Preparedness matters. However, many communities get themselves and their citizens ready for a disaster mostly in terms of bottled water and shelter. What many communities do not even think about – until a disaster strikes and they are still mounting a response – are the administrative components that will make or break their recovery. In an effort to expedite a successful recovery from unforeseen incidents, every community should institute the following essential steps required for a successful plan of action:
1. Augment the Emergency Management Staff Disasters require flexibility to meet unexpected and added workload; therefore, having access to knowledgeable people to assist becomes vital. Volunteer assistance and mutual-aid agreements serve as cost-effective short-term solutions; however, expert consultant support – from disaster-recovery experts – offers longer-term assistance as well as expertise that may not be available locally. If and when using outside staff support, consider building them into pre-disaster training and exercise programs to allow them to integrate seamlessly if and when the need arises.
Disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Few if any U.S. communities have enough full-time employees necessary to manage the community while also conducting a full-court press on disaster response and long-term recovery operations. Being prepared means having planned for this eventuality.
2. Have No-Cost Pre-Event Contracts in Place Having pre-event contracts in place with vendors who offer services that will more than likely be needed in the aftermath of a crisis is one of the most important administrative actions a community can take before disaster strikes. Such services include, but are not limited to, the following: augmentation of the Emergency Operations Center staff; debris management and monitoring; engineering and evaluation; and the use of federal disaster program management services.
A pre-event contract is usually available at no cost to the community, and can be activated immediately following a disaster so that there is no lag time in bidding; in addition, more competitive pricing is assured. Pre-event contracting also provides the time needed to find the capable and qualified contractors available to meet the needs of the community – without the pressure of having to concurrently manage a disaster response. Key qualified contractors will possess a broad range of disaster experience, be able to provide references, and will have the expertise needed to work effectively on various federal programs – most importantly, those under the jurisdiction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – so as to help maximize not only eligibility requirements but also the reimbursement for costs.
Having pre-event contracts in place can dramatically affect, and improve, a community’s bottom line. Having expertise on hand is particularly important to advise a community on how to: (a) increase the ability for reimbursement; (b) help the community maximize the disaster assistance available; and (c) avoid major problems that might delay or make a project ineligible for reimbursement. Moreover, pre-event contracts for equipment and services often are more affordable – because they are bid during “peace time” when competition for limited resources has not led to higher prices. Taking the time needed to put pre-event contracts in place also reduces the likelihood of mistakes being made during procurement that not only could lead to significant delays but also to the reduction, or even elimination, of the community’s ability to obtain reimbursement altogether.
After a contractor has been secured under a pre-event contract, the community should use the advance time needed to: (a) build a working relationship and train the augmented staff, along with key players; (b) get them better acquainted with one another; (c) help them understand each other’s needs; and (d) have common expectations for service delivery.
3. Review and Assess the Emergency Authorities Disasters make time a very valuable commodity, and the usual “day-to-day” policies and procedures usually do not allow for the urgent, usually immediate, actions required in sufficient time to meet disaster-related needs. The pre-event environment is the best time to review and assess the authorities a community already has, keeping in mind the challenges those authorities may well be facing during a recovery operation.
Communities also need to be thoroughly familiar with the emergency authorities available, and to understand how those authorities will support not only immediate but also long-term recovery needs. To achieve that understanding, several important questions must be addressed – including the following:
(a) Do the City Charter and/or community by-laws provide a clear chain of authority and ensure the continuity of government?
(b) Are emergency procurement authorities consistent with both federal and state requirements?
(c) Do those authorities also provide the ability needed to loosen requirements for building permits to allow for a more rapid recovery?
(d) Do the emergency provisions address how code enforcement may be accomplished under the crush of disaster reconstruction?
If such a review has not been conducted, guidance can be provided through the state Emergency Management Office – or the community can secure non-governmental professional assistance.
4. Maximize Public Infrastructure Grants Many communities do not possess much and/or extensive disaster experience, and are therefore unaware of what they are specifically entitled to when FEMA arrives. To help speed up the recovery process, it is particularly important that communities not only are aware of FEMA regulations, and how they have been applied elsewhere around the country, but also how to document costs to justify federal reimbursement.
The Stafford Act, also known as the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, provides the guiding legal authority for FEMA recovery programs and is reasonably flexible in meeting the unique needs of communities that arise during a disaster. This flexibility often results, though, in FEMA decisions lacking consistency from one applicant to another, so it is imperative that communities understand not only past precedents but also where some flexibility is available to maximize their eligibility.
A knowledgeable staff member or consultant with experience working the FEMA Public Assistance program that is the source of many DHS (Department of Homeland Security) grant funds may be able to help substantially increase the amount of funding that a community is provided to rebuild such essential infrastructure as schools, hospitals, libraries, community centers, and other facilities. In short, if a community: (1) is properly educated – before a disaster strikes – about eligibility criteria, applicant responsibilities, mitigation opportunities, and documentation guidelines; and (2) understands, in addition, how federal disaster programs have been applied elsewhere – that community will start its long-term recovery much faster and will achieve more than a community that does not possess this same situational awareness, and as a bonus will have more resources available to support its own efforts.
5. Keep an Eye on Cash Flow Although insurance proceeds, and both federal and state aid, will help with the financial burden caused by a disaster, they often do not cover all – or even most – of the costs such events create. Moreover, reimbursement often occurs long after associated costs are incurred, so most communities should expect a disaster to adversely affect the city’s financial situation for what might be an extended period of time.
These and several other post-disaster challenges can cause major community cash-flow problems that not only can adversely affect other community services, but also slow the recovery process itself by extending the timelines needed for reconstruction. High-risk communities should therefore consider establishing a “rainy day” fund well in advance of a disaster to provide the seed funding needed for the initial recovery efforts. The availability of such funding can help fill the gaps between the time a disaster occurs and the time when insurance and government help arrives.
To help cope with presidentially declared disasters, a community should consider asking for an advance of FEMA funds against damage assessment cost estimates. It is not uncommon for communities to be advanced a percentage of their estimated losses – usually between 25 and 50 percent of estimated eligible damages. Maintaining full and accurate documentation is critical, though, because communities will probably receive no additional recovery funds until documentation has been provided that shows the use of advanced funds for eligible purposes. If such an advance is part of the community’s own disaster planning, that information should be provided to senior officials in the state’s emergency management agency so that they will be ready and able to support the community needs after an event occurs.
To briefly summarize: The impact of a disaster can drastically affect the economy of a community and in some cases even its long-term existence. Being prepared administratively for a disaster is just as important as being prepared in the traditional and better publicized ways.
Andrew Sachs is the Vice President of Disaster Services at Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm. Sachs has been instrumental in the long-term recovery operations following several major U.S. disasters including the 2008 Iowa floods; Hurricane Katrina; and the Galveston Island recovery operations following Hurricane Ike.