There has long been considered a divide, in the minds of many, between the end of the response during a disaster and the beginning of the recovery efforts. The hypothesis goes that recovery is required to wait on the important life-saving efforts undertaken during response before moving into the affected areas to start the recovery process.


In the light of today’s disasters a reality has settled into the emergency disaster community that disaster recovery activities start while emergency response actions are in progress. While the priority actions are different, decisions made during the response phase will have a direct influence on the recovery action plan. Unlike the response phase of an emergency, where all efforts tend to have a singular focus on rescuing and saving lives, the function of recovery is characterized by a complex set of issues that can have long lasting effects on the community. 


Recovery is best achieved when the affected community exercises a high degree of self-determination. Recovery extends beyond restoring physical assets or providing welfare services. Successful recovery recognizes that both communities and individuals have a wide and variable range of recovery needs and that recovery needs to meet all these needs in a coordinated way. 


The transition from response to recovery has been at times termed ‘early recovery’. Early recovery seeks to build on relief efforts to crystallize sustainable development opportunities. It is not a separate phase in the relief-development continuum, but an effort to strengthen linkages.


Early recovery operations aim to:

  • Ensure smooth transition with the phasing out of the emergency operations;
  • Promote spontaneous recovery initiatives by the affected population and reduce the rebuilding of risk;
  • Establish the foundations for longer term recovery;
  • Integrate risk reduction measures into recovery and development.


The following twelve suggestions are offered to authorities as they move towards recovery. [1]


1. Base decisions on empirical evidence: It is essential that any planning and decision making is based on reliable data from impact assessments. This data should also include revised hazard assessment information and updated vulnerability assessments.


2. Establish a recovery center: and/or review existing arrangements to ensure existing recovery center procedures are adequate and suitable for the current circumstances. Consider the concept of adopting local ‘one-stop recovery shops’ within which all appropriate agencies, utilities and services that the local community and business enterprises need to re-establish themselves are located in the same location. 


3. Use existing structures: Maintaining the inter-organizational status quo is essential for the effective execution of post-impact actions. Wherever possible, recovery processes and practices should be based on existing organizational arrangements rather than creating new ones. There are two main reasons for this. First, existing organizations have established procedures and networks that make it easier and quicker to ‘get things done’. Second, new organizations suffer from a lack of operational legitimacy until they have established their credentials on the ground, even if they have high-level political support. Any slip or delay by a new entity will be perceived as a sign of inadequacy by established organizations, which will be quick to assert their own legitimacy on new disaster-relevant tasks. It is more appropriate therefore to assign new recovery roles to existing organizations.  


4. Debris management: Disaster-caused debris is a logistical exercise in its own right. Specific attention needs to be given to the safe removal and disposal of disaster debris, which if not correctly dealt with may cause environmental and/or health problems later. Some debris will be contaminated (e.g. from industrial and medical waste) and will require specific treatment before it can be disposed safely. Some debris can be recycled, although strict guidelines and monitoring procedures need to be put in place to ensure recycled items are correctly identified.


5. Be transparent: Transparency requires communication, which is the most important component of recovery, especially communication with the community. Post-impact communication is essential to keep everyone informed of the recovery process. For communication to be effective a designated ‘public information manager’ needs to be appointed and a communication plan developed. The media will be an integral consideration. Achieve transparency through open processes and wide dissemination of information on all aspects of the recovery process. Involve the impacted community in decision-making.


6. Include the impacted community: Keep in mind that disaster management, and disaster recovery in particular, is a community-based issue. Review current links with the private sector and civil society in the context of disaster risk management and strengthen where appropriate. Keep in mind that livelihood restoration is a key priority area. Take decisions on plans, design and implementation at the lowest level possible to ensure community ownership and empowerment, and to make sure that solutions are locally appropriate. Sensitive issues such as the need for and the allocation of survivors for transitional housing, and for eventual permanent housing, are best undertaken through community-level consultations. Mobilize private investment, both human and financial, and if necessary provide the local private sector with incentives and the technology needed to participate fully in reconstruction.


7. Identify resource sources. Identify as early as possible what financial and material resources may be required, and identify sources, keeping in mind resources may be procured locally, nationally and/or internationally. The identification of resources needs to take into account the fact that disaster recovery is a long-term activity that typically takes years, even decades. Resource identification should include alternative sources and a timetable for procurement. The process of resource identification and acquisition should be started as early as possible so as not to place undue pressure on existing production and supply schedules. Also keep in mind that transportation of supplies to the impacted area often becomes a bottleneck, so attention to delivery and distribution logistics is essential.  


8. Identify development opportunities: Review relevant development plans and link recovery strategies directly to them, keeping in mind that disasters often provide opportunities to revise local/state/federal development strategies. Also be mindful that large-scale disasters often divert much-needed resources from needy projects elsewhere, thus having an unintended consequence of jeopardizing development goals in other parts of the country.


9. Build in resilience:  Avoid the creation of new disaster risk. Set mechanisms in place to review current construction techniques, building codes and regulations, land-use management/zoning plans and regulations, and amend where necessary. Also review local, state and federal disaster planning programs to see if they adequately incorporate risk management practices.


10. Identify lessons learned: Establish a process to identify lessons learned. For example, identify: 

  • The specific issue (including whether the lesson requires amendment/adjustment to current arrangements or if the lesson is a gap in existing arrangements),
    • The are of responsibility/jurisdiction,
    • Relevant law/regulation the lessons falls within, etc. and
    • Include areas for future training, exercises, resource replenishment and/or new purchase, etc


11. Look after the ‘hidden victims’: While disasters have a direct impact on the affected population in the immediate impact area, the physical, economic and social disruptive consequences are far-reaching, including likely dislocation of commercial supply chains, small businesses, transport and other utility linking systems. Depending on the degree of connectedness and reliance these and other system have to the impact area, they will also require assistance. 


12. Create an exit strategy. Factor into the recovery operations an exit strategy. The exit strategy is a systematic plan of action to withdraw formal recovery assistance from the recovery center and transition to business-as-usual while allowing the community to continue their own recovery processes. This has been particularly difficult during the transition from temporary housing to the permanent housing solutions. Survivors who had difficulty finding, affording and maintaining a home before the disaster will still have these struggles afterwards. Key participants in this decision-making are federal, state and local authorities, local politicians, and the private sector. 


[1] Excerpts edited and taken from Asian Development Bank, “Recommendations for dealing with the transition from disaster response to recovery”


Author: David Halstead, IEM Senior Consultant, retired Florida Director of Emergency Management