Lessons from the aftermath: What 6 countries can tell us about how to recover from disaster

A woman walks near a mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the city in 2004. Since then, Indonesia has emerged as a model for taking a community-centered approach to disaster recovery. (AP Photo/str)

An earthquake in Western China, a tsunami in Indonesia and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York may sound like incomparable events. But there’s common lessons to be learned in how these places recovered afterward.

That’s the point of After Great Disasters, a new book by Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky, published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The authors look at recent catastrophes in six countries, in search of good practices that can help government leaders everywhere prepare for the next one.

Johnson is a consultant whose urban planning practice specializes in disaster recovery and catastrophe risk management. Olshansky is a professor and head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both have spent considerable amounts of time in disaster zones around the world, studying the governance structures, institutions and policies powering recovery in each of them.

In addition to the events in China, Indonesia and New York, the book covers the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010-11; the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, and the 2011 quake and tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region; India earthquakes in Latur in 1993 and Gujarat in 2001; and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the United States.

I caught up with Johnson and Olshansky recently to find out more about why they wrote this book and what lessons it contains for policymakers around the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: How did you get into this topic?

Robert Olshansky: It really started with the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994, and the Kobe earthquake. They occurred on the same day, January 17th, one year apart. The Northridge earthquake was the biggest urban earthquake in the U. S. in quite some time. It wasn’t a catastrophic disaster, but it was big. It was really costly. It was highly disruptive. Then, a year later, in Kobe, you had what the ‘Big One’ would look like in a modern city.

What started our questioning was what can we learn by looking at the two of these things together? When we get the ‘Big One’ in the U. S., the kind of catastrophic urban disaster that we know we can get, how might we be able to deal with that?

Q: Looking through the book, I see lots of pictures that have your names on them, and they’re clearly taken shortly after earthquakes, tsunamis, terrible things have occurred. Are disasters new to you each time, or are there patterns in terms of what you see and sense from people on the ground?

Laurie Johnson: We have enough of these under our belts that even if we’re not there, we kind of have a sense of scale to begin with. Watching the tsunami wave on TV, I just knew that was going to be devastating.

Laurie Johnson and Robert Olshansky

An event like 9/11 was really interesting because it’s a vertical city. While the footprint was quite small at the World Trade Center disaster, you start thinking about all the occupants of those buildings and in Lower Manhattan, all the density of infrastructure and you realized this was going to be a really challenging rebuilding process.

Robert Olshansky: Is it always different? Yeah it is. But what drives us in this is that there are a lot more things that are similar in these places than you would think. That’s why you can take lessons from one place and apply it somewhere halfway around the world.

Human beings really react to things the same way. There’s a lot of similarities. The issue of dealing with things in the compressed timeframe that you have after a disaster. The issue of how information flows, how money flows, and so on. You get very similar types of organizations that will form after these disasters because they really have the same sets of concerns, even in very different cultural situations.

[See: A ‘cure’ for catastrophe?]

In terms of the context, every situation is unique. Could we as experts just jump into some new place and start telling them what to do? In a microsense, no, not at all, because the context is totally different. We could tell them what kinds of things they need to think about and how they should go about thinking those things — how they should go about approaching the problem, within their context.

Q: The lens of your book is looking at countries and comparing lessons across countries. Yet cities are where the bulk of the casualties, financial damages and complex planning questions are. Why look at this from a country level?

Robert Olshansky: It has to do with the culture, the legal system, all of those kinds of things. There’s ways in which India handles things, Indonesia handles things, so we wanted to do it that way. But you’re right, where all the action happens is at the city level.

The other thing is that disasters we look at tend to be the really large catastrophic urban disasters. In all of those cases, it becomes a significant question at the national level. There’s some policy decision, maybe a body that needs to be introduced, at the national level.

Laurie Johnson: The kind of event we’ve been intrigued by is when a disaster exceeds that local capacity, and then the question of what happens after that. Yes, local governments and communities need outside assistance, resources and financial assistance to recover. With that comes a loss of control. Yet as planners, at least in a Western context, the decisions that you are making for long-term recovery are typically quite localized decisions. You have land-use planning, the location and style of housing, infrastructure development. It’s a key question: How do you create an empowered local government and local leadership in that context?

Q: How much planning can a community do in advance of a disaster when they don’t know where the extent and severity of the damage will be?

Laurie Johnson: The best that I’ve observed is where [policymakers] try to set the institutional relationships and the general context of recovery in advance. We call those things ‘recovery frameworks’ because they aren’t actual specific plans. Though once an event happens, you have to create a more specific plan for that specific pattern of damage.

[See: ‘Sustainable insurance’: Seven takeaways from the first-ever summit of insurers and city leaders]

Prior to that, you can generally set the ground rules for recovery. You can talk about your government structure. You can identify responsibilities for the different kinds of government policies that you know are likely to be issued during recovery. You can identify the values you want to maintain going into recovery. These are the institutions, the agencies, that are going to take the lead. These are the institutions that are going to be supportive.

Q: What are some case studies that represent real innovations in how nations and cities are dealing with these questions?

Robert Olshansky: They have a really good process in Indonesia. In terms of being community centered, the way that they finance and plan community facilities after disaster is all designed so that the communities make the decisions. Their housing reconstruction is designed so that it’s owner-driven housing reconstruction. They do this really knowingly. In fact, after the tsunami, they actually admitted that this was sort of a risky approach. But they felt it was the best way, and it’s really worked.

One reason why they have a good system is because they’ve had a whole lot of big disasters in a short amount of time and learning as they go. The tsunami was one of the most enormous things anybody could face. It struck the province of Aceh which had just had 30 years of civil war. It was really just the worst of everything. Which is another reason to admire them.

