I'm a Disaster Scientist. Here's Why We Need to Think About Coronavirus Recovery Now

I'm a Disaster Scientist. Here's Why We Need to Think About Coronavirus Recovery Now
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The coronavirus pandemic does not end when you can leave your house or when scientists develop a vaccine. It ends when we have recovered. And as with any destructive hurricane, tornado, earthquake, oil spill, or terrorist attack, a recovery from this pandemic will happen.

Disaster survivors call recovery “the second disaster.” The process of rebuilding your life after a crisis is hard. I have studied communities like New Orleans and Houston that have undertaken years- and even decades-long recoveries. Last summer, I spent a day in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans rebuilding a house that had gone unfixed for 14 years since the levees broke and flooded the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina.

What could our recovery from covid-19 look like? We will not need to rebuild houses or clear debris off the streets like after a hurricane blows through. There are some commonalities between weather disaster and pandemic recovery, though.

The damage to human life, our mental health, and the spiraling repercussions of the devastating economic impacts can mirror some of those seen after a weather shock. We also should not undercount the scale of this recovery. The direct impacts of most disasters are relatively confined to a limited geographic area. That is not the case with this pandemic. Every state and territory will need to recover. Every community, every organization, every business, every group, every family, and every individual will all need to rebuild at once. And there are some predictors for what could spur a successful recovery.

A study of 14 impacted communities found three key factors that influence recovery post-disaster including leadership, knowledge of what to do, and the ability to act. In each community recovering from covid-19, we can expect that political leadership and an understanding of how to recover, combined with the access to needed resources will guide the recovery process and explain the outcome.

In times of crisis, leadership needs to be flexible while providing vision, initiative, and motivation. Notoriously, the response to Katrina and the levee failure lacked federal leadership until the arrival of General Russel Honoré in New Orleans (who himself has issued withering critiques of the federal response to coronavirus to-date). Leaders also need to have a plan for how to recover, particularly at the federal level.

While the U.S. does have a guide known as the National Disaster Recovery Framework for dealing with the aftermath of disasters, the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms its scope. Currently, there is no national plan for recovery from this pandemic. Even once such a plan is developed (assuming it is), each state and community will need their own version. This is difficult to do without a clear picture of what actions the federal government—both the White House and Congress—will take. Knowing what to do must also be paired with the resources to do it. Local leadership needs to have the ability to act, including everything from staff to apply to grants to actually having money to put toward the recovery.

While disaster research shows what it takes to recover successfully, it also provides a warning for how recovery can go wrong. Recovery is often an inefficient and unjust experience that varies greatly for individuals and communities depending on the extent of their needs and access to resources.

Post-disaster, individuals and households are largely left on their own to work through a complex series of federal programs that do not adequately meet their needs for many people. Many individuals and households have a difficult time acquiring the recovery resources they need that can offer them some form of stability.

There’s a bit of a myth that after a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) arrives at everyone’s door with a check to cover the damage. This is far from reality. The average financial assistance to Sandy survivors through FEMA’s individual assistance, for example, was only $8,000. Joplin tornado survivor’s averaged $5,700 and Tuscaloosa tornado survivor’s averaged even less with $3,500.

In the U.S., the approach we take to disaster recovery is one of limited government intervention. Our recovery system relies on individuals using their own resources and the resources of their friends and family before turning to the nonprofit sector for help. Only after that can individuals expect even minimal aid from federal and state governments.

At the end of March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which includes $1,200 for many Americans. Yet for people who live paycheck to paycheck, have lost their jobs, or face unexpected medical bills, $1,200 is not likely to last them through this pandemic, let alone the recovery. Those people will have to seek out any additional assistance through an even broader array of government programs. Following Hurricane Harvey’s devastating floods, hundreds of thousands in Texas relied on the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP). After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, many received benefits through Disaster Unemployment Assistance.

The inefficiencies and injustice that permeate disaster recovery are well known among emergency management experts and disaster researchers. Unfortunately, the failure to undertake comprehensive emergency management reform has contributed to the never-ending cycle of disasters across the country within which we are stuck.

Individuals, organizations, and communities work hard to restore and rebuild post-disaster but everything cannot go back together exactly as it was before. In fact, disaster researchers often argue we do not want everything to “return to normal” because those are the conditions that led to the disaster in the first place. Instead, there is a “reshaping” that happens post-disaster. This can be for the good, or for the bad.

Politicians often take a similar view, talking about “windows of opportunity” to make changes in the wake of disaster, including changes to policy. Post-disaster there are often calls to make changes to prevent a similar disaster from happening again. There have already been calls for a 9/11-style commission to identify the points of failure in the covid-19 response. This could lead to positive changes in our approach to public health and emergency management, but it could also fail to consider the larger, systemic problems at the root of the response failures. In emergency management, we are used to seeing knee-jerk policy change. Notoriously, the extensive, reactive post-9/11 policy changes had a negative effect on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure just years later.

We do not only need to re-think our current approach to pandemics but also our current approach to managing all disasters. This is especially urgent because of the climate crisis. Communities across the country are facing an increasing risk from multiple hazards. If recent disasters like the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons, 2019 Midwest flooding, and western wildfires are an indication, we are not ready. The emergency management system is already strained.

Disasters happen all the time and yet, after each one, communities are left to nearly reinvent the wheel. Few communities have disaster recovery plans before calamity strikes so they are left to largely improvise the recovery efforts. Not only can this leave us vulnerable to reactive policy change, but it can leave communities vulnerable to outside interests that want to take advantage of the situation.

Naomi Klein has written extensively about how corporations and governments take advantage of communities in the midst of crisis when they are unable to fully fight back. There are already signs of them already with the federal government’s response to coronavirus from forcing states to bid against each other for medical equipment to rolling back environmental regulations. These changes can be harmful to local communities in the long term.

Others have argued that now is the time for transformative policy change to better address the climate crisis and its consequences. Regardless of how policy changes unfold, the disaster research warns that for many, the recovery will be a long and difficult process. There’s a lot that can and will influence how recovery unfolds, including the actual impacts we end up seeing across the country. It may be hard to imagine in this moment when we are still very much in response mode and focused on life-saving tasks, but we do need to also look ahead to the recovery from coronavirus. The sooner we plan for recovery, the better it may go.

The best time to think about how we would recover from a pandemic was before the pandemic happened, the second best time is now.

Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at University of Nebraska Omaha. She has a doctoral degree in emergency management and writes at Disaster-ology.