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Nine measures of disaster recovery


On the ninth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … nine measures of disaster recovery. Well, … there are many more than nine, but we’re not going to bore you with them all.

Imagine a man, Joe, who has lost a leg in an accident. Because of the injury, Joe has to reconsider his job. He gets depressed and his personal relationships suffer. Eventually, he receives a prosthetic limb and is able to walk, run, and even participate in sports. He gets a new job, and his depression lifts.

At what point in this story can we say that Joe has “recovered”? When he is done with hospitals and doctors? When he can walk unaided, or he can be active in sports? Perhaps his recovery is not reasonably complete until his professional and personal lives are stable, or when his depression is under control.

We want to say that it’s when Joe is “back to normal.” But, clearly, he cannot return to his pre-injury life, so what does “normal” mean? Joe’s “recovery” depends on his finding a new normalcy.

The same is true for communities who suffer a disaster:

My neighborhood will never be the same. Because of [the wildfire]. And I, you know, we used to have a quiet, sweet little neighborhood and it’s not like that anymore. … I’ve gone through grief at the loss of my neighborhood and gratitude that my home is still here. … People are gone. My dearest neighbors don’t live here anymore. They live in Felton. People whose children I knew since they were born. And, just the character, the neighborhood changes, because some of the characters are gone.

–– Judy S. in Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories | Creative Crisis Leadership 

As is evident in Joe’s and Judy’s stories, “recovered” is not an easily defined goal. Rather than asking, “Are they recovered?”, we should instead ask,  “How much have they recovered?” or “Have they recovered enough?” To answer such questions, we need something (or many somethings) to measure. Before we can measure, we have to define what we want to measure. 

A working definition of recovery has very real and practical implications.  When should the Red Cross and FEMA stop support for survivors of a hurricane? What costs should insurance companies cover? What preparedness measures lead to better outcomes?

We need a working definition in order to perform fundamental disaster management tasks, such as  assessing service needs, setting policy, and measuring effectiveness of preparedness activities,

All partners involved in recovery have an interest in looking at how their actions impact the overall progress of the recovery effort. Each entity must identify their strategies and benchmarks for how they will measure their efforts both qualitatively and quantitatively.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 52

Of critical importance to measuring recovery is the appraisal of the effect of preparedness efforts on individual and community recovery,

Recovery is not an isolated mission to be engaged only during post-disaster conditions. Complete recovery post-disaster involves the coordination and concurrent efforts of all mission areas. Through proper preparedness and activities pre-disaster, post-disaster recovery needs can be reduced, and recovery efforts can be accelerated.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 52

Defining “Recovery”

The UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) defines recovery as:

The restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and “build back better”, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.

–– Recovery | UNDRR 

Yowza. There is a lot packed into that sentence. Let’s unpack it one phrase at a time.

“The restoring or improving …”

How much should be recovered? The UN definition does not settle for just ensuring survival, but says that recovery entails restoring, or even improving on, pre-disaster conditions. For example, In Joe’s case, getting him a prosthetic may not be enough, he may have to lose weight to be able to use it.

FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) offers more insight into why “recovery” covers more than simply returning to what was:

Recovery is more than the community’s return to pre-disaster circumstances; because of the time recovery takes, simple restoration may result in lost opportunities. This is especially true when the community determines that pre-disaster conditions are no longer sustainable, competitive, or functional. … Community recovery decision-making is best informed by evaluating all alternatives and avoiding simple rebuilding or reconstructing of an area that continues to be at risk.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 49

The NDRF highlights another complication of defining recovery, namely, that the goals for “restoring” and “improving” may differ from one community to another:

Each community defines recovery outcomes differently based on its circumstances, challenges, recovery vision, and priorities. One community may characterize recovery success as the return of its economy to pre-disaster conditions, while another may see it as the opening of new economic opportunities.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 49

“… of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities,…”

What aspects of recovery do we consider? Recovery is a broad concept that encompasses everything that makes our quality of life what it is. In Joe’s case, are we looking only at his physical well-being or are we considering his emotional and social needs as well?

Recovery extends beyond simply repairing damaged structures. It also includes the continuation or restoration of services critical to supporting the physical, emotional, and financial well-being of impacted community members.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 1

Unfortunately, it is not easy to know what aspects of life to measure, nor is there agreement on what should be measured. Elizabeth Jordan and Amy Javernick-Will explored the disaster management literature’s use of measurable recovery indicators. They report on the use of the following indicators of recovery, and broadly group them into four facets that are similar to those in the UN’s definition of recovery: social, economic, environment, and infrastructure.

Social Indicators:

  • Emotional
  • Equity
  • Population Return
  • Quality of Life
  • Social Services

Economic Indicators:

  • Employment
  • GNP
  • Gov’t Revenue
  • Income
  • Housing Values
  • # Businesses
  • Standard of Living

Environmental Indicators:

  • Air Quality
  • Erosion
  • Land Degradation
  • Sustainability
  • Water Quality

Infrastructure Indicators:

  • Debris Removal
  • Housing
  • Facilities & Lifelines
  • Transportation
  • Risk Reduction

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2195

Predictably, which facets to consider are in the eye of the beholder:

It is clear that [academics and practitioners] often view recovery and resilience from their unique disciplinary perspectives.

Not surprisingly, the social science articles are more likely to cite the social indicators of recovery than the other article types. It is interesting to note that the articles by practitioners are most likely to cite recovery equity, population return, sustainability and housing restoration. Across all article types, there is an interest in economic recovery; however the indicators used to assess economic recovery vary.

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2198, 2195

Jordan and Javernick-Will go on to conclude that,

… we still lack a set of indicators that can be used to assess recovery across a variety of disciplines and cases and build a comprehensive theory of the process.

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2191

“… of a disaster-affected community or society, …”

At what level of analysis are we taking measurements? Are we measuring recovery of individuals, entire communities or something in between?  In Judy’s case, we could focus on the recovery of individuals in her neighborhood by measuring the number of homes that were undamaged or rebuilt. However, to understand the impact that she describes, we might want to consider a community-wide measurement such as population return.

In the words of Jordan and Javernick-Will,

The unit of analysis for recovery can vary; resulting in studies of recovery at various scales, including communities, households, individuals, businesses or infrastructure systems. Recovery progress may be assessed differently depending on the unit of analysis. For example, a community, as a whole, may have “recovered” while some individuals are left out of the process.

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2191

“… aligning with the principles of sustainable development and ‘build back better’, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.”

Should recovery efforts reduce the risk of crisis from further disasters? Many feel that recovery is not complete if another flood or tornado can come by and destroy what has just been restored. Therefore, recovery should include improvements to increase the communities’ resilience for the next time lightning strikes.

… many researchers now claim that a successful recovery should not return the community to its pre-disaster condition, but rather should result in an increase in disaster resilience.

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2191

It is vital that communities not only can recover to pre-disaster conditions, but that they are also provided the resources and support that can help them build sustainable and resilient processes, capabilities, and systems to effectively move forward.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 52


It’s impressive how much the UN packs into its one-sentence definition of recovery!

Effective recovery takes many actors working together who must cooperate and coordinate their efforts. As an example, take a look at the chart below analyzing the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The sequence and timing of reconstruction after Katrina in New Orleans with actual experience (solid lines) and sample indicators for the first year along a logarithmic time line of weeks after the disaster. The long-term projections (dashed lines) are based on an emergency period of 6 weeks, a restoration period of 45 weeks, and a 10-fold historical experience for reconstruction.

The sequence and timing of reconstruction after Katrina in New Orleans with actual experience (solid lines) and sample indicators for the first year along a logarithmic time line of weeks after the disaster. The long-term projections (dashed lines) are based on an emergency period of 6 weeks, a restoration period of 45 weeks, and a 10-fold historical experience for reconstruction.
–– Reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: A research perspective | PNAS (2006)


This complex effort can take a long time. Jordan and Javernick-Will observe that,  

An additional challenge is that the timescale of recovery is not clear. It is difficult to determine the appropriate timeframe to measure recovery. Sustainable recovery may take years, and therefore measurements of recovery and post-disaster capacity must be taken throughout time until well after a disaster has occurred.

–– Measuring Community Resilience and Recovery: A Content Analysis of Indicators, pg. 2191

Any effort of such complexity, taking place over an extended time, requires that all actors taking part share measurable indicators of progress:

… Measuring and communicating the progress of recovery increases public confidence in the recovery process by promoting transparency, accountability, and efficiency. It enables local leadership to identify ongoing recovery needs and engages partners in providing assistance and problem resolution.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework, pg. 50

We at Creative Crisis Leadership are dedicated to easing community recovery with pre-disaster preparedness through our community workshops. Our mission is to increase social resilience, which is about helping individuals and communities recover better and faster. As a member of the disaster recovery theater, we have an obligation to measure whether our work is truly effective.

If you are interested in working or partnering with us to develop measures of learning outcomes, recovery or social resilience, or further other aims of our research program, please get in touch.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the participants in our Research Roundtables, and our research colleagues, especially: Zeno Franco, Jasmine Qin, Joe Lasley, Daniel Aldrich, Duncan Shaw, and Louise Comfort.


In case we don’t win the lottery, please a small donation to
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We thank you for all that you give.


Eight wishes for 2023!


On the eighth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … eight wishes for 2023!

  1. We wish for no disasters to happen so no one has to suffer pain and loss.
  2. We wish for all communities to be socially resilient so they recover faster and better from disaster.
  3. We wish for everyone to act, improvise and overcome together in crisis so our work is complete.
  4. We wish for more talent and time on our team so we can help more communities prepare to be unprepared.
  5. We wish for us to complete the Twelve Days of Thanks and Giving quickly after our holiday break so we can apply what we’ve learned to grow our impact.
  6. We wish for unicorns and porcupines to inspire hope and joy in the world.
  7. We wish for us to win the lottery so we don’t have to ask you to donate now to help (some of) our wishes to come true.
  8. We wish for YOU to have a safe, prosperous and joyfilled year.

May we all receive all that we need.


To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the people who have supported our work this year, including Jock Mackinlay and Polle Zellweger, Maurita Holland, Dick and Rita Juhl, Norma Bowles and George Furnas.


In case we don’t win the lottery, please a small donation to
support our work.
We thank you for all that you give.

Seven Questions of Disaster Management — The Evolution of US Philosophy


On the seventh day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … seven questions of disaster management, and trace the evolution of disaster management philosophy in the US.

In our last post, we described how Federal disaster relief is activated in the US. Today, we look at the evolution of disaster management in the US. We are particularly interested in how the Federal philosophy has changed in regards to seven basic questions:

  1. Who is responsible for managing disaster?
  2. Who has the legal and moral authority to make decisions?
  3. Who has the resources — assets, skills, knowledge, time — needed?
  4. What are the intended goals?
  5. What are the priorities?
  6. What is the scope of activities?
  7. What happens when efforts fail?

Current philosophy

Today, the prevailing philosophy in the US is that disaster management is the responsibility of local and state governments. The federal government supplements state and local efforts when their resources are insufficient. The goal is to be able to handle a full spectrum of disasters, rather than any specific threats, the “all-hazards approach.” The priorities are preparedness and response in order to

… save lives, protect property and the environment, stabilize the incident, and meet basic human needs following an incident … [and] enable recovery.
National Response Framework

To meet these objectives, the government seeks to include all stakeholders — communities, businesses, nonprofits — in planning and delivering services, the “whole-community approach.”

How did we get here, and is this the right philosophy?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Disaster management is a community responsibility

For most of human history, disaster management is a community responsibility. When a mastodon injures half the hunters and wipes out the food supply, it is up to the villagers to help themselves and each other. With luck, they might get help from a neighboring village. And they might build a fence or post guards to prevent it from happening again.

Responsibility, goals, priorities, authority and resources all lie in the hands of the community itself.

1803: Federal support for recovery

Gradually, idiosyncratic systems of aid evolve. Local governments take on partial responsibility for helping their constituents in a disaster. Each develops their own philosophy of what and how much should be done.

On Dec. 26 1802, a fire blazes through the wooden buildings of downtown Portsmouth New Hampshire, and destroys 114 buildings, including 100 homes. In Jan 1803, the US Congress approves “A Bill, For the relief of the sufferers by fire, in the town of Portsmouth” that authorizes the suspension

… for months, the collection of bonds due to the United States by merchants of Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, who have suffered by the late conflagration of that town.
H.R. 11, 7th Congress of the United States of America

This is the first act of disaster relief by the US federal government. Notably, the goal is economic recovery, and the “sufferers” who receive assistance are merchants. Portsmouth was an important seaport at the time, and pragmatically, congressional aims were to mitigate impacts on trade.

Over the next 150 years, Congress passes 128 separate laws offering disaster relief. Each of these is in response to a specific disaster, and require full congressional approval. In most cases, assistance is financial, frequently in the form of suspending financial obligations to speed economic recovery and prevent cascading consequences for regional and national commerce. There is no mention of humanitarian relief.

The ad hoc nature of Federal assistance in this period is exemplified by two catastrophic events, the 1889 Johnstown flood and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake:

On May 31 1889, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River in Western Pennsylvania fails. Within an hour, flood waters destroy the towns of Mineral Point, East Conemaugh and Johnstown, kill an estimated 2209 people, and cause $17M of damage (1889 dollars). Contributions for disaster relief come from all over the country and the world, but, as far as we can determine, not from the Federal government. [Nathan Daniel Shappee. A history of Johnstown and the great flood of 1889: a study of disaster and rehabilitation. 1940.]

On April 18 1906, a rupture on the San Andreas fault West and North of San Francisco California triggers a magnitude 7.9 earthquake. Within days, more than 3000 people are dead and 80% of San Francisco is destroyed. Again, contributions for disaster relief come in from all over the country and the world. Congress enacts emergency appropriations for the city to pay for food, water, tents, blankets, and medical supplies. They also allocate funds to reconstruct damaged public buildings. [San Francisco Earthquake, 1906 | National Archives.]

In the first event, the federal government apparently does not act. In the second, the government acts to speed economic recovery — again, of an important center of commerce.

1881: American Red Cross and humanitarian assistance

While Federal funds are allocated to help pay for relief supplies after the San Francisco earthquake, the Federal government does not engage directly in the response. The US Army carries out relief activities, as they have in other disasters, e.g., after hurricanes ravaged Puerto Rico (1899) and Galveston Texas (1900). But such engagement occurs where the army is already present, and is authorized by local military officials.

On Sep. 4 1881, fires break out in Michigan’s “Thumb.” In two days, the Great Thumb Fire claims 282 lives, burns more than a million acres, leaves 14,448 people homeless, and causes more than $2.3M of damage (1881 dollars). The newly formed American Red Cross undertakes its first official disaster response, providing direct humanitarian assistance to survivors.

In 1900, Congress grants the Red Cross its first Federal charter. The charter includes a mandate for the Red Cross to,

… carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and to apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great national calamities
Our Federal Charter | Red Cross

This, effectively, designates humanitarian assistance a nongovernmental function.

1927: Federal participation in response

After months of heavy rain in April 1927, a series of 145 levee failures cause the Great Mississippi Flood. 246 people die, 27,000 square miles are inundated, and more than 162,000 homes in the Mississippi river valley flood. President Coolidge creates a commission to organize and oversee the government response, coordinating resources and relief efforts with the Red Cross. This marks the first time the Federal government participates directly in disaster response.

1936: Federal support for prevention

The Great Mississippi flood is only one of numerous floods that plague the country. Between 1849 and 1936, Congress funds a series of flood control acts to aid navigation. Disaster prevention is a secondary effect.

The 1936 Flood Control Act is the first general bill that provides for flood relief throughout the country, and is the first piece of legislation to recognize flood control as “a proper activity of the Federal Government.” It also “states a principle … that the federal government should take primary responsibility for dealing with the menace of terrifying, huge floods,” officially establishing a Federal role in disaster prevention. [Joseph L. Arnold. The evolution of the 1936 Flood Control Act. 1988.]

1950: Federal responsibilities spelled out

In 1950, Congress approves the Federal Disaster Relief Act, clarifying and formalizing the role of the Federal government in disaster management,

… it is the intent of Congress to provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance by the Federal Government to States and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to alleviate suffering and damage resulting from major disasters, to repair essential public facilities in major disasters, and to foster the development of such State and local organizations and plans to cope with major disasters as may be necessary.
P.L.81-875;64 Stat.1109

The bill establishes a general Disaster Relief Fund, and places funds directly under presidential authority. That is, congressional approval is no longer required to fund disaster relief. It explicitly states that the Federal assistance supplements state and local government efforts, and establishes the principle that the Federal government is not a first-line provider of assistance. It also puts a cost-sharing policy in place whereby Federal assistance is supplied when, and only when, State and local governments have committed “a reasonable amount of the funds” needed.

While the Disaster Relief Act gives the government responsibility for disaster management, it also sets clear limits on that responsibility. It prioritizes preparedness, response and recovery, but does not set policy or provide guidelines for delivering on government responsibilities.

Over the next thirty years, the country experiences a series of major disasters. Earthquakes: Hebgen Lake (Montana, 1959), Prince William Sound (Alaska, 1964); Cyclones and Hurricanes: Donna (Florida, 1960), Carla (Texas, 1961), Ash Wednesday Storm (mid-Atlantic states, 1962), Betsey (Florida, Louisiana, 1965), Camille (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, 1969), Agnes (Eastern seaboard, 1972); Tornado outbreaks: (midwest, 1965), (midwest, northeast, 1974), to name a few.

Cold war politics add nuclear war to the country’s concerns. The Federal Civil Defense Administration develops civil defense programs across the country, encouraging individuals and communities to build bomb shelters. The Department of Commerce focuses on weather, warning, and fire protection, the General Services Administration on continuity of government and federal preparedness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development on flood insurance and disaster relief.

By 1974, more than 100 federal agencies are involved in some aspect of risk and disaster. The problems of a decentralized approach become apparent: States don’t know where to go when a disaster actually hits.

1979: FEMA established

On April 1 1979, Executive Order 12127—Federal Emergency Management Agency takes effect, putting the provisions of Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 into place. This

  1. Establishes a new agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
  2. Transfers numerous emergency preparedness, mitigation, and response activities, along with associated resources, from other agencies to the new agency, and, significantly,
  3. Specifies that the Director of FEMA reports directly to the President.

However, the new agency experiences two challenges in developing a coherent philosophy for carrying out its mission. First, it is staffed with political appointees with little or no disaster management experience. Second, the next decade is relatively free of major disasters, and nuclear attack dominates national fears. Natural hazard programs receive little attention and suffer from attrition of funds and experienced personnel.

This proves disastrous when FEMA is slow and ineffective in responding to a series of catastrophic disasters, including Hurricanes Hugo (Puerto Rico, North Carolina, South Carolina, 1989), Andrew (Florida, Louisiana, 1992), Iniki (Hawaii, 1992), and the Loma Prieta earthquake (San Francisco Bay Area, 1989).

1993: Professionalization of disaster management

In the face of calls to disband the agency, newly elected President Clinton appoints James Lee Witt as Director. For the first time, FEMA is led by someone with emergency management experience. Things change quickly.

Agency priorities are expanded to include prevention and mitigation, and now cover all five phases of contemporary disaster management practice. An overarching goal is set to be able to handle any hazard. To achieve this comprehensive vision, the agency engages in a new community-based approach that aims to build partnerships with states and local authorities, and bring risk and risk avoidance considerations into communities’ everyday decision-making. For the first time, the business sector is included as a stakeholder.

By 2000, FEMA is recognized as the preeminent emergency management system in the world.

2001: Terrorism takes over

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing brings concerns of terrorist attack to the fore. However, the knowledge, resources and technologies needed to deal with biochemical warfare and weapons of mass destruction are very different from what is needed for managing natural hazards. By 2000, authority and responsibility for addressing terrorist events is spread over several agencies.

In early 2001, the incoming Bush administration reorganizes FEMA. The new director lacks emergency management experience. Terrorism is considered the top concern, and ‘natural’ disaster management is deemed a state and local responsibility. Funding is cut for community-based initiatives.

On Sep. 11 2001, terrorists destroy the World Trade Center in New York and damage the Pentagon in Washington DC, killing 2977 people and causing $10B-$20B in property damage (2011 dollars).

A year later, on Nov. 25 2002, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HS Act; Public Law 107-296) establishes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The stated mission of the new department makes makes the goal of ‘natural’ disaster management a poor relation:

(A) prevent terrorist attacks within the United States;
(B) reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism;
(C) minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery, from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States;
(D) … [act] as a focal point regarding natural and manmade crises and emergency planning; [emphasis added]
[(E-F) ensure that other efforts and economic security are not diminished]
(G) monitor connections between illegal drug trafficking and terrorism, coordinate efforts to sever such connections, and otherwise contribute to efforts to interdict illegal drug trafficking.
HS Act; Public Law 107-296, Sec. 101

FEMA loses its status as an independent agency, and no longer has direct access to the president. Its personnel and funds are redistributed within DHS, once again decentralizing authority and resources for disaster management. New levels of bureaucracy create confusion over who would be in charge in a disaster.

On Aug. 29 2005, Hurricane Katrina scours through Louisiana, killing more than 1800 people and causing $125B in damage (2005 dollars). Federal, state, and local government responses fall far short.

2006: Top-down emergency management

In the wake of widespread criticism, FEMA is reorganized. Again. While it remains part of DHS, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Public Law 109–295), brings all emergency functions back into the agency, protects its resources from reassignment, and gives the FEMA Administrator direct access to the President.

The new FEMA management adopts a top-down philosophy in which the Federal government is to take charge in a major disaster, supplanting state and local efforts.

This doctrine is short-lived.

2009: “Whole-community” approach

In 2009, newly elected President Obama selects Craig Fugate as FEMA Administrator. Fugate, a highly experienced emergency manager and former fire fighter, is an advocate for personal and community preparedness.

In 2011, FEMA releases a “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action,” which lays down a local and state-driven all-hazards philosophy, and embraces a collaborative role of government,

Government can and will continue to serve disaster survivors. However, we fully recognize that a government-centric approach to disaster management will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident. That is why we must fully engage our entire societal capacity….
— Craig Fugate

Thirteen years later, this philosophy still prevails.


The UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), defines disaster management as,

The organization, planning and application of measures preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.
Disaster management | UNDRR

Examining the evolution of disaster management philosophy reveals a changeable process that continuously raises seven key questions:

  1. Who is responsible for “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster”?
  2. Who has the legal and moral authority to determine what “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster” means?
  3. Who has the resources — assets, skills, knowledge, time — for “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster”?
  4. What are the goals of “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster”?
  5. What are the priorities in “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster”?
  6. What is the scope of “preparing for, responding to and recovering from disaster”?
  7. What happens when the “organization, planning and application of measures” fails?

