An Equitable, Sustainable, and Resilient Approach to Disaster Recovery for Local Governments

Lessons learned from nearly two decades of disaster recovery in New Orleans guided development of a framework for local government and its partners to self-organize and collaborate during the months and years following a disaster. 

Civix, a firm with decades of expertise in disaster recovery and resilience, federal grants management, and community planning, was engaged by the City of New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (NOHSEP) to support development of a Comprehensive Recovery Framework (CRF). The final document, released in late 2022, is a tool that leverages lessons learned from nearly two decades of disaster recovery in New Orleans, best practices from around the world, and Civix’s more than 40 years of experience to guide complex local government considerations for the period after disaster response concludes.  

Leveraging Ongoing Disaster Recovery Experience in New Orleans

New Orleans, like many communities, is already facing the effects of climate change. For the nearly two decades since Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans has been a leader in organizing response, mitigation, and recovery best practices amid overlapping disasters, including hurricanes, the financial crisis, the BP oil spill, tornadoes, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Its planning efforts have become a model for building resilience in the face of disasters, which are increasing in frequency and intensity. The lessons learned from continuous disaster recovery efforts in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana guided the City and Civix to develop the CRF.  The leading-edge framework establishes structures for local government and partners to collaborate after centralized disaster response concludes and unmet community recovery needs are revealed.  

Why Do Local Governments Need Comprehensive Recovery Frameworks? 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sets many standards and provides funding opportunities for disaster management, from preparedness, to response, to risk mitigation. The agency also developed the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) to help guide long-term recovery operations planning for state and local governments. The NDRF highlights the principle of “local primacy” in disaster recovery, which means local jurisdictions should lead recovery efforts because they are best equipped to understand the needs of their communities.  

While the need for coordinated disaster recovery strategies and plans might be clear, especially in disaster-experienced communities like New Orleans, recovery is incredibly complex, and many jurisdictions have yet to develop plans for how to manage community needs and resource opportunities for long-term recovery.  A CRF adds a level of predictability to the complexity of disaster recovery. A CRF should be used as a high-level guide for organizing goals, resources, data, communications, and evaluation before, during, and after a disaster recovery period. Done well, a CRF ensures that the community has a foundation to build recovery processes, procedures, and policies that result in equitable, sustainable, and resilient recovery.  

At a minimum, a CRF outlines a jurisdiction’s governance structure, goals, and formalized external relationships–establishing clear lines of accountability and robust pathways for processing information into action. Frameworks can go further to detail policies and procedures for implementation, recommending strategies for improved resource management, service delivery, and risk mitigation. Given ever-changing situations, though, planning this degree of detail requires more frequent reviews and updates.  

A Flexible and Scalable Organizational Framework 

No two disasters are exactly alike. There are an infinite number of variables that can influence the scale and scope of the disaster and ultimately how the needs of diverse communities are met during the months and years following the disaster event. It is impossible to capture all of those variables in a single plan, so the New Orleans CRF was developed using a flexible and scalable approach to organization and collaboration. At its core is an organizational structure to serve as a governance model for decision making and accountability among city government recovery actors and external partners. The structure includes leadership and management teams as well as data and accountability strategies. 

Harmonizing Goals, Responsibilities, and Resources 

The New Orleans CRF highlights a series of intersecting frameworks that make up an ideal organizational structure for decision making, information flow, communications, and service delivery for the months and years following a disaster. It outlines “goals, processes, documented capacities, roles and responsibilities, and resources established before a disaster to manage and measure an equitable and sustainable recovery after a disaster.” It defines desired outcomes, goals, and metrics organized by Recovery Support Function (RSF) and includes a continuous improvement method for reviewing and updating recovery policies, plans, and procedures. The CRF identifies improvement actions to take in the short-to-medium term and lays out evaluative criteria for recovery efforts related to the City’s core values of equity, sustainability, and resilience.  

Multi-Sector Working Groups Can Facilitate “Whole Community” Involvement  

Embracing a “Whole Community” approach is vital to developing a CRF. As one of FEMA’s guiding principles, this means involving the widest range of perspectives and voices in the development of recovery plans and ensuring clear roles and responsibilities across sectors, disciplines, and capacities. 

A critical starting point in the process is to examine existing disaster recovery structures and activities–as well as community perspectives and insights toward them. For New Orleans, Civix leveraged a recovery-focused Community Advisory Committee (CAC) to assess community knowledge of and experience with existing structures and activities through guided discussions. Embedded in the governance structure, the CAC comprises a multi-disciplinary group of public officials, community leaders, and advocates. The project team organized the CAC into six RSF Working Groups based on FEMA-recommended topic areas–each representing a key sector for coordination and service delivery. This topical structure enabled a wide range of working group participants to reflect the “Whole Community” approach and gave the project team an opportunity to include knowledge and priority action areas across community needs.  

Meaningful and intentional community engagement requires a great amount of planning and resources, but such engagement can lead to a more inclusive, structured, and effective process. This includes incorporating flexibility and contingency planning for unlikely scenarios (such as overlapping disasters and social distancing).  

The work in New Orleans had to adapt to COVID-19 as well as Hurricane Ida, which knocked out power for several weeks in August 2021. Responding to these occurrences entailed ongoing assessments of the capacity of project leaders and community members to engage in and carry out vital planning activities.  

Equity is Key to Successful Recovery 

On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to advance equity and support underserved communities. This translated to a new, expanded focus on equity goals across federal disaster recovery programs. Likewise, state and local governments should leverage disaster recovery as a vehicle for advancing equity

To ensure equity in planning participation and recovery outcomes, disaster recovery plans should prioritize community engagement with a focus on equity. As part of the New Orleans CRF planning process, Working Group members were asked to consider how equity could be centered in recovery activities and how those activities can help remedy social and racial inequities.  

An equitable government acts with purpose to achieve just and fair inclusion, leveraging power and resources to dismantle institutional racism and all forms of discrimination wherever they exist. Equity is achieved when identity, status, and ability no longer predict a person’s quality of life in our city.

New Orleans CRF
Equity Definition for Local Government Action

While disaster recovery plans have a wide range of audiences and users, planning and community engagement processes should be led with a focus on equity, with equitable community engagement as a clear goal of the planning process and the resulting frameworks or plans.  

Overcoming challenges in New Orleans, like COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida, required thoughtful strategies for inclusive engagement, including contingency planning that addressed community needs, barriers, and limitations. 

Capacity building is crucial at every phase of the CRF planning process. It enables meaningful community engagement and aligns with the “Whole Community” approach. Project teams should allocate resources to improve community knowledge, information sharing, communication networks, and leadership development. Despite funding limitations, prioritizing community engagement and capacity building is vital for an equitable recovery. 

Enhancing Long-term Coordination and Maximizing Capacity through “Continuous Improvement” 

Recognizing that a single planning process could not identify all possible improvement opportunities – and given the frequency with which New Orleans faces major shocks and stresses – the project team adopted a Continuous Improvement approach. It encourages regular reviews of disaster recovery organizations and actions – outside of formal, less-frequent updates (FEMA recommends an update at least every five years). 

The New Orleans CRF provides the framework for reviewing and updating recovery policies, plans, and procedures, as well as actions to take in the short- to medium-term. This enables the City and its partners to learn from recovery experiences quickly and, thus, better prepare for the next disaster.  

Carefully built-in mechanisms for continuous improvement and accountability mean the CRF is a living document that doesn’t get shelved and go stale. And though the complexity of disaster recovery will always be there, managing and overcoming it is possible – and definitely preferable.  

A Recovery Framework Model that Every Community can Leverage 

Disasters are occurring across the country with more frequency and severity and often affecting communities that do not have much experience with disaster recovery. While circumstances and capacities may vary across jurisdictions, it is universal that planning in advance is better than waiting until disaster strikes! 

While New Orleans leveraged many years of disaster recovery experience to develop the CRF, all communities can—and should—start planning today for potential future disasters. The New Orleans CRF offers a model for ideal organizational structure for recovery collaboration, priority actions across RSFs, and a framework for maintaining and building recovery capacity throughout city government and civil society.  

By planning for long-term disaster recovery in advance, communities like New Orleans will be able to assess ongoing needs, develop targeted programs, and access funding and resources to make recovery more efficient, equitable, and sustainable. 


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