Next to rescue efforts in the face of imminent harm, recovery – bringing life back to normal or something close to it – is the most important post-disaster activity. But, recovery is typically given short-shrift by emergency planners, and federal participation is likely to decrease now that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has declared long-term recovery “outside the scope of the [National Response] Framework” (NRF, 2008).
Following the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, FEMA was bombarded with criticism of its handling of post-disaster assistance grants. In a 2006 CNN interview, Secretary Chertoff tried to deflect the criticism by suggesting that FEMA should be responsible only for response and short-term recovery, and there should be a “handoff when you get to long-term recovery.” (Inside Cable News). Meanwhile, fraud, incompetence and political profit-taking continue.
The State of Mississippi received over $3 billion dollars appropriated by Congress for housing – half of that slated for low-income families. But, Governor Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, asked for and received a waiver of the rules.
Where did the money go? The Steps Coalition says the governor “either excluded poor families from his recovery plans, or put them to the very back of the line,” taking only eight months to issue a billion dollars to mostly affluent families, but taking more than a year to begin a program aiding lower income families, many of whom still haven’t received grants (William Brangham, Bill Moyers Journal). As Coalition member Melinda Harthcock described it, “The people who have the least amount of backup, the least cushion in their budget, have been asked to wait two years before they got any help.
Delays turned out to be just part of the problem. State officials later announced that they were going to redirect $600 million of the housing funds to repairing and improving a port, to the potential benefit of cruise ships and casinos (Brangham).
“One of the most profound shifts that’s happening down here is that people, even solidly middle class people who thought that they were respected members of society, who thought they’d done the right thing to protect their assets, who thought their voices counted for something – are finding that they don’t” (Melinda Harthcoc, Bill Moyers Journal)
Louisiana, too, is suffering through a slow recovery. And, while the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina deserves condemnation, the slow trickle of aid to replace low and middle income communities is nothing new.
The reluctance to rebuilt low-rent housing commonly encountered after disasters (Phillips 1993a) has also occurred in South Florida (Hartman 1993a). The official explanations for the slow rate of rebuilding of public projects and private Section 8 (subsidized) rental units, include problems with asbestos, funding, and contractors (Tanfani 1993). Whatever the reasons, few deny the reluctance to rebuild low-income multifamily housing (Morrow 2000).
Many of the emergency plans that I reviewed over the years included only a page or two of recovery phase planning and said little or nothing about how the public would be involved in decision making. Federal emergency exercises, also, devoted little time to the recovery phase and some ignored it entirely.
Federal, state, local and tribal officials need to do more to plan in advance how resources will be used to rebuild communities and citizens need to demand a seat at the table before disaster strikes again. Over the years, I frequently heard government planners say there would be plenty of time to plan after a disaster. But, there never is enough time to attend to the millions of details fast enough to prevent the secondary tragedies that await families and small businesses due to slow recovery aid.
Perhaps, if responsible government officials were forced to work in FEMA trailers for the duration, the pace of recovery would pick up a bit. They might then give more than superficial attention to pre-disaster recovery planning. Until problems of bias, corruption and neglect are swept away by a competent national recovery plan, government’s claim to be prepared for hurricane season is little more than whistling in the dark.
Morrow, B.H. (2000) Stretching the Bonds: the families of Andrew, in: W.G. Peacock, B.H. Morrow and H. Gladwin (eds) Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender, and the Sociology of Disasters (Miami, International Hurricane Center).