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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Slaying the Recovery Beast: Part II – The Lifecycle of a Disaster

In Part I of this two-part series I discussed how in my extensive career in emergency management at various government levels, I’ve led successful agencies through accreditation processes. Recognizing the complex nature of disaster recovery, I emphasize the often-neglected second half of the recovery phase, requiring sharp vision and essential tools and skills.

Read on for Part II…

What is the lifecycle of a disaster? 

First, there’s the actual disaster: implementing emergency protective measures, and doing everything possible to save lives and minimize property damage while the threat is active. Once the threat to human life has subsided, we enter the next stage: recovery.  

This begins with the processes described earlier in this article: the arduous undertaking of the FEMA Public Assistance process and other similar recovery processes in other federal agencies. Once funding is clear, next comes determining priority projects, outreach to communities, overcoming local permitting and environmental issues, blending in mitigation measures (and funding), building repeatable procurement processes, interviewing contractors, design, constructability, contract negotiation, and finally, construction. This is where many of us think the lifecycle ends. 

But it doesn’t stop with construction. You must ensure that your original plan includes commissioning, maintenance, and sustainability. It is a long road before you reach the celebratory day of ribbon cutting.  

To successfully navigate to the ribbon-cutting phase, you must implement a Project Management Information System (PMIS). A PMIS is a software-based tool or platform that assists project managers and teams in planning, executing, and managing projects. It serves as a centralized hub for project-related information, facilitating better coordination, communication, and decision-making throughout the project lifecycle. A PMIS will typically include features such as scheduling, budgeting, document management, communication tools, and collaboration capabilities.  

Another essential step is making sure your elected leaders understand the full breadth of pain and suffering that will occur following a major disaster. They must understand that success is not defined by achieving the promise of FEMA public assistance dollars. Successful project completion (especially when the project(s) is complex), begins with understanding what a successful recovery looks like. 

What is a successful recovery? 

When communities affected by a disaster are restored to a state of resilience, well-being, and sustainable development, then—and only then—is your recovery finished and the disaster lifecycle complete.  

Key indicators of success include the timely and comprehensive reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, ensuring that homes, schools, and essential services are not only restored but have also been fortified against future risks. Livelihoods, economic activities, and social structures must be re-established, fostering a sense of normalcy and community cohesion. Moreover, a resilient recovery addresses the root causes of vulnerability, implements effective risk reduction measures, and integrates lessons learned from the disaster to enhance preparedness for future events. Ultimately, success is measured by the improved capacity of communities to withstand and recover from future disasters, creating a more adaptive and secure environment for all residents. 

The growing impacts of climate change mean more intense, more frequent, more devastating, and more costly disasters. We must do everything we can to ensure successful recoveries.  

Accomplishing this monumental task—truly slaying the disaster recovery beast—requires embracing program and construction management, procurement, and contracting before the disaster happens.  

How do I embrace program and construction management? 

First, get educated about project management and its subordinate components: procurement, contracting, and construction management. You don’t have to be an expert in these fields, but you must understand what they enable you to do and why they are essential to the success of your recovery. You need to understand governance, structure, and reporting, and you’ve got to know your metrics for success.  

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are a cornerstone of measuring success. These are measurable metrics that organizations use to evaluate and assess the performance of various aspects of their business. These indicators are crucial in measuring progress toward strategic goals, identifying areas for improvement, and making informed decisions. KPIs can be measured in a wide range of areas including financial performance, customer satisfaction, employee productivity, project success, and more. Effective KPIs are typically specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART), providing a clear and quantitative assessment of performance.  

Second, build the PM/CM, procurement, PMIS, and contracting concepts into your recovery plan. Emergency managers won’t be the ones performing these roles, but your plan must clearly outline how these services will successfully propel you to the end of recovery. This ensures all stakeholders (likely including stakeholders you have not met before) understand the complete lifecycle of a disaster. 

Your Responsibility. 

When I served as a local and state Emergency Management Director, one of my greatest fears was having to tell my boss that the recovery had been “mismanaged.” Whether that meant we owed the federal government money due to a lack of oversight or that we had run out of funding to finish a project, I knew either situation was one I didn’t want to be responsible for reporting.  

Your responsibility as an emergency manager is to draw your boss a map of the road to a complete recovery. You can’t do that if you don’t fully understand the recovery lifecycle. By investing in planning before a disaster strikes, you will have a map to start your recovery off on the right foot. The alternative is blindly heading off into the unknown without even a destination or compass to guide you. This is an open invitation for the recovery beast to consume you along the way.  

Disasters are Here and More are Coming. 

According to the International Code Council, in 2023 the U.S. experienced a total of 28 billion-dollar disasters, the highest number of billion-dollar disasters in U.S. history. The cost was high: 492 lives and $93 billion in economic losses. 

By comparison, in 2022 the U.S. experienced a total of 18 billion-dollar disasters. 474 lives were claimed, and economic losses totaled $165 billion. At the time, 2022 tied 2017 and 2011 for the third-highest number of billion-dollar disasters in U.S. history. 

As we face more and more disasters, the more likely it becomes that you will be called upon to manage a complex, multi-billion-dollar, multi-year recovery. If that thought terrifies you, take a deep breath.  

Start preparing now by taking an inventory of your government. A good place to start is understanding the depth of knowledge and capability for project management, complex procurement, and contracting that encompasses alternative delivery processes like progressive design-build and multi-project construction management.  

As an Emergency Manager, the onus is not entirely on you. 

Should disaster recovery on a single disaster take twenty years to complete?  

No. We need to move towards more efficient disaster recovery. It is time for FEMA (and other federal agencies that fund disaster recovery efforts) to insist that federal disaster recipients not only comply with the rules and regulations when obtaining disaster funds but that recipients also demonstrate how they employed program management tools and methods that will ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most timely and efficient manner.  

The practices of comprehensive recovery program management are tried and true. The only way forward is for all of us to insist that adopting and planning for the use of these practices becomes an industry standard.  

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, visit the following organizations: 

FEMA and its Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide: fema_pappg-v4-updated-links_policy_6-1-2020.pdf 

The Project Management Institute (PMI): Project Management Institute | PMI 

The Construction Management Association of America (CMAA): Home | Construction Management Association of America (cmaanet.org) 

author avatar
Pete Gaynor and Andy Robinson
Pete Gaynor is a former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and former Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He currently serves as the Vice President, Resiliency and Disaster Recovery, Hill International, Inc. Pete is also the Chair of the Disaster Recovery Coalition of America (DRCA). | Andy Robinson is a leader in disaster recovery with more than 25 years of experience in strategic consulting, leadership, program management, and solutions development with a strong record of success. He is the Senior Advisor and Vice President of Resiliency and Disaster Recovery Practice at Hill International, Inc.
Pete Gaynor and Andy Robinson
Pete Gaynor and Andy Robinson
Pete Gaynor is a former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and former Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He currently serves as the Vice President, Resiliency and Disaster Recovery, Hill International, Inc. Pete is also the Chair of the Disaster Recovery Coalition of America (DRCA). | Andy Robinson is a leader in disaster recovery with more than 25 years of experience in strategic consulting, leadership, program management, and solutions development with a strong record of success. He is the Senior Advisor and Vice President of Resiliency and Disaster Recovery Practice at Hill International, Inc.

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