Long-Term Community Recovery Planning

by Mary Shaw, AICP

Following the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, Gulf Coast communities prepared long-term recovery plans that propose not only recovery and hazard mitigation actions, but also a wide variety of regular planning actions. This study examines the proposed actions contained in nine sample plans, and recommends that recovery planning might be more effective if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and planners examine the recovery planning process to update guidance on the process and content of long-term recovery plans.

At least since the late 1970s, it has been common for communities to prepare long-term recovery plans after receiving presidential disaster declarations following a natural disaster, in part because the federal government has provided support. Planning efforts are driven by state and local priorities, and are intended to focus on permanent restoration of infrastructure, housing, and the local economy.

Following the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, many long-term recovery plans were developed at the county level. States provided general guidelines for the focus of the plans, but — unlike the content of hazard mitigation plans, which must comply with the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 and meet specifications articulated by FEMA — the content of long-term recovery plans is not guided by federal legislation.

To better understand the types of actions that are proposed in long-term recovery plans, nine county-level plans were selected for review; three plans each were reviewed from Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The content of these nine plans is the focus of this case study.


While natural disasters occur throughout the country because of tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and wildfires, this case study focuses on the planning that ensued following widespread disasters caused by hurricanes during 2004 and 2005 in Gulf Coast states. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne led to presidential disaster declarations in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana in 2004. Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma led to disaster declarations in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas in 2005. With a declaration, specific counties or parishes in a state are eligible for various forms of federal assistance, including debris removal (see Figure 1), repair and replacement of public facilities and infrastructure, temporary housing, and, in the most severely affected communities, federal assistance for planning the recovery strategy.

Debris in Historic New Orleans Neighborhood Boat Leaning on Tree in New Orleans
Figure 1   Figure 2
Debris in Historic New Orleans Neighborhood Winter 2006   Boat Leaning on Tree in New Orleans,
September 2005

Planning Guidance

Relatively few resources are available to communities describing how to develop a recovery plan, and there has been relatively little analysis of the recovery planning process or of the components of such plans. This is in contrast to the wide variety of resources available on hazard mitigation planning and the body of research concerning the effectiveness of mitigation actions.

In 2005, FEMA published Long-Term Community Recovery Planning Process: A Self-Help Guide to assist communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA suggests that planners and the public begin to develop recovery goals by answering questions such as: What obstacles are making recovery difficult? What would make the community more damage-resistant in the future? What kind of a community should this be in 10 or 20 years? (FEMA 2005). Thus, FEMA recommends a focus not only on identifying immediate recovery needs, but also on the more familiar planning themes of mitigating future losses and developing a vision.

The Smart Recovery Guide (URS Group 2004) suggests methods for incorporating sustainability into post-disaster recovery. For flooding, which was one component of the disasters caused by the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, the publication recommends the usual flood damage prevention or mitigation techniques of elevation, floodproofing, acquisition and demolition, and relocation; development of stormwater management plans; adoption of zoning regulations to deter future development in flood hazard areas; and improved enforcement of floodplain regulations. For coastal storms such as hurricanes, URS suggests measures such as using shutters and hurricane straps, and mentions use of seawalls but cautions that these may cause erosion. Other recovery measures to reduce damage in the future include adoption of building codes and requiring real estate transfer disclosure about a property's vulnerability to coastal storms.

FEMA's publication Rebuilding for a More Sustainable Future (FEMA 2000) recommends that recovery planning focus on land use, housing, and public infrastructure. This publication recommends that planners incorporate sustainability into long-term recovery goals and identify strategies that will not only to repair damages, but also reduce the likelihood of damage in the future.

In Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, a joint publication of FEMA and the American Planning Association, the authors explain the difficulties in developing a recovery plan in a community following a disaster and suggest elements that might be included in a recovery plan (Schwab et al. 1998). A regional approach is recommended for addressing immediate needs such as evacuation, emergency shelter, emergency operations, temporary housing, debris removal, and repairs to transportation corridors.

Each of these publications describes a recovery planning process that includes opportunities for public participation and states that the recovery actions depend upon the needs, constraints, and capabilities of each community.

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