Disaster Recovery:

Experiences from Past Disasters Offer Insights for Effective Collaboration after Catastrophic Events

GAO-09-811: Published: Jul 31, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 2009.

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Stanley J. Czerwinski
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In the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricanes, coordination and collaboration challenges created obstacles during the government's response and recovery efforts. Because of the many stakeholders involved in recovery, including all levels of government, it is critical to build collaborative relationships. Building on GAO's September 2008 report which provided several key recovery practices from past catastrophic disasters, this report presents examples of how federal, state, and local governments have effectively collaborated in the past. GAO reviewed five catastrophic disasters--the Loma Prieta earthquake (California, 1989), Hurricane Andrew (Florida, 1992), the Northridge earthquake (California, 1994), the Kobe earthquake (Japan, 1995), and the Grand Forks/Red River flood (North Dakota and Minnesota, 1997)--to identify recovery lessons. GAO interviewed officials involved in the recovery from these disasters and experts on disaster recovery. GAO also reviewed relevant legislation, policies, and the disaster recovery literature.

Effective collaboration among stakeholders can play a key role in facilitating long-term recovery after a catastrophic event. Toward that end, GAO has identified four collaborative practices that may help communities rebuild from the Gulf Coast hurricanes as well as future catastrophic events: (1) Develop and communicate common goals to guide recovery. Defining common recovery goals can enhance collaboration by helping stakeholders overcome differences in missions and cultures. After the Grand Forks/Red River flood, federally-funded consultants convened various stakeholders to develop recovery goals and priorities for the city of Grand Forks. The city used these goals as a basis to create a detailed recovery action plan that helped it to implement its recovery goals. (2) Leverage resources to facilitate recovery. Collaborating groups bring different resources and capacities to the task at hand. After the Northridge earthquake, officials from the Federal Highway Administration and California's state transportation agency worked together to review highway rebuilding contracts, discuss changes, and then approve projects all in one location. This co-located, collaborative approach enabled the awarding of rebuilding contracts in 3 to 5 days--instead of the 26 to 40 weeks it could take using normal contracting procedures. This helped to restore damaged highways within a few months of the earthquake. (3) Use recovery plans to agree on roles and responsibilities. Organizations can collectively agree on who will do what by identifying roles and responsibilities in recovery plans developed either before or after a disaster takes place. Learning from its experiences from the Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco Bay Area officials created a plan that clearly identifies roles for all participants in order to facilitate regional recovery in the event of a future disaster. (4) Monitor, evaluate, and report on progress made toward recovery. After the 1995 earthquake, the city of Kobe and the surrounding region established processes to assess and report on recovery progress. These jurisdictions required periodic external reviews over 10 years on the progress made toward achieving recovery goals. As a result of one of these reviews, the city of Kobe gained insight into unintended consequences of how it relocated elderly earthquake victims, which subsequently led to a change in policy. Past recovery experiences--including practices that promote effective collaboration--offer potentially valuable lessons for future catastrophic events. FEMA has taken some steps to facilitate the sharing of such experiences among communities involved in disaster recovery. However, the agency can do more to build on and systematize the sharing of this information so that recovery lessons are better captured and disseminated for use in the future.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, FEMA developed two recovery-related webpages with the objective of providing "easily accessible portals/websites for the sharing of disaster recovery management and planning resources, tools, lessons learned, and operational materials for a broad array of recovery stakeholders." The first of these, the Recovery Resources Sharing webpage, serves as an exchange place for a range of recovery resources and best practices examples/model documents. Access to this site and the ability to submit documents for inclusion is open to the general public. The site, initially stood up in July 2012, includes an email address to which members of the public can submit documents for inclusion. According to FEMA, agency officials manage this mailbox, vet documents for suitability, ensure 508 compliance, respond to submitters as necessary, and add submitted posts as appropriate. The second initiative is the Lessons Learned Information Systems Recovery Page. According to FEMA, this webpage provides a platform for exchanging recovery lessons learned/best practices and presents recovery lessons learned/best practices examples and model documents among an established online community of homeland security and emergency management professionals at all levels. This site includes documents found on the above public webpage as well as "For Official Use Only" and terrorism hazard specific documents that are not posted on the public site. Access to LLIS requires an approved account and password.

    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal government to capture and disseminate recovery information, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish a mechanism for sharing information and best practices focused on disaster recovery, including practices that promote effective collaboration such as those discussed in this report. Options for doing this could include (1) creating an approach, similar to the Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS) Web site or the mitigation best practices portfolio, through which disaster recovery lessons can be compiled and shared, and personal networks among interested recovery officials encouraged; and/or (2) modifying the LLIS Web site to add a focus on recovery by taking steps such as including more recovery documents, creating a recovery topic area within LLIS, and creating an online directory for recovery officials to encourage networking and facilitate further sharing of recovery experiences.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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