It seems a lot of the things we have been dealing with relative to the Coronavirus pandemic have brought us a different perspective, or at least have revealed a perspective that public health and emergency management have been concerned about for a while. The pandemic given us a more accurate perspective on the impacts of a truly major public health event and the things we need to do to manage it. We also find ourselves looking ahead to recