Associate Professor Denise Thompson Aims to Make Post-Disaster Rebuilding Better

Associate Professor Denise Thompson Aims to Make Post-Disaster Rebuilding Better

Associate Professor Denise Thompson Aims to Make Post-Disaster Rebuilding Better

Denise Thompson is an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Department of Public Management, and an expert on disaster management and risk reduction. Her new book, Disaster Risk Governance: Four Cases from Developing Countries , which was published in July 2019 by Routledge, illustrates her work related to disaster planning and recovery.

What factors are most important to consider when planning for storms or natural disasters
Maybe the best way to answer that is to look at the disaster cycle—mitigation, planning preparedness, response, recovery, reconstruction, and then back to mitigation. Even though I put the phases into discrete components, the cycle is integrated, not discrete, and the steps must always be revised. Mitigation is essentially putting structural and non-structural elements in place well ahead of a storm. That includes hardening infrastructure as well as putting systems in place to make sure we can respond.

The preparedness phase gets ready for imminent disaster, by bringing together supplies, people, and other resources to respond, and making sure supplies are prepositioned where they’re expected to be needed; organizing transportation and marking routes for evacuation; and more. Recovery includes the immediate response post-disaster, where communities plan for building or rebuilding; get schools, offices, child care, and other systems back up that are required for day-to-day functioning; and bring critical services back on line, like roads, food supplies, water, and the government.

Finally, reconstruction is a process of longer-term rebuilding. Ideally, this includes innovation to ensure communities are “building back better,” and is an extremely integrated, wide-spectrum process that moves toward hardened infrastructure and sustainable processes. This happens after an assessment is done of the damage, and must be integrated into planning. One example is in the Bahamas. Because they are unable to rebuild exactly the same as before the storm hit, the government is thinking about putting some infrastructure underground, like communication towers, to create some protection from the next storm.

How do you factor in climate change when considering ongoing efforts to prepare for and recover from natural disasters?
Well, what is a disaster? We have to think about that. I was listening to a story on the National Public Radio [NPR], about how the bird population of the United States shrank by one billion birds—that’s climate change. It occurs even with epidemics, certain bacteria and invasive species thrive in certain temperatures. So it’s a disruption, not only of the human ecosystem, but also of the animal ecosystem. When we talk about disasters, we tend to talk about natural disasters, but it’s so much bigger. We’re not even talking about man-made disasters—like terrorism or cyberattacks—which could be catastrophic. Those are disasters, too, but man-made.

Denise Thompson
Thompson

Given the trends in natural disasters associated with climate change, such as hurricanes that are becoming more intense and frequent, are there places that are becoming unlivable, or that should be abandoned?
Yes, there are places that should be abandoned. A lot of these countries, their populations are concentrated along the coast, and there are vulnerabilities like schools that are flooded in every single storm, which of course should not have been built where they are.

Are issues of rebuilding and relocation tied in with race and class?
These issues are very tied to rebuilding in many places. You can also look at a place like Flint, Michigan—race, class, and vulnerability are interlinked—or even Newark, New Jersey. Usually, African Americans, Latinx, and other minorities are more vulnerable to these natural disasters. And, it’s harder for the poorest communities to recover, where the same event has a more drastic impact. The rich have more resources.

In island states, the line is more blurred. The interiors are more rugged, which means most people tend to locate along the coastline, so it’s not as clear-cut an issue as in, say, Hurricane Katrina. But there’s an issue of moral hazard; even knowing that it’s dangerous, people build anyway, knowing that somebody will help them to rebuild, like the government, or insurance money. So people tend not to bother to plan for disasters.

However, organizations have been exploring insurance, like livelihood protection, for poorer people. For example, the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) pools resources from many countries in the region who pay into this fund. They are disbursed to governments directly, to help pay for rebuilding. Commercial facilities might be getting out of disaster insurance, but others are stepping into that void.

Is there an ideal balance between recovery efforts provided by home governments versus outside aid?
I don’t know if there’s an ideal balance. Governments operate at different levels—national, regional, local, community, and household—so we usually say that the government closest to the people should be equipped to help them. But what we find is that often the governments closest to the people are themselves incapacitated by whatever event took place, and they’re not able to help. And, if you go one level higher, they may be able to help in some ways but not others, and so on. In cases like those, outside help is needed; the quantity depends on the issue.

Is there a useful role for individual aid?
There’s a useful role, but it’s hard to manage spontaneous volunteers. They may put themselves in harm’s way. Typically we say, go through an entity to help. Most agencies right now want money, because they can best divert it to where it’s needed. That may be potable water, or a sanitary facility, or helping women or children get out of situations where they’re more vulnerable thanks to the disaster. It may be a number of things. When you talk about disaster planning, mitigation, risk reduction, it’s a big involved process, and very complex. It’s hard to get a handle on it, but agencies do it. Their effectiveness depends on resources. And no one place has the level of resources needed. That’s why governance systems are important, to bring all these things together—the resources, money, people, institutions, laws, and the formal and informal arrangements that must be made to keep people safe.

The cover of Disaster Risk Governance
The cover of Disaster Risk Governance

Why did you pick two countries in the Caribbean, two countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to feature in your book? Did you find some similarities there?
When I came into academia in 2008, there wasn’t much literature on poor countries. And that is not specific to disaster management. The voice was missing. I thought, if I looked at the sub-Saharan and the Caribbean, I would be better able to come up with a governance framework that actually works for developing or poorer countries. The similarities I picked up are mostly in the institutional and informal aspects. For instance, indigenous peoples from the Caribbean and from Africa were similar in that they had communities with their own laws and customs that may be opposed to planning around disasters.

Also, these countries have a legacy of corruption—not all poor countries, some rich countries have higher rates of corruption—but still, government ineffectiveness, government inaccessibility to their populations, these things were comparable. Those cause inefficiencies and waste in the system, they cause people to take longer to recover from disasters. It’s complex and messy. In the book you have to try to manage the multiple components; you can’t write on everything but you can pick out the salient things. I hope that’s what I was able to do.

Is it disheartening to see inefficiencies and to see problems getting larger every year, problems that we’ve caused ourselves and failed to find effective solutions to thus far?
Yes, but at the same time, we’re working more closely with communities, households, and individuals, and I think that’s where it has to happen. So while governments create the policies, the infrastructure and the systems, the ecosystem is bigger, with subsystems within it. If you work at the micro level, you can shore up the entire system. In the Caribbean and in Africa, there are regional agencies that are the real workhorses and innovators—the East African Commission, the African Union, Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management System, Caribbean Community [CARICOM]. CCRIF, for example, is one of the first in the world to push for countries to pool their resources. Other regions, like Southeast Asia, are doing a similar thing. All of these groups come together to actually build and pilot things.