'New Normal' Requires New Ways to Support Social and 'Human' Recovery


Nov 26, 2012

Volunteers assist with the clean up efforts in Sea Bright, NJ, after Hurricane Sandy

Volunteers assist with the clean up efforts in Sea Bright, NJ, after Hurricane Sandy

photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

As the East Coast continues to rebuild a month after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, it's important to bear in mind that this latest confluence of storms is merely one in a potential string of disasters that the region and the nation may confront due to changes in climate and other threats. As New York's Governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently wrote, "Extreme weather is the new normal."

This new normal calls for new strategies and approaches to helping individuals and communities rebuild after disasters. Fortunately, history holds lessons that can help us adapt and adjust to our new future.

Recent global disasters, from hurricanes, to tsunamis, to powerful earthquakes, vividly illustrate that recovery from disasters entails more than simply restoring physical infrastructure such as roads and buildings; it is also a long process of restoring the social infrastructure—the daily routines and networks that support the physical and mental health and well-being of the population.

When it comes to ensuring such recovery in the regions affected by Hurricane Sandy, communities should incorporate the following strategies into their ongoing recovery efforts:

  • Consider the social and cultural institutions in the community a part of the key infrastructure restoration;
  • Plan for recovery over the long-term, viewing investments now through a "smarter," community development lens;
  • Ensure that disaster case management services (e.g., health, social, economic services) are available both immediately and consistently on an ongoing basis to support recovery. Past efforts have stopped too early and then had to reinitiate, incurring significant start-up costs;
  • Increase access to emotional support or behavioral health services both in the immediate aftermath and over the long term, when problems are more likely to arise.
  • Engage nongovernmental organizations to provide long-term support.

Given the seemingly shorter interval space between disasters and the changing magnitude of disasters being experienced, it is time to critically examine societal expectations and responsibilities to facilitate human recovery from disasters. To do this we will need to better assemble our current science on individual and community-level human recovery, identify gaps in the evidence base, and continue to build and share knowledge about what works.

Anita Chandra is a senior policy researcher and Joie Acosta is a behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.