We believe that a network of complementary philosophies is needed to meet the world’s disaster management needs. That is, that there are many “right” answers to these questions. We believe that increasing resilience requires developing community and government philosophies that complement each other rather than seeking to make them one.

Among other sources, this post draws on:

  • Bullock, Jane, Haddow, George D., Coppola, Damon P. Introduction to Emergency Management. Butterworth-Heineman, 2020.
  • Emergency Management Institute. A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance. Independent Study IS-7, (2003).


To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the many disaster management professionals who have fought to advance the philosophies of disaster management, including James Lee Witt, Craig Fugate, Barbara Cimino, Ken Dueker, Nancy Brown, Olga Crowe, Terry Unter, and Luke Beckman.


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We thank you for all that you give.


Six steps of federal disaster assistance – Under the hood of the U.S. federal process


On the sixth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … six steps of the U.S. federal disaster assistance process.

In our last two posts, we talked about where and how to find help after a disaster. Today, we offer a glimpse into why disaster assistance is a complex matter. We look under the hood of the official U.S. federal response to disaster, led by FEMA. We hope this will shed clarity on what needs to happen for federal assistance to be distributed to disaster survivors.

We describe the official U.S. federal response process in six steps, drawing heavily on Unit 3 of A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance (Emergency Management Institute. Independent Study IS-7, 2003).


The philosophy underlying federal assistance is that community and local government drive the relief effort:

The responsibility of preparing for disaster recovery begins with the individual and builds to the larger responsibility of the community and local government. The local government has the primary role of planning and managing all aspects of the community’s recovery. Community planning efforts are supported by voluntary, faith-based and community organizations; private sector; and State, Local, Tribal, Territorial and Federal Governments.
National Disaster Recovery Framework Brochure

The federal government can bring far greater resources to an incident than a local government. But it cannot bear the brunt of all disasters, especially as the impact of disasters continues to grow. Neither can the federal government know the necessary details of every stricken neighborhood to determine who needs what, when. Therefore, the federal government requires local governments to share the cost of a disaster, and consults with local agencies to resolve last mile issues,

State, local, tribal and territorial government officials are primarily responsible for managing disaster recovery in their communities.
— Recovery Resources | (our emphasis)

Federal assistance is available to supplement the resources of State, local, and voluntary agencies in major disasters.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-1 (our emphasis)

The federal response process is initiated by a series of steps — see graphic above —
prescribed by a set of congressional acts, most notably the Stafford Act of 1988. A Declaration of a State of Emergency by the President of the United States is the key event that enables federal aid to be given to states for any incident.

Once approved, FEMA uses a series of official frameworks to direct their actions, including,

The National Response Framework (NRF) is a guide to how the nation responds to all types of disasters and emergencies. It is built on scalable, flexible, and adaptable concepts … to align key roles and responsibilities.
National Response Framework |.

The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial and local jurisdictions.
National Disaster Recovery Framework |

This post walks through how these frameworks are activated.

Step 1. Before lightning strikes

Preparation and time are critical when responding to a disaster. State and federal officials may begin their response even before the disaster occurs:

In predictable disasters, such as hurricanes, [Advanced Emergency Response Teams (ERT-A)] may be sent into the area before the storm strikes to set up emergency communications equipment and help coordinate early response efforts. An important role of the ERT-A is to obtain information on the impact of the event and identify the types of short and long-term assistance that may be needed.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance

When the risk is high enough, the President may declare a State of Emergency in advance, as President Biden did for Florida four days in advance of Hurricane Ian’s landfall.

From the beginning, FEMA will work with state, local, nonprofit and private sector partners to provide relief. For instance,

Nearly a week before its first U.S. landfall … the American Red Cross mobilized more than 100 trucks loaded with tens of thousands of relief supplies, dozens of emergency response vehicles and hundreds of disaster responders to be ready to support families in the path of Hurricane Ian.

As the storm approached the coast, some 2.5 million Floridians were asked to evacuate and the Red Cross worked closely with our partners to support more than 200 evacuation centers.
Hurricane Ian Relief Information | Red Cross

Unfortunately, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other less predictable disasters do not offer much warning, leading to delays before help can arrive.

Step 2. Local to State Request for Aid

Local authorities request state help when local resources aren’t enough. State authorities request federal help when state resources aren’t enough. For example,

… local officials declared a State of Emergency, acting in accordance with the local emergency operations plan. As the flood waters rose and spread and essential buildings suffered major damage, local officials determined that they did not have adequate resources to respond effectively … and asked the State for assistance. To support their request, local officials described the extent and types of damage caused by the flood. They asked for specific kinds of assistance, including help in evacuating persons from affected areas and in keeping people from entering unsafe highways or other restricted areas.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-5

If the state agrees to the local request for assistance, the state governor will declare a State of Emergency, thereby releasing state resources.

