Helping Planners Advance Disaster Recovery

Reports of the widespread impacts of Hurricane Ida, catastrophic flooding in the Northeast, and another extraordinary wildfire season in the West are just the latest entries in an all-too-familiar disaster news cycle. As climate change continues to increase the frequency and severity of hazardous events, communities need to come to terms with the fact that similar disasters can and, likely, will occur in the coming years.

With support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Cooperating Technical Partners program, APA recently published the Post-Disaster Recovery Guide for Planners. This resource aims to help local planners working for communities that are recovering from all kinds of disasters, including catastrophic flooding and damage and disruption from cascading hazards.

While planners have a distinct skillset that makes them well-positioned to contribute to community recovery efforts after a disaster, how they can participate is not always immediately clear.

Planners can play various roles throughout the recovery process — namely as stewards, facilitators, and advocates — to help restore community functions and prepare communities to withstand future hazards.

Planners Guide Recovery with Community Plans

Planners often act as stewards of a community's long-term vision for change due to their familiarity with community plans and land-use and development regulations. During recovery, planners can reference these existing plans to guide recovery efforts. In doing so, they can save valuable time and provide thoughtful land-use and development options for recovery. This also reminds community members to uphold the objectives of existing plans instead of merely trying to restore the community to its pre-disaster condition.

Planners may also act as facilitators of community conversations after a disaster. Community engagement during the recovery period presents unique challenges, such as dealing with heightened emotions and a compressed timeline. Yet planners can translate their experience working with diverse sets of stakeholders during typical planning processes to the context of recovery, such as encouraging collaboration and consensus-building.

Finally, planners have an ethical responsibility to elevate the voices of individuals from population groups that planning and land-use decision-making processes have traditionally excluded or marginalized. Planners can advocate for recovery activities that address inequitable conditions instead of reproducing or exacerbating them.

Guide Aids Planners Post-disaster Recovery

In addition to identifying the various roles planners can play in recovery, the Post-Disaster Recovery Guide for Planners prepares planners to support the development and implementation of an interim recovery strategy (also known as an interim recovery plan). The interim recovery strategy identifies short-term goals and objectives for recovery and describes critical action priorities that respond to urgent recovery needs.

While some planners may be in a position to lead the development of this interim strategy in the communities they serve, it is more common for planners to serve as advisors. Planners can source ideas for the interim recovery strategy from existing plans. They can also evaluate proposals for the interim recovery strategy to see if they align with the objectives and goals of existing plans.

By focusing on the immediate and interim recovery activities that planners can participate in following a disaster, this guide builds upon the 2014 Planning Advisory Service Report 576, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, and the accompanying briefing papers. The guide also complements more recent publications, such as the July 2021 issue of Zoning Practice — Zoning and Disaster Recovery — as well as two newly released case studies that explore how Los Angeles County, California, and Hillsborough County, Florida plan for the Wildland-Urban Interface. APA also has an ongoing series of Planning Information Exchange (PIE) webinars in partnership with the Association of Floodplain Managers.

Disaster recovery is a complex field where many professionals play different roles. During Phase One of this project, researchers at Texas A&M University found that literature on this topic is extensive. However, very little of this literature is geared toward planners and what they can do to support short-term recovery efforts.

With the Post-Disaster Recovery Guide for Planners, APA hopes to fill a gap in disaster recovery resources by providing planners with hands-on, actionable guidance that they can reach for during the earliest stages of disaster recovery. This guide serves as one resource that planners can have at their fingertips if and when their community experiences a disaster of any size.

Top image: Photo by Ralph Simcox / FEMA.

About the Author
Alexsandra Gomez is a research associate with APA.

September 28, 2021

By Alexsandra Gomez