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  • Stephen Jordan

Notes for State & Local Leaders as Deadly KY Tornadoes Response Kicks in Swiftly, Pt. 2: Tips

For background and the current status of the Kentucky tornadoes response, check out part one of this blog at

For community leaders both in Kentucky and anywhere encountering these relief and recovery issues for the first time, please note that this stage immediately following the disaster is the high-intensity emergency response phase. Getting this right is only the first step in having a successful disaster response. Several keys to note:

Communicate every step of the way. Right now, the focus is on responding to the emergency. Define the goals of this phase, e.g., search and rescue, preventing further harm, securing the disaster zone.

  • The next phase is stabilization, which is the equivalent of going to the hospital and getting a cast put on. You have to stop the bleeding, determine the problems, and develop the path forward.

  • One of the problems with COVID was a lack of appreciation for the importance of stabilization – the “Open-Close-Open-Close” dynamic contributed significantly to the ongoing uncertainty, morale problems, and stagnation of many communities

  • Then comes the recovery – deciding what to build back, how to build it, how to bring back jobs and small businesses, and enhancing the region’s security for the future. Communicate this process and what you are trying to do regularly and systematically. You can never communicate too much.

However, be careful about information. In past disasters, we have seen that rumors, missing information, and mistaken information can affect response efforts significantly. It’s very important to be calm, cool, and collected, and it’s okay not to rush to judgment or have definitive answers immediately.

Mental health matters a lot. Individual and collective mental health is hugely important. Many people will be traumatized. They may be injured, or have lost loved ones or everything they own. Even people who have not lost anything may be traumatized by the damage done to the community.

  • It’s also very important to set up a support system for the caregivers. We’ve even seen some public officials have breakdowns.

It is too early to think about the long-term, but you have to do it. 75% of philanthropy happens within 10 weeks after a disaster. Most support typically goes to the emergency response phase, but the recovery period can last up to 5 years.

  • The deadlines for individual assistance (IA) and public assistance (PA) can come up awfully quickly. However, HUD Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds (CDBG-DR) can take over 2 years to flow through.

  • The sooner your Recovery and Resilience team can get up and running, the more likely you will be 1) ready for the offers of assistance that come your way, and 2) able to embed your long-term needs into your current thinking.

Figure out how to help your smaller and least-resourced communities on an ongoing basis. What we have seen in past disasters is that 1-3 locations become the “face” of the disaster. The bigger metropolitan areas have staffs of 5, 10, or 20 people who are adept at navigating federal funding guidelines, but your smaller municipalities may have 1 person covering safety, law enforcement, and building inspections. The result is that, post-disaster, assistance goes to the high-visibility and high-resourced places, while the many small towns and lowest-resourced communities get left behind.

  • ISD has been a huge advocate for mobile units and other mechanisms to provide technical assistance to small towns and rural communities that can least afford the devastation.

Take care of your small businesses, and they will help your communities stabilize and recover. Small businesses are the biggest employment drivers, and they have the most vested interest in helping communities come back. Many small businesses will do what they can to re-open, but the average business only has 27 days of cash on hand. The real difficulty is having staying power while the rest of the community struggles to come back, too.

Leverage Partnerships. Disasters are comprehensive – they affect every community system. No single government agency is going to have every competency or capability to handle the disaster response on their own.

  • Partnerships for emergency management, relief, stabilization, and recovery can be enormously beneficial. They help leverage resources, increase coverage, add expertise, and strengthen communication, coordination, and collaboration.

What western Kentucky and the other states are facing now is both a short-term sprint to save lives, and a long-term marathon to achieve a full recovery. Many community leaders did not sign up for this, but were elected to improve schools, healthcare, or other ongoing issues. It’s important to ask for help, particularly since the federal and national support systems for disaster management are as good as they have ever been.

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