Disaster Planning and Recovery

Background

Extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, and health emergencies can be devastating to communities. They can destroy housing, transportation networks, businesses, and institutions. They can also damage critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications and utility lines. In addition, they can drastically disrupt residents’ livelihoods, social connections, and access to vital services. Rebuilding efforts can take years. The long-term effects of disasters, such as home repair needs or health setbacks, can harm the financial and emotional well-being of older adults and others in the community.

Community planning plays a vital role in reducing the long-term risks to life and property from natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and floods. These can cause property damage in the tens of millions of dollars. They can also lead to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of thousands of residents. Experts predict that future natural hazard events in the U.S. could be even more damaging and costly. Communities in states such as California and Florida are seeing natural hazards occur more frequently and severely. Global climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of storms. U.S. residents are more vulnerable to natural disasters because the population is becoming more concentrated in high-risk coastal areas. In addition, residential development in forested areas is interrupting natural burn cycles.

People who have chronic illnesses, functional limitations, or disabilities are especially vulnerable during natural disasters. They may take multiple medications, rely on formal or informal caregivers for assistance, and experience frailty. Other factors that increase vulnerability in emergencies and disasters include residing alone and living in isolated rural areas. Planning can help communities identify the natural hazards to which they are susceptible. Then, communities can develop strategies to reduce their vulnerability. Many of the strategies identified in hazard mitigation plans are implemented through land-use planning, development regulations, and building codes. Conflicting local interests, cost concerns, and a lack of public awareness of the importance of mitigation planning are major impediments to implementing mitigation activities.

Well-planned post-disaster recovery efforts are also needed when disasters occur. Federal and state disaster aid is often available. Still, under-resourced communities may not receive sufficient funding compared with better-off communities. Such funding disparities can exacerbate existing social and economic inequality. Equitably distributing disaster relief funds helps ensure that all communities affected by disasters receive fair assistance.

DISASTER PLANNING AND RECOVERY: Policy

DISASTER PLANNING AND RECOVERY: Policy

Disaster planning

Federal, state, and local policymakers should plan for and mitigate potential natural hazards. This includes identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities and risks in order to expedite recovery efforts. Efforts should include disaster-resistant building codes, design regulations, and infrastructure plans and preventing development in high-risk zones.

Policymakers should regularly plan, execute, and evaluate outreach and education activities to equip all residents to shelter in place or evacuate safely. This includes older adults, people with disabilities, people who do not speak English, and other difficult-to-reach populations. Policymakers should develop pragmatic evacuation plans with sufficient shelter space, including special needs shelters.

Policymakers at all levels of government should regularly conduct specific, comprehensive, and evidence-based planning. This planning should address specifically the needs of older adults, people with disabilities, and their caregivers in different settings. Evacuation orders should specifically address the needs of these populations, as well as others who may need to remain in the community. They could include those with special medical needs (see also Coordinated Emergency and Crisis Planning, as well as Emergency Preparedness).

Disaster recovery

Federal, state, and local governments should engage in post-disaster recovery efforts that reach all populations, including older adults, people with disabilities, and their caregivers. This includes providing technology infrastructure that enables rapid communications and easy, transparent access to necessary information. Disaster relief assistance and funding should be distributed equitably, fairly, and expeditiously.

Rebuilding and recovery efforts should promote livability and resilience by encouraging:

  • a diverse housing supply;
  • a wide range of mobility options;
  • access to safe, accessible, and sustainable public spaces; and
  • proximity to necessary services.

Housing for displaced residents

Policymakers should ensure access to safe housing for people who are displaced after a natural disaster. They should move people from temporary shelters to permanent housing as soon as possible. In doing so, they should consider options such as using modular and prefabricated construction, expedited permitting, and repurposing vacant properties suitable for residential living.

Rebuilding

Policymakers should provide support to areas that have suffered, or are at high risk for, damage from extreme weather events. They should:

  • prioritize funding for repairing homes that have been damaged by extreme events. Repairs should ensure that damaged homes do not pose health risks to older adults.  
  • provide incentives for existing buildings to be fortified. Fortification techniques include improving elevation and drainage, as well as replacing building components to mitigate risk.
  • strengthen public infrastructure to mitigate the risk to the community as a whole.

In areas of severe risk for damage from extreme weather events, policymakers should consider limiting new construction, providing incentives to rebuild elsewhere after an incident, or both. If they do so, they must take steps to mitigate any negative impacts of those policy limitations on existing residents, including the isolation of households who remain in the community.