Researcher: Empowering Civil Society is Right Approach to Disaster Recovery

By Matthew Harwood

Smith believes the dramatic differences in recovery times have to do with the amount of government involvement in the recovery planning process (which he measured by the page length of recovery plans and the percentage of community business people represented on each city’s advisory committee).

In Tuscaloosa, Smith obtained one long-term recovery plan that was 170 pages long, full of detailed requirements in an attempt comprehensively plan the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa.  In Joplin, however, it was 26 pages long (attached below) and full of recommendations.

In Tuscaloosa, Smith found, only 24 percent of the advisory committee was composed of businesspeople while in Joplin, three-fourths of the advisory committee was made up of businesspeople.

Tuscaloosa, according to Smith, has used the disaster to improve the city in ways that overwhelmingly have nothing to do with mitigating future risks presented by natural disasters.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox criticized the research  in an April op-ed . Smith says he stands by his research and that his interviews with business owners contradict Maddox’s claims that Tuscaloosa’s recovery has been fast, effective, and democratic.

Joseph Myers, former president of the National Emergency Managers Association, criticized the op-ed saying calling the practice of waiving building codes in Joplin to expedite development a classic case of "being penny wise and pound foolish.”

Smith, however, believes quick recovery translates into a return to normalcy that people crave in the aftermath of a severe trauma. “It’s important to get businesses back, to reestablish houses,” he said. “If people don’t see that, they will stay away and they’ll never return.”

Smith says the government's role in the recovery process is "maintaining the rule of law, protecting property rights, and ensuring free trade."

“These functions become even more important when a disaster strikes,” he says.

Arguments like his, however, have become even more controversial in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that struck the Northeast nearly two weeks ago.

“Nature’s fury can be compounded by man’s folly,” said Smith. “By micromanaging every step of the recovery process, you can actually hamper a community’s natural resiliency that emerges after a natural disaster.”

 ♦ Photo of Joplin destruction by xpda/Flickr


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