CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There is an urgency in rebuilding following a large-scale natural disaster. People need housing, roads and bridges must be repaired, and businesses need to reopen. Residents are eager to have their community return to normal quickly.
But there is also an opportunity to make improvements in the design of a community and its infrastructure and land use, and planning for such changes takes time.
“The basic tension in this is between speed and thinking about doing (reconstruction) better,” said Robert Olshansky, the head of the University of Illinois department of urban and regional planning and an expert in post-disaster recovery.
“It’s important to get people in homes. It’s important to get economies going again,” he said. “But if you make the wrong decisions, you’re stuck with (the outcome) for a very long time.”
Olshansky has studied disaster recovery all over the world and played an advisory role in recovery efforts. His new book, “After Great Disasters: How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery,” co-written with Laurie Johnson, an internationally recognized urban planner specializing in disaster recovery and catastrophe risk management, details the lessons from these disasters that can guide governments in better responding to a large disaster.
The book is available from the publisher, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, as is a free download of a policy focus report summarizing the research and recommendations of Olshansky and Johnson. Both can be purchased in a paper edition, and a free download of the book will soon be available on the publisher's website.
Their research emphasizes the importance of providing information, involving the stakeholders in reconstruction decisions, and transparency. Olshansky and Johnson’s recommendations include using existing government systems and procedures to promote information flow and collaboration; emphasizing data management, communication, transparency and accountability; empowering local governments to take the lead in recovery efforts; and relocation of residents only in rare instances when public safety is at risk – and involving residents in the process when relocation is necessary.
Olshansky and Johnson studied how six countries responded to natural disasters and managed the recovery process: China after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake; New Zealand after the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes; Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami; India after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the 2004 Tamil Nadu tsunami; Indonesia after the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake and the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi; and the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City, the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. They visited each place multiple times, talking with those involved in the recovery efforts.
While each place had its own unique set of challenges, the co-authors compared them to see what lessons could be learned from how they approached post-disaster recovery.
“The detailed context is really important for people who want to find out how to manage after a disaster,” Olshansky said.
The 2008 Wenchuan earthquake struck just months before the Beijing Olympics. China “really put all the nation’s resources behind it and rebuilt very quickly,” Olshansky said.
It was an example of a top-down approach, led by the central government and completed within three years. It was successful in providing housing to the victims of the disaster, including relocating residents from a geographically unstable area. However, Olshansky said, the new housing developments ignored needs such as nearby jobs, and the speed of the rebuilding effort precluded citizen involvement.
When Indonesia rebuilt after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, money was provided in block grants to communities and local organizations to spend in accordance with reconstruction guidelines. Olshansky would like to see the U.S. adopt aspects of that more decentralized approach. For example, local case workers who know the community could serve as a liaison between the local organizations and residents and the federal agencies providing resources.
Olshansky also favored a program the Chinese used that asked provinces not affected by the earthquake to dedicate a certain amount of money to recovery efforts in sister provinces in earthquake-affected areas. Similarly, the Japanese government reimbursed prefectures that sent staff to help with recovery efforts after the tsunami. Olshansky suggested that the U.S. government could provide grants to reimburse states and cities that provided planners and engineers to another area to help with reconstruction following a disaster.
In the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, the central government cordoned off the central business district when it was damaged by an earthquake, with the result of slowing down the rebuilding process. The central government also rejected the local government’s recovery plan and set up a nationally led effort to plan and oversee the reconstruction, taking the local government out of the process. It took two years to plan the reconstruction, leading some businesses to relocate permanently.
“It’s important to make sure (governments) are not making quick, unilateral decisions. They need to work really closely with residents to make their reconstruction decisions,” Olshansky said.
“The real key is actively soliciting opinions and working in partnership with the public and all the other organizations doing the rebuilding.”
Olshansky and Johnson also co-wrote “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans” and “Opportunity in Chaos: Rebuilding After the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe Earthquakes.”