Step 3. State to Federal Request for Aid

If the State concludes that effective response needs may exceed both the State’s resources and those of the community, then the State can request that FEMA regional officials join them in conducting preliminary damage assessments (PDAs). Based on the PDA, the governor decides whether to request federal aid.

The request must include specific information required by law, including the nature and amount of local and State resources that have been or will be committed to disaster-related work. The request must also guarantee that the cost-sharing provisions of the Stafford Act will be met.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-9

The above request process may seem lengthy. However,

In general, the larger and more severe the disaster, the less information is needed initially to support the request. A smaller or less obvious situation requires a greater amount of information to verify that Federal assistance is needed. An aerial survey conducted by FEMA and State officials might be enough to demonstrate the need for Federal help, although damage assessments would continue after the declaration to help manage response and recovery measures.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-9.

Moreover, state and federal authorities do not just sit around and await a phone call:

Typically, when a disaster as serious as that in the [flood] scenario occurs, it is apparent from an early stage that not only State but also Federal assistance may be needed. State and FEMA officials would continually monitor the progress of the incident.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-5

Thus, FEMA’s regional teams will be communicating with state and local authorities to assure a fast response as soon as it is determined that federal assistance is needed. As we saw above, for big enough disasters, FEMA may have the necessary Declaration of a State of Emergency that authorizes action before the event even happens.

Representatives of other response organizations such as nonprofits, local community organizations, and local businesses are typically included in these discussions. Most notably is the American Red Cross, which has a unique congressionally-chartered mandate “to carry out responsibilities delegated to us by the federal government.

Step 4. U.S. Presidential Declaration of State of Emergency

Formally, the FEMA Regional Director evaluates the governor’s request for federal assistance and makes a recommendation to the FEMA Director, who then reviews the recommendation, and passes it on to the President.

While this review may take time, it may be foreshortened for larger events, as we saw above. Indeed, in response to Hurricane Ian (2022), President Biden signed an Emergency Declaration for the State of Florida within hours of receiving the request from the Florida governor.

Step 5. Federal Response

FEMA leads the federal effort, but is by no means the only agency involved. Seventeen federal agencies, plus the Red Cross, are listed as primary or support agencies for the fifteen emergency support functions (ESF) of the National Response Framework. These federal agencies along with state agencies and non-governmental organizations have a seat at the table when determining and delivering federal relief:

The Federal, State, private, and voluntary agency response team relationship is established and fostered at an initial meeting held as soon as possible after the President’s declaration. All Federal, State, and voluntary agencies that can provide some form of disaster assistance are invited to be represented at this meeting. Initial relief coordination procedures are established, especially the details of setting up and staffing sites where disaster victims can apply for assistance. The [Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO)] and [State Coordinating Officer (SCO)] conduct subsequent coordination meetings as often as needed to establish priorities and objectives, identify problems, and document achievements.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-13

FEMA’s involvement in the response effort is determined by an agreement to which both FEMA and state authorities commit. Much of the agreement is based on the governor’s request for assistance,

This agreement describes the period of the incident (or disaster), the types of assistance to be provided, the areas eligible for assistance, the agreed-upon cost-share provisions, and other terms and conditions.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-11

FEMA may provide:

  • Assistance for individuals and businesses
  • Assistance for repairing or replacing essential public systems and facilities
  • Assistance for hazard mitigation to prevent or reduce future risk of the disaster

Step 6. Long-term Recovery

Many disaster assistance organizations, such as the Red Cross, only provide disaster response assistance. These are actions carried out immediately, to save lives, reduce economic losses, and alleviate suffering. However, people are in crisis long after the flood waters recede or the wildfire burns out. Homes may need to be repaired and communities rebuilt.

FEMA is in it for the long haul, helping individuals and communities for the full disaster recovery period:

The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial and local jurisdictions. … The NDRF focuses on how best to restore, redevelop and revitalize the health, social, economic, natural and environmental fabric of the community and build a more resilient nation.
National Disaster Recovery Framework |


The federal disaster response process may not be perfect, but consider all that has to happen for a well-considered response to happen. The description above is a tremendously simplified story – much, much more is going on than we have time here to describe. However, we hope this glimpse under the hood of the official U.S. federal response to disaster sheds some clarity on the process of getting federal aid to where it is needed.

So, once the earthquake has subsided, the wildfire is contained, or the tsunami has receded, know that a vast and complex response engine with many moving parts is working to help you. However, it might take time. So, be prepared to be proactive, work with your community, and do what you can to help yourself and those around you.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to these federal, state, and local agencies dedicated to helping us in the darkest moments, especially FEMAAmerican Red Cross, State agencies such as CalOES and CalFire, and local agencies such as Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management, Oakland’s Emergency Management Team, and Palo Alto’s Office of Emergency Services.


