Witt: A blueprint to help in Sandy's recovery

"President Barack Obama has forcefully said that he

"President Barack Obama has forcefully said that he does not want any 'red tape' to slow down recovery. The productive federal, state, and local partnership that carried the response during the lead-up and immediate response to Sandy must continue through the recovery phase," writes former FEMA director James Lee Witt. "Unfortunately, we have seen with other storms that this is easier in theory than in practice." (Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin)

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Sandy has left scars on the landscape and lives of the people of New York, New Jersey and 13 other states, and the work to recover is just now beginning. The White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, governors, local officials and nonprofits have done an admirable job of working together during this devastating event. The initial response went well and should be commended, but many are still suffering from power outages, and sifting through devastated homes and communities.

The challenge after superstorm Sandy -- as it is after any major disaster -- is recovery. The bureaucracy and complexity of federal and state disaster programs can stand in the way of what needs to be done.

President Barack Obama has forcefully said that he does not want any "red tape" to slow down recovery. The productive federal, state, and local partnership that carried the response during the lead-up and immediate response to Sandy must continue through the recovery phase.


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Unfortunately, we have seen with other storms that this is easier in theory than in practice. Every level of government, as well as the private sector and nonprofits, has a responsibility to make this process work. Disasters always bring frustration and pose difficult choices for communities trying to recover. But there are steps that can reduce the challenges ahead. This blueprint for recovery for elected officials can help communities take greater ownership and produce better results.

Accept the fact that long-term recovery begins now. Once those affected have shelter and begin rebuilding their lives, it is vitally important that communities turn to long-term concerns such as permanent housing needs, economic recovery and infrastructure rebuilding. Develop a community vision for the future. There is no "do over" -- some decisions made in the coming weeks and months will either open or close doors for decision-making down the line. Many times rebuilding occurs before communities have been able to make a real plan that will help them be more prepared and protected in the future.

Engage residents and businesses. Recovery efforts extend well beyond government. Most of the decisions that will reshape communities will be made by individual homeowners and renters, private businesses, developers and community-based organizations who are eager to start rebuilding, and this will begin guiding your community plan.

So government must engage with the broader community, and seek residents' and businesses' input in determining recovery priorities and needs. As difficult choices are being made, involve others.

This also means that local governments need to use the input they receive to establish clear goals for recovery efforts. This will be for both the near term and over the next several years. Most important, they should communicate the progress being made.

Manage expectations. Disaster recovery is highly complex, frustrating, time-consuming -- and often not in line with public expectations. So it's up to elected officials, community leaders and others to share the vision developed through the community engagement process. Communicate what is happening, as it comes up. People will be looking for signs of progress, and the fastest way to derail a recovery effort is to allow unrealistic expectations to take hold. Often, for instance, rebuilding requests far exceed the resources available to cover them.

Organize for recovery. Local officials need to understand that the recovery process may take years, and their staffs now must perform two jobs: They'll still have their "day job," while also completing the work necessary to fix what is broken, and their "new" disaster recovery job -- working with FEMA and the state to obtain reimbursement for eligible costs.

Decisions by committee or through normal processes may not be fast enough to address the needs of the community and citizens. Consider how to organize, assign clear responsibilities, and know when to bring in help -- planners, engineers and recovery experts -- if needed.

Obtain the support and assistance you need to navigate relief programs. Community leaders and officials should be sure to ask for resources and expertise from the state. And they should seek outside help if the state can't provide them.

It's important to understand that disasters can last for years. Even noncatastrophic events can set a community back five to 10 years. The Texas coast is still rebuilding from Hurricane Ike, which hit in 2008. Knowing all the options upfront will help local governments determine if augmenting existing staff will be necessary. And it will allow other community activities to continue -- citizens expect and need this kind of continuity.

Document everything. Communities' most significant problems in obtaining reimbursement for disaster-related costs are associated with inadequate documentation. It's important to understand, document and maintain records about how and why decisions were made, what procurement processes were followed in awarding contracts, what work was completed and where. Know what conditions existed before and after the storm. The inability to provide this documentation may cause significant delays in reimbursement -- and could even reduce a community's eligibility for funding. Not doing this step correctly will stall your recovery.

Understand where flexibility exists to meet your needs. The Stafford Act, which gives the authority to provide disaster assistance, was written to provide maximum flexibility to FEMA to address unexpected or unique situations and conditions. It was wise for Congress to have designed the law this way. While not everything a community wants may be eligible for government reimbursement in the end, officials should ask for the legal, regulatory or policy-related justification for every decision.

Call it red tape, bureaucracy or foot-dragging. We know that moving beyond Sandy won't be a sprint -- it will be a marathon. But if community officials and local governments know how to avoid the pitfalls, it will make for a quicker and more efficient recovery.

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