Workshop Objective

Disaster recovery is a complex and challenging process that involves all sectors of a community as well as outside interests. In many cases, it is not even clear if and when recovery has been achieved because of varying stakeholder goals for the community, for example with some wanting it returned to what is considered its pre-disaster status and others wanting it to undergo change to realize a vision in which advances are made in risk reduction and other areas. This workshop considered what has been learned about disaster recovery, which has been understudied in comparison to the emergency and other phases of disasters, from both scientific research and the experience of policy makers and practitioners. Historical and recent recovery actions following such events as the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were discussed, along with examples of both pre- and post-disaster recovery planning.

Tribute to Gilbert Fowler White

William Hooke, chair of the DR’s steering committee and director of the Atmospheric Policy Program at the American Meteorological Society, opened the workshop by indicating that it was just a little over two years ago since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States and that this was a good time to take stock of how that disaster and other recent experiences are shaping our thinking about the nature and meaning of disaster recovery. He further noted that October 5th marked the first anniversary of the death of geographer Gilbert Fowler White, whose memory the workshop was honoring. In a tribute to him, Hooke indicated that White had done more than any other individual to shape the present science and practice of disaster mitigation, influencing the thinking and aspirations of every one at the workshop, either directly or indirectly. Hooke suggested that White’s influence was not simply founded on the range of his intellect, but also on his strong and consistent personal integrity, his keen interest in us as colleagues, the well being of humanity, and his deeply rooted Quaker faith and values. Hooke asked for a moment of silence in honor of Gilbert White, and a renewal of personal commitment to reducing disasters’ toll and improving the human prospect. Hooke then noted that the film Reflections on the Life of Gilbert White, produced by independent film maker Marshall Frech, would be shown at the end of the workshop.

Session I:
Perspectives from Research

Overview of Research-Based Knowledge on Disaster Recovery

Robert Olshansky, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began the first session by indicating that a definition of recovery useful to him is the return of a community to a stable state after a disaster. There is no magic day when this happens and it is a very complicated and long-term process. He noted that the first goals of recovery are to at least return to a previous level of economic function and to replace lost housing units. When these two goals have been reached, some claim to recovery can be made.


Olshansky sees research on post-disaster recovery as a developing field, with experts analyzing the process from different perspectives, including urban planning, physical design, and economic development. Drawing on findings from his many years of research and those of other investigators, Olshansky made a series of observations, including:

  • As in the case of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, recovery compresses urban development into a short time period.



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Workshop Objective Disaster recovery is a complex and challenging process that involves all sectors of a community as well as outside interests. In many cases, it is not even clear if and when recovery has been achieved because of varying stakeholder goals for the community, for example with some wanting it returned to what is considered its pre-disaster status and others wanting it to undergo change to realize a vision in which advances are made in risk reduction and other areas. This workshop considered what has been learned about disaster recovery, which has been understudied in comparison to the emergency and other phases of disasters, from both scientific research and the experience of policy makers and practitioners. Historical and recent recovery actions following such events as the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were discussed, along with examples of both pre- and post-disaster recovery planning. Tribute to Gilbert Fowler White William Hooke, chair of the DR’s steering committee and director of the Atmospheric Policy Program at the American Meteorological Society, opened the workshop by indicating that it was just a little over two years ago since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States and that this was a good time to take stock of how that disaster and other recent experiences are shaping our thinking about the nature and meaning of disaster recovery. He further noted that October 5th marked the first anniversary of the death of geographer Gilbert Fowler White, whose memory the workshop was honoring. In a tribute to him, Hooke indicated that White had done more than any other individual to shape the present science and practice of disaster mitigation, influencing the thinking and aspirations of every one at the workshop, either directly or indirectly. Hooke suggested that White’s influence was not simply founded on the range of his intellect, but also on his strong and consistent personal integrity, his keen interest in us as colleagues, the well being of humanity, and his deeply rooted Quaker faith and values. Hooke asked for a moment of silence in honor of Gilbert White, and a renewal of personal commitment to reducing disasters’ toll and improving the human prospect. Hooke then noted that the film Reflections on the Life of Gilbert White, produced by independent film maker Marshall Frech, would be shown at the end of the workshop. Session I: Perspectives from Research Overview of Research-Based Knowledge on Disaster Recovery Robert Olshansky, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, began the first session by indicating that a definition of recovery useful to him is the return of a community to a stable state after a disaster. There is no magic day when this happens and it is a very complicated and long-term process. He noted that the first goals of recovery are to at least return to a previous level of economic function and to replace lost housing units. When these two goals have been reached, some claim to recovery can be made. Olshansky sees research on post-disaster recovery as a developing field, with experts analyzing the process from different perspectives, including urban planning, physical design, and economic development. Drawing on findings from his many years of research and those of other investigators, Olshansky made a series of observations, including: • As in the case of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, recovery compresses urban development into a short time period. 1

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• Local leadership and organizations are crucial for successful recovery, and new community-based organizations emerge to carry out needed tasks, but outside resources are also vital. • The most effective role for government is to support the recovery efforts of local organizations, including providing funds and information. • Citizen participation is essential for setting goals and ensuring community support for recovery strategies and actions. • After disasters, the strength of continuing social and economic networks, including families, community groups, and businesses, are a key to successful community recovery. • Pre-existing plans can help improve both the speed and quality of post-disaster recovery decisions. Olshansky also noted that, except for the worst disasters, cities usually rebuild in the same place, and negative pre-disaster trends usually worsen during recovery. Speed is vital in rebuilding after disasters in order to keep businesses alive, rebuild infrastructure, and provide temporary and permanent housing for disaster victims. At the same time, careful deliberation is also important in order to ensure that permanent communities are economically viable, safe, and sustainable places. Conceptualizing and Documenting Community Disaster Recovery Like Robert Olshansky, Daniel Alesch, professor emeritus of public administration at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, has spent many years studying community disaster recovery. With funding from such organizations as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Public Entity Risk Institute, Alesch has been involved in collaborative research to document disaster recovery in about 30 communities of all sizes across the U.S. over a twelve-year period. The conceptual framework used in this research to understand community recovery from disaster involves seeing communities as complex, dynamic, and open systems which are continually changing. An extreme event like a disaster seriously disrupts elements in a community system and their relationship with outside entities, such as external groups, organizations, and markets. After a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, communities do not just bounce back to exactly the way they were before; they reform, according to Alesch. His research shows that they may not always reform to the pre-event system. Alesch noted that key findings from his research include : • If community recovery means reestablishing what existed before the event, it almost never happens. • Recovery is neither assured nor automatic. • There is no recovery timetable. • Recovery can be defined as becoming satisfactorily viable in the post-event period. • The real benefits of community hazard mitigation are that it enhances the probability of community recovery, especially given an event of small or moderate size. • Replacing and rebuilding structures is necessary, but not sufficient for recovery. • It takes time to repair, rebuild, or replace relationships in a community, which is an important aspect of recovery. • Government usually has to make up-front investments to further community disaster recovery. • Recovery almost necessarily involves inefficiencies. Alesch indicated that the next steps in his collaborative work on community disaster recovery involves completing a book aimed at helping local government managers deal with the challenges of disaster recovery, and building the research data base on the topic and devising and testing rigorous hypotheses to advance knowledge in the field. 2