella, 2005). The ability to incorporate hazard mitigation and sustainability principles into recovery and reconstruction after a disaster requires both technical and political leadership to confront forces that attempt to maintain inequitable pre-event social, economic and political conditions; maintain the status quo (i.e. rebuild damaged communities to their pre-event condition without incorporating hazard mitigation techniques); or profit from disasters at the expense of the community and it’s citizens ( Klein, 2007; Smith & Wenger, 2006). The following case study demonstrates the benefits of disaster recovery planning, including the role of technical and political leadership in fostering sustainable development.

Multi-Objective Planning and Sustainable Development:
The Case of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina USA

The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, have embraced many of the key themes discussed in this article – identifying an organization responsible for leading recovery efforts, applying land use practices and collaborative processes, developing a strong fact base that informs planning decisions, integrating hazard mitigation into recovery, and linking risk reduction strategies to broader sustainable development principles. Following a major flood event in 1995, the city and county decided to adopt a planning approach that reduced future flood-related losses, improved water quality, and enhanced existing recreational opportunities without excessively constraining economic development.

The city and county brought all parties to the table early in the process, allowing for the identification of common interests. Technical experts were able to show that many of the homes built by local developers to existing floodplain management standards had flooded repeatedly. After a series of heated discussions, builders realized that this type of notoriety was bad for business. In order to address concerns about poor water quality, the city and county created the Surface Water Improvement and Management Panel (SWIM). The group included developers, environmental activists, scientists, engineers, citizens, and local land use planning officials. The end result of the panel’s efforts was to create a stream buffer plan which linked buffer widths to the drainage volume of the accompanying watershed. In areas where the buffer exceeded the width of the mapped flood hazard area, development was no longer allowed. The vegetated buffer filtered pollutants, provided additional water storage, and connected existing greenways, thereby increasing access to urban recreational opportunities.

Underlying all policy options were improved Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Historically, the National Flood Insurance Programme (NFIP) has relied on the use of static FIRMs to establish flood insurance premiums and regulate the type and location of development in the floodplain. FEMA has struggled to update the FIRMs due to inadequate federal funding. The inability to keep the mapping programmes fact base up to date is one of the most pressing problems facing the NFIP as flood hazard risk changes over time, particularly in urban areas subject to rapid development.

The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County addressed the limitations of the programme by creating what they refer to as “future conditions” mapping using locally generated revenue from their stormwater management fee. The maps reflect the extent and depth of the flood hazard area assuming a build out of developable land in the floodplain over time. Geospatially-based development estimates were determined by working with land use planning officials who assessed existing zoning requirements and expected infrastructure investments. The resulting land use projections changed the flood hazard elevations by as much as eleven feet and expanded the footprint of the floodplain significantly. Multiple scenarios were used to demonstrate the impacts of continued development, including the generation of potential monetary losses following differing flood return periods. The information not only convinced developers to support the re-mapping initiative, it was used to develop an improved flood hazard risk assessment and mitigation strategy.

The flood hazard data formed the basis of the city and county’s watershed-based hazard mitigation plans, which guided the identification and implementation of risk-reduction strategies during recovery. An emphasis was placed on the acquisition and relocation of flood-prone homes. The risk assessment data was incorporated into an application for federal funds to pay for the voluntary acquisition of 116 homes. Once acquired by the city, the homes were demolished and the land was permanently converted to open space. The purchase of the land allowed the city and county to extend an existing greenway, enhance water storage capacity, and reduce non-point source pollution, each identified components of a larger plan linking disaster resilience and sustainable development.

Summary and Lessons Learned

The primary thread that runs through each lesson described below is tied to planning for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. Communities often frame disaster recovery success as the speed at which one returns to a sense of normalcy (Geipel, 1982). A strict adherence to this approach limits the ability of communities to determine a collective vision of the future or integrate sustainable development and disaster resilience principles into recovery. The ability to balance the speed of recovery with effective deliberation is an essential component of planning for post-disaster recovery and benefits from the active involvement of land use planners (Olshansky, 2006).

The literature and personal experience point to the great potential of planning for post-disaster recovery, including how the widespread application of this process remains largely unrealized (Smith & Wenger 2006). This article outlines key issues and lessons discovered while analyzing the recovery process as practiced in the USA. The lessons, which can be used to assess disaster recovery readiness in other nations, are as follows:


The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County case is instructive as it shows how a community can address a number of important issues following a disaster. The city and county were able to undertake these steps because they had access to substantial local funding, the technical expertise, and the political support required to implement the recommendations delineated in their recovery plan. Many communities are not as fortunate. As a result, socially vulnerable populations tend to experience hazard-related losses disproportionately and are less likely to recover to pre-event conditions when compared to wealthier individuals and communities.

The case study also highlights a common reality that planning for disaster recovery occurs after a disaster strikes. Thus, serious challenges remain, including the need to more effectively explain the value of pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery to local officials (including land use planners), state and national agencies, professional associations, non-profits, and the private sector (including the insurance industry). Planners in each of these organizations ought to take a more proactive role in building local planning capacity and commitment.

Taking action at the community level is important, as much of land use policy is a local responsibility. Hence the common refrain in the USA “all planning is local.” In practice, this is not entirely accurate. Land use planning is influenced by the policies of state, regional and federal agencies; non-profits; corporations; individual citizens; and others. The need to include planners and other stakeholders in the process of planning for recovery is crucial in order to garner support, capitalize on technical and political leadership, and codify the connectivity between sustainable development and disaster resilience.

The need to collaboratively address natural hazards and disasters has never been greater as we increasingly face challenges that are global in scope. The willingness to plan for potentially catastrophic events requires leadership and the ability to mobilize collective action on a local, regional, national and international scale. Land use planners should play a key role in educating the public, facilitating widespread participation, coordinating planning efforts, monitoring the implementation of chosen strategies, and measuring their effectiveness.


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Gavin Smith © 2010. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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