If you want to help empower people to help themselves, please
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We thank you for all that you give.

Five steps to obtaining disaster assistance


On the fifth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … five tips for getting the help you need after a disaster.

In our last post, we talked about four sources of disaster assistance, emphasizing that there is no one source for help. Today, we offer you five tips for getting started on navigating the stressful, confusing, and intimidating process of getting help.

These tips draw on the collective advice we gathered from people who had started and led a grassroots response to help their community in the face of COVID-19. The resulting “Seven Tips for Being Effective in a Crisis” were intended to help people start a community response, but we think the first five apply equally to helping find the help you need.

Tip 1: Just start!

Take a step. Take another. Keep going. Don’t let not knowing hold you back.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Finding help may seem daunting because there are so many sources that it’s difficult to know where to start. The worst thing to do is to give up before you start.The best thing to do is to start with a few places and go from there.

We recommend the following first steps.

  1. See what your local authority offers. They may have a website listing resources specifically available to you. For example, Sonoma county in California, posts recovery resources for residents affected by wildfires.
  2. Call your insurance company.
  3. Contact your local Red Cross chapter.
  4. Use FEMA’s to see what federal assistance may be available. 

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to fail

If you do something, you may succeed. If you do nothing, you’ve already failed.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Do not be intimidated by the difficulty of asking, the complexity of an application, nor assume that you will not qualify for assistance. There is no shame and little harm in asking. You might be pleasantly surprised!

And the insurance company did send somebody out. And I’m saying, “I don’t think you need to come out. There’s no damage here.” And the guy went around with his white glove, or whatever he did. And said, “No, you got all this, this needs to be …,” whatever, [they] handed us a bunch of money.

–– Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories

Tip 3: Don’t go it alone

Get others to help. Collaboration will make it easier, and help you do more.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

As we said in our last post, “The first source of help is right next to you.” The people around you are going through what you are going through. They are probably seeking much the same information about disaster assistance that you are. Save time and energy by pooling your knowledge. Share what you’ve found and find out what they’ve already learned.

Moreover, obtaining disaster relief can be exhausting and stressful. Sharing the process with others who are experiencing the same stresses can be motivating and uplifting.

There’s a growing consensus among emergency response researchers that in communities where social ties are strong and there is a sense of connectedness, residents are more readily able to rebound after a disruptive event such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or illness.

–– How to rebound from disasters? Resilience starts in the neighborhood

If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.

–– African Proverb

Tip 4: Build on what you have

Use the skills, resources, and relationships that are available to you. Develop new ones as you go along.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

When meeting with neighbors, take stock in what skills you each have and take advantage of each other’s skills. Those with good internet research skills can take the lead on online searches. Those with extensive social networks can seek out information from that network.  Those with membership in community organizations can explore the resources they offer.

Tally the social connections you have collectively. Find out who has connections to people in positions of knowledge and expertise. Fostering these connections for the community can be a powerful tool in the undertaking of obtaining disaster assistance.

“A community that has trusted ties to decision-makers can also receive about 20 to 30 percent more money for building back after a disaster than communities that do not have those connections.”

––  How to rebound from disasters? Resilience starts in the neighborhood

Tip 5: Focus

Tackle one problem at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Yes, there is a lot of assistance out there. This can be confusing. Furthermore,

… not all of the help is immediately available, and not everyone can access the aid easily. Also, eligibility for the programs can differ depending on the circumstances.

–– Here’s the disaster relief Hurricane Ian survivors can request, but it’s not always easy to get | CNN 

Figuring out what assistance to pursue when can be overwhelming and exhausting. So, begin by assessing your needs, prioritize them, and start with the most important ones. Do you need fundamentals like shelter, food, water, and utilities? Then start with those. Once you have obtained your top priorities, or at least performed the actions necessary to obtain them, then you can move on to the next, and the next, and the next….

When pursuing assistance, take the time to be thorough so as to give yourself the best chance of getting what you want.  Consider, as an example, that FEMA had 83,000 assistance applications within a week after Hurricane Ian. With so many applicants for FEMA to consider, you want to make it easy for their assessors to approve your request. So, make the effort to find out what makes a good application. Talk to experts and look for sites, like the following, that can help you through to a successful application:


There you have it –  five tips to help you make your way through the effort of getting help. We hope you never need them, but should disaster strike, we hope this helps.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the eleven remarkable individuals who gave us their time during our COVID-19 research project and whose collective insight produced our “Seven Tips for Being Effective in a Crisis.”


If you want to help others prepare to get help please
support our work.
We thank you for all that you give.