How Do We Win the Recovery After the 2017 Disasters?

How Do We Win the Recovery After the 2017 Disasters?

By Stephen Jordan and Steve Rochlin

As the worst disaster season comes to an end, it’s time to reflect on the damage. More people (4 million!) registered for emergency assistance than after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and Sandy combined. Half a million acres burned in California. More than four feet of rain drenched parts of Texas. A quarter of the housing of the Florida Keys was wiped out. In Puerto Rico, everything from the power grid on up, needs to be rebuilt. But while the short-term disaster response had to be epic, the real question is not what happens in the first three months after the disasters, it is how do we win the recovery over the next three years?


The reigning de facto strategy is colloquially known as “Build Back Better” and has been the operating model since the late 1990s. It is based on several key ideas: first, that local decision makers know their recovery needs best, and the best thing that national authorities can do is to push block grant funding down to the states, and then for the states in turn, to push it down to their municipalities. Second, the idea is that localities should not just repair and replace pre-existing property but should take steps to improve conditions by embedding resilience and mitigation qualities into the repairs. That way if the same disaster struck, the repaired structures would be able to withstand them better. We saw this come to life in the lower 9th Ward after Katrina, where the levees were strengthened, and the housing was elevated.


This strategy is definitely an improvement over the old “repair and replace” model that existed previously. Recent studies have shown that mitigation can save up to $7 for every $1 spent in post-disaster recovery costs. However, we need to do better. Disaster recovery costs averaged $20 billion per year over the 2000-2010 decade, and this decade these costs are on track to more than double. If the estimated price tag of $300 billion for disaster recovery from last year’s events is true, this is unsustainable. By way of comparison, last year, Congress approved $300 billion for five years for the entire surface transportation spend of the United States.


Furthermore, cyclical events like wildfires in California, tornadoes in Tornado Alley, extreme flooding in the upper Midwest, or hurricanes in the Gulf and Caribbean have caused significant donor fatigue and huge strains on insurance companies and municipal and state finances. We cannot keep pursuing the same strategy and expect different results.


There are multiple reasons for these escalating costs. More than 120 million Americans live within 50 miles of the coasts, and many more live in historically vulnerable geological, climate, and environmental areas. As we have become richer and more populous, the stakes have become higher. Also, weather and climate patterns change over time, and communities that were originally built 200, 100, or even as few as 50 years ago, may encounter new, emergent, and accumulated risks. Finally, the interface between the natural and built environment can be very sensitive. Sand dunes, wetlands, greenways and other natural defenses may prevent flooding or wind damage when properly curated, but when they are degraded, the costs from housing damage can escalate significantly.


To break the current cycle, a new strategy known as “Design better, then build” has promise. “Design better, then build” is based on a number of key principles. First, it recognizes that people’s lives are more complicated and connected than ever before. People may live in one jurisdiction, work in another, enjoy entertainment and other social amenities in a third, and experience the environmental consequences of decisions made in a fourth. “Design better” entails thinking about recovery investments based not just on political jurisdictions, but on how people live. Second, it approaches recovery from a systems standpoint, and integrates housing, transportation, education, environmental, health, and economic perspectives and interests together. This means that resources and budgets are set in context with each other. It’s not enough to rebuild houses or schools or hospitals without thinking about the roads that connect them or the dams and levees and other natural defenses that protect them. These in turns must link to efforts to refinance entrepreneurs so that they are open for business while funding debris removal and neighborhood beautification so that their customers can return.  Third, it incorporates innovations in materials, technology, and design that are better able to withstand catastrophic events. Finally, it integrates and works to align private sector and civil society interests and expertise.


The two preeminent examples of this “design better” mind-set are Germany and Japan after World War II. With their post-War recovery programs, they did not focus on rebuilding their outdated infrastructure, such as narrow, winding lanes built for horse carts and pedestrians. Instead, both countries built modern, integrated infrastructure designed for the 21st century and beyond. As a result of this design thinking everything from Osaka to Tokyo is integrated – roads, ports, airports, commercial real estate, industrial real estate, and other utility zoning and design. Similarly, every part of Germany is connected to every other part, so that commercial linkages are facilitated. Perhaps more importantly, economic growth is distributed and inclusive – an important driver of social cohesion. Neither country is as business-friendly as the US. in terms of their regulatory environments. Both countries pay high wages to their workers. But because they designed and rebuilt their infrastructure with an eye to the future, both are among the top 5 exporters in the world. They took advantage of their crises to modernize.


In normal circumstances, there are many impediments to upgrading community design. There are built-in constituencies for the status quo. But after the disasters that the country has just faced, upgrading the resilience, competitiveness, and efficiency of these geographies would be the least costly they could be.


A “Design Better, then Build” approach would not just focus on spreading resources around like peanut butter. If you fund a bridge repair here, a pothole there, a retaining wall next door, you can go through a lot of money, and not actually improve the resilience of the whole region at all.


Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, and California, have developed in layers. While some of their facilities are world class, there are elements that were shaped one hundred years ago, others that were originally the product of colonial surveyors, or even more ancient paths and patterns. It’s highly likely that if we’d design Galveston or Houston or the North Bay today, any one of these geographies might look fundamentally different than what has built up on these sites over the past two hundred years or more.


We need recovery plans and processes that map to how people live today and secure them from environmental threats tomorrow. We cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish by focusing on the parts and not taking into account how they fit together as a whole. If we are going to spend $300 billion in the recovery, doesn’t it make sense to invest these resources as effectively as possible for future resilience, competitiveness, and environmental security? We will win the recovery from 2017 if we have a clear sense of the goals we seek to achieve, and a clear process and strategy for how to achieve them.



Stephen Jordan and Steve Rochlin run the Institute for Sustainable Development ((, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the role of business and public-private partnerships in community strengthening, long-term recovery and related issues.


Amanda PopeComment