Comparing Disaster Recovery Around the World

There was a time not long ago, in human history, when a faraway nation could experience a wrenching natural disaster that most of the rest of us would not know about for months, or even years, afterwards. The idea that anyone else should or could help the stricken cities or nations recover would have seemed foreign, if not utterly impractical. Help from the U.S. federal government for San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake was minimal and slow to arrive. American involvement in an earthquake at the time in China would have seemed preposterous and quixotic.

2002 planning meeting in Bhuj following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

Modern transportation and communications have changed all that, and as we became more instantly aware of hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Japan, and volcanoes in the Philippines, we began to realize that there were ways to help—and much to learn. Governments became more aware of a responsibility to assist with planning for long-term recovery, and the field of urban planning, which for decades saw natural hazards as outside its purview, by the 1980s began to undertake systematic studies of how to make recovery more effective. As disasters became more expensive in light of widespread urbanization in recent decades, the stakes have risen dramatically. Researchers and practitioners over the past 40 or 50 years have exchanged data and ideas at major international and national conferences, and national and local policies on post-disaster recovery have evolved rapidly. One can now find a substantial literature on the topic.

One recent and noteworthy entry into this literature is After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017; 380 pp.). The authors, Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky, are both highly experienced in the international arena and, I will add, good colleagues of mine in this field. Johnson is an independent consultant based in northern California with past ties to various firms engaged in hazards work. She was a major contributor to Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation (2014), a project I led at the American Planning Association. Olshansky is a professor and head of the department of urban planning at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The two previously co-authored Clear as Mud (Planners Press, 2010), a book that chronicled recovery planning in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

They have worked in the countries whose disasters they describe in the book: India, Japan, China, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the U.S. These are, of course, vastly different nations in wealth, geography, size, and circumstance, and the question that the authors confront is devilishly simple: Are there lessons from these nations’ experiences in managing long-term community recovery that are transferable? What, pray tell, does flood recovery in Iowa have in common with tsunami recovery in Indonesia or earthquake recovery in India?

My own international experiences have largely been different from those they describe: I have been involved in the Dominican Republic (after Hurricane Georges), Sri Lanka (after the 2004 tsunami), Taiwan, and New Zealand, under varying circumstances, and that very question has grown in my own mind over time. Those experiences have also provided background for assessing the lessons that Johnson and Olshansky derive from the countries they study. I think they do a very solid job of assembling data, shaping the narratives, and drawing useful conclusions from their case studies. At the same time, they make clear what is unique in each country, and where nuances and differences in national frameworks for disaster policy shed light on larger issues.

One fact that is clear from this book is that those national policies are anything but static. Every nation they study is learning from each major disaster and implementing changes over time. Except for New Zealand, these six are large nations with events occurring frequently enough that many of the lessons multiply and reinforce each other. It is equally clear that political history has a major influence on how these nations organize disaster recovery and how it evolves. Teasing out the lessons that are generally transferable is thus devilishly simple. They emerge only after researchers immerse themselves in the details and compare them closely.

For instance, India, like the United States, has a federal system of government. Both nations thus tend to push down to state governments a number of responsibilities that more centralized China and Japan might reserve at the national level. Prior to the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, a state in India’s northwest, India had only a very small disaster management division within its Ministry of Agriculture, a location within the national bureaucracy that itself speaks volumes about how India once perceived the nature of most disasters.

It is worth noting, however, that the U.S. did not consolidate its own disaster relief and recovery functions within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) until 1979, when the agency was created under President Jimmy Carter. The U.S. did not have any federal statutory framework for systematic disaster response until 1950, and created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968. As the authors explain, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, then completely reshaped the administrative landscape of American disaster management as Congress reacted to those events by creating the Department of Homeland Security and placing FEMA under its umbrella.

The fact that India was at most a generation behind in assuming greater responsibility at the national level should not be surprising in light of its development, but rapid urbanization has also forced reassessment of many issues of federal ministerial structure. India is also a nation that, because of its relative poverty, has relied much more on international assistance, even as it has steadily expanded its home-grown expertise on natural hazards and urban planning.

A sewer line is laid in the old city of Bhuj in Gujarat, India, in 2004. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad. Reprinted from the book with permission from authors.

Two weeks after the 2001 earthquake, the state established the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, led by the chief minister. Like state and national agencies in every other country studied, GSDMA experimented at times, made mistakes and enjoyed successes, and helped rebuild homes and infrastructure. There is no perfect way to recover from disaster, and there are always disappointments. For housing reconstruction, Gujarat, the authors report, employed both an owner-driven plan and a public-private partnership plan. The owner-driven approach had no precedent in India on such a large scale; the earthquake had flattened almost 6,500 buildings and killed 7,000 people. This fact alone illustrates one highly transferable lesson from international experience—that disaster recovery provides a compelling laboratory for such innovation, providing that authorities are prepared to accept the prospect of some measure of failure and to learn from it. A more positive way of making that same point is the “silver lining” theory, which sees disaster recovery as a unique opportunity to advance positive change in a “teachable moment.”