[See: Summit aims to boost local strategies on disaster risk]

The national government set up an agency in Aceh that was purposefully designed to build local capacity. An important part was they knew it would sunset after four years. The whole idea was to bring local officials in to know how to do everything on their own.

Then there’s China’s recovery from the 2008 earthquake. They physically rebuilt everything in two years, which is incredible. They were able to do that because their system, they had just directed from the top down: Drop everything else you’re doing, we need to recover from this earthquake. They rebuilt everything physically really fast. They made some mistakes. There’s empty industrial parks and there’s farmers who have been relocated but they don’t have jobs. I’m struggling with what to make of China because as enormous as the earthquake was, the recovery wasn’t substantially different than what China does in the early part of the 21st century. They build cities unbelievably fast.

Q: That seems to be one of the central tensions here — central versus local control of the process. Is there a good way to manage that tension?

Robert Olshansky: What we argue is the best way to manage recovery — and we’ll put ‘manage’ in quotes, it’s not a really good word, but it’s what we’ve got — is for higher levels of government to provide financial and technical resources, so that the lower levels of government and individuals can do the recovery better, being able to make their own decisions in their context.

There’s a question of who ‘does’ recovery. Most of the entities are at the local level. Individuals are going to start acting to rebuild their houses. Businesses are going to start acting. All those things are going on. Government is just one of the players. Our perspective in our research and in our book is:Given that government is only one of the players, government still has a significant role and what is it the government should do?

Q: There’s also a tension between the speed of recovery versus the need for deliberation. Is there an example of that with any clear lessons?

Laurie Johnson: My classic example is in New Zealand, which had a very centralized approach. They had identified what they called a residential red zone. That was largely driven by the fact that they have a nationalized insurance program.

All these houses were having damage from liquefaction, and it was going to be very costly for them to repair, remediate the sites for that kind of land with these houses on it. They created these red zones to buy out these houses rather than keep paying insurance coverage over and over and over to fix these houses.

That policy got put in place, but in those red zones weren’t just houses. Those red zones had churches in them. They had small commercial units. They had vacant lots. They had people without insurance in them. A simple consultative process would have made them aware of that. Instead, the policy came out and then people sued. They ended up in court and lost that court case and had to go back and redo the planning.

The pressure to be fair, the pressure to make policy, the pressure to move fast with recovery, is great. People work in earnest to try to make decisions quickly, to try to move the process along as quickly as possible and ameliorate people’s suffering. And yet at the same time, there are things that you have to deliberate on to get better policy making.

[See: Christchurch’s SCIRT offers a model for rebuilding after a disaster]

The more change that you’re making, the more consultation [with the public] you need. If you’re just putting back exactly what you had before and it’s a simple repair process and nothing is changing, then you probably don’t need as much consultation. The more change that’s going to happen through policy, the more consultation and deliberation there needs to be.

Q: Isn’t consultation challenging when people are traumatized or relocated?

Laurie Johnson: Planning in that post-disaster context is really challenging because you can do it too soon and people really aren’t ready to make those kinds of decisions. At the same time, you need to be helping set that policy framework and helping to define enough about the recovery in order to get the funding in place and the institutions in place. In New Orleans, the first plan, the Bring New Orleans Back Plan, was done really quickly when residents weren’t in the city — so many people had been displaced, and so weren’t able to participate in the process. There was a backlash to that.

The same was true in Japan. A lot of planning happened really fast after the tsunami and people were still really traumatized by the event and in great fear of the possibility of a recurrence. A lot of decisions were made about relocating housing into the hills and building very large tsunami protection walls. And then as those walls started to get constructed and people saw what they would aesthetically do to their communities, a lot of people had regrets and there was a lot of questioning about those policies. Some of that stuff is still being worked out today.

Robert Olshansky: In terms of speed versus deliberation, a really important role for government is to listen. What often happens is you have the big disaster and the residents, the citizens are all clamouring for action. The government thinks that what they need to do is to act fast. They need to start rebuilding things fast. The way they do it is by closing the doors and shutting down public involvement so that they can make quick decisions and build things fast, feeling that’s what the people really want and they’ll be happy for it in the end.

What we see is that’s really not so. What the residents most want is to be seriously listened to, and to be seriously empowered and to be a part of what’s going on. Transparency and de-centralized power sharing is what’s needed. If you bring them along, then they’re even willing to let things go a little longer, as long as they understand why and they’ve had some say in what they’re going to get in the end.

Q: Are there any more concrete recommendations you’d leave readers with?

Laurie Johnson: One is the issue of having good institutions prior to disaster. The more you’re just working on ensuring you have good institutional processes, planning and community engagement on a regular basis, you don’t have to create all that after a disaster.

What we’re really emphasizing is being nimble after a disaster, not just putting a policy in place and walking away. You’ve got to constantly plan and act simultaneously, you’ve got to monitor, and you’ve got to adjust your budget as well.

One specific thing we talk about in our recommendations is about relocation. In almost all of our cases, there were areas where rebuilding was not ideal and policies were made. Some of that was done on a lot-by-lot basis, like with the Road Home program in Louisiana, so people were just making a decision — hey, I’m not coming back, I have a new life. Versus other places like China and New Zealand, where they’ve actually sort of said these areas cannot be rebuilt upon. That is where there’s a lot of change going on, and it’s really personal change — change that’s affecting your home. We strongly urge people to consider that those kinds of processes should only be done with the full participation of residents.

Robert Olshansky: We talked about the importance of communication and information, and one of our recommendations makes the point that it costs money to do that. You need to budget for that. It’s easy to add up the amount of physical damage and think that’s the money you need for recovery. If you don’t pay for those information systems or for planning and the public empowerment, you’re really going to have a heck of a hard time rebuilding.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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