September 23, 2009
The valuable roles that nongovernmental organizations can play in helping communities recover from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina are not well-defined in federal, state or local policies, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
Changing emergency planning rules to make nongovernmental organizations a key component of recovery efforts could get them involved earlier and speed the full recovery of communities after disaster strikes, according to researchers.
Focusing on the region damaged by Hurricane Katrina four years ago, the RAND study examines the ongoing policy and financial challenges that nongovernmental agencies face when supporting the often-overlooked area of long-term human recovery.
"What we're seeing in New Orleans and other communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina is that recovery is more than just restoring roads and buildings," said Anita Chandra, lead author of the study and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
"Human recovery includes things like rebuilding people's social routines and a community's support networks — actions that help restore a community's physical and mental health," Chandra said. "This is the kind of work nongovernmental organizations can do so well."
Nongovernmental organizations such as the United Way and the American Red Cross have proven they can be invaluable assets to a community after a disaster, but their roles are poorly defined and frequently not supported by state and federal guidelines, Chandra said.
"There needs to be more recognition on the state and federal level that it may take years, not just months, for a community to truly recover," said Joie Acosta, the study's co-author and an associate behavioral scientist at RAND.
In April 2009, researchers from the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, part of the RAND Corporation, the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps., the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations and the United Way of New Orleans met with local leaders from 47 Louisiana organizations in New Orleans.
The group discussed experiences from the region's recent hurricanes, identified challenges the groups continue to face in supporting human recovery, and compiled recommendations to bolster support for communities and enhance the involvement of nongovernmental organizations in long-term recovery.
Among the findings:
- Human recovery is not well-defined at the federal, state or local level and there is no national recovery framework
- Long-term human recovery takes longer and is more complicated following multiple disasters
- There is no comprehensive system of services or operating plan to support human recovery
- The federal Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is designed to meet the needs of small disasters, but can create roadblocks when considering the needs of communities with long recovery periods.
Acosta said the group found several problems with the Stafford Act, which is designed to coordinate disaster relief and recovery through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. For example, the act does not specifically identify case management and services provided by nongovernmental organizations as expenses eligible for federal aid. Plus, states must come up with matching funds for rebuilding, which is difficult when recovering from disasters such as hurricanes that can happen one after another.
In addition, the Stafford Act penalizes communities for rebuilding "smarter" in the long-term recovery phase. For example, the current public assistance program penalizes a community if it improves infrastructure rather than simply replacing it — for example, rebuilding a facility in a more-secure location. The main rationale for this is that the funding is supposed to help a community return to the state it was before the disaster, not better than before, according to the report.
Allowing nongovernmental organizations to establish contracts with state agencies before a disaster strikes to provide human recovery services would be beneficial, Chandra said. Currently, there are only limited provisions for this in the Stafford Act, including contracts with the American Red Cross for shelters.
The study also suggests several areas for additional research, such as further analysis of what constitutes human recovery and how policies at the federal, state and local levels can better engage nongovernmental agencies in those efforts.