Such lessons take shape in very different cauldrons, however. New Zealand, for instance, which suffered the 2010-2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, the major city of the South Island, has a smaller population than any Indian state or most states in the U.S. The nation is also comparatively prosperous. With only 4.7 million people in an area about 70 percent the size of California, New Zealand has no need to decentralize most government functions, except for rural districts and municipalities. The national government thus found it easy to take control of some recovery functions from the city, and there was no intermediary authority. China, with the world’s largest population, tends to concentrate power but nonetheless also finds some decentralization of recovery functions a practical necessity. In the U.S., however, such power sharing is integral to the system and enshrined in the Constitution. These issues of central authority versus state or provincial and local autonomy tend to set the terms within which the experiments in recovery operate. Moreover, as the chapter on Indonesia following the  2004 tsunami through subsequent lesser disasters illustrates, disaster management institutions are evolving rapidly in developing nations as well as in those with more developed economies such as the U.S. and Japan.

So, what can we learn? This book provides a wealth of detail in its case studies, but the authors note that a key leader of Indonesian recovery efforts stated to them his belief that there are no general lessons to learn because “all disasters are unique.” It is certainly true that each event has its own special context and contours, but that simply makes drawing lessons more challenging, not impossible. The authors conclude with seven recommendations.

The first is to “enhance existing structures and systems to promote information flow and collaboration.” Often it makes sense to retain new agencies or programs because they serve more purposes than simply advancing disaster recovery. Second, the authors emphasize the need for data management, transparency, and accountability. The availability of information is crucial for citizens and stakeholders to make good decisions as they rebuild.

A village meeting discusses details of the post-tsunami resettlement in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India, in 2008. Photo by Divya Chandresekhar, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

The third point is to “plan and act simultaneously.” The paradox here is that reconstruction can never happen fast enough, yet it is important at times to slow the process down in order to inject some thoughtful deliberation into the process. In short, planners and public officials must learn to work efficiently with limited time to make things happen. In some settings, that may necessitate at least some decentralized decision making to prevent bottlenecks. It becomes essential to learn on the run because not learning can be extremely detrimental.

It is also critical both to budget for the costs of communicating and planning, because these functions are critical to success, and to increase capacity in local governments to make recovery decisions. Effective communication aids empowerment, but so does the ability to hire adequate staff with adequate training. Pushing some of that power and capacity down to individual citizens also expedites decision making. That requires sharing information.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami dramatically affected shoreline communities in Tamil Nadu, India, but fishing families were often reluctant to relocate. Photo by Robert Olshansky (from the book).

The authors also suggest avoiding “permanent relocation of residents and communities, except in rare instances, and then only with full participation of residents.” The risk of forced relocation is greater in more authoritarian and highly centralized systems like that in China, while the U.S. heavily relies on voluntary relocation, and total community relocation remains a rarity. But the consequences of such relocation can be devastating unless the community has bought into the idea and clearly understands how it will benefit—presuming it actually will.

Finally, the authors, again picking up on the theme of time compression after disasters, say, “Reconstruct quickly, but do not be hasty.” Exactly when undue speed becomes haste is, of course, very much a matter of judgment, and good judgment often relies on experience, all of which strongly suggests the value of pre-planning for disasters in order to create the opportunity to evaluate options beforehand and train staff for the eventuality. It might be added that expanding the literature available to them that will expand their familiarity with the issues before disaster strikes is also valuable. This book, in its own way, helps advance that mission.

Jim Schwab

Prepared for Disaster in Maui

Paradise is not always paradise. Hawaii generally is vulnerable to a number of potential disasters, including tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, drought, and, in the case of the Big Island, volcanoes (although not of the explosive variety). The entire archipelago is nature’s creation following volcanic uplift in the middle of the ocean over millions of years of geologic time. Humans have occupied these islands for less than a millennium, after their discovery by Polynesian explorers, and Europeans only discovered them in 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, when England’s Captain Cook landed there. We are a mere blip in the evolution of the Hawaiian landscape. It is best we approach such landscapes with humility, for our own sake.

Officials in Maui County, which includes not only the island of Maui but the nearby smaller islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe, seem to realize as much. The best way to convey what they are doing to prepare Maui County for future hazardous events is to let them speak for themselves. In August, at the American Planning Association, we taped a podcast interview with both James Buika, a planner for the county, and Tara Owens, a coastal hazards specialist who has worked with the county on behalf of Hawaii Sea Grant. They explained the county’s planning process to prepare for future disaster recovery needs, including sensitive approaches to native cultural concerns.

Click here to listen to this 23-minute podcast.

Jim Schwab

Learn from Taxi Drivers

“How old do you think I am?” the cab driver asked.

It was an odd question, but the conversation with my driver from Reagan National Airport to my hotel on 10th St. NW in Washington, D.C., had already caught me by surprise with his first comment before we had ever exited the airport.

He asked where I was from, and I said Chicago.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” he said. I was thinking that I had never seen him before at all. Why did he say this? I expressed a little surprise.

“Dr. Morse?” he asked. I soon learned that I apparently looked a lot like Dr. Morse, but I informed him that I was neither a doctor but an urban planner. Dr. Morse is apparently a frequent visitor to Washington, was also from Chicago, and must more than once have found his way into this man’s taxi. The fact was that I was not Dr. Morse produced its own line of conversation, and this was one of those rare cabbies who was actually good at generating conversation out of whole cloth. He worked with whatever conversational material his riders apparently seemed to offer, even inadvertently.

The fact that I did not turn out to be Dr. Morse was no obstacle. And now he took off his hat to let me guess his age. I studied his appearance from behind. “Forty-five,” I said after some consideration. He had only the slightest tinge of gray hair, a youngish-looking face, and seemed fit. Middle-aged.

He proceeded to tell me that a local magazine had cited him for looking much younger than his age. I was not the first to peg him at 45 or thereabouts. It happens a lot. Then he finally tipped his cap. “Seventy-two,” he admitted. I admitted that he looked remarkably good for 72. I asked him how old I looked, and he said 62. Off by just two years, I told him, I am 64. Perhaps my gray hair betrays me more than his does.

But this was about more than just age. He informed me that he had run a marathon, coming in fourth, I believe he said, in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Knowing that the U.S. had boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, I asked what country he had represented.

Ethiopia,” he answered. But he had been in Washington 12 years and liked it. I did not ask when he came to the U.S. Somehow it did not occur to me. I was more interested in the man’s story than in mere numbers and dates. He seemed to look so young because of sheer fitness. It is curious how many immigrants become taxi drivers—it seems to be a port of entry in the job world, as well as a great way to learn your way around a new city—but few are former Olympians, for this or any other country. U.S. Olympians, of course, often have much greater opportunities in life if for no other reason than access to money, if they become heroes, or at least education. Such opportunities can more easily escape an aging Ethiopian runner. I would wager, however, that it is not escaping his grandchildren or, since he claimed to have some, his great grandchildren. He seemed amused that I could only claim grandchildren who are nowhere close to being old enough to produce their own offspring.

Soon enough, I found myself getting out in front of Embassy Suites. I tipped him nicely, adding $4 to a $16 ride to offer him a twenty. Taking my luggage as he pulled it out of the trunk, I commented that Washington must have been a significant shift from growing up in Ethiopia. He smiled. Yes, it was, and he did not seem to mind.

Earlier that morning, I had a somewhat more mundane conversation with a young man driving me to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I had noted, in this 5:30 a.m. ride on Fathers’ Day, that I typically take the CTA Blue Line to the airport, that I traveled a lot, but that I simply had too much luggage on this first leg of a triangle trip to Washington, then Boston, then back to Chicago later in the week, to take the train this morning. It was a business trip. Only as we neared O’Hare did he suddenly mention, for a reason I have now forgotten, that he was from Sri Lanka, though he had moved here with his parents when he was five years old.

“I’ve been there,” I mentioned. He was stunned. Almost no one from America, to his knowledge, went to Sri Lanka, and it is probably true. I am sure it ranks poorly on a list of U.S. tourist destinations, although it ranks well with Australians, who don’t have nearly so far to go. I noted that it was unquestionably the longest journey one could possibly take from Chicago.

“When were you there?” he asked.

“April and May of 2005,” I answered. He immediately guessed that the reason for my trip must have been the tsunami. I confirmed that was the case, telling him I had been part of a team of planners and architects invited by the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects—but that I was an urban planner.  We discussed some details like how long I was there (ten days) and the army checkpoints that marked off barriers at the time to territory held by the Tamil Tigers.

By then, we had pulled up to the American Airlines terminal, and I got out and collected my luggage. I am also sure that encounter made his day. He had encountered a passenger who actually knew something about Sri Lanka and had been there for a serious purpose.

It’s amazing what conversations you can have with cabbies if you are willing. It’s a window into the immigrant experience in America. You might learn something.


Jim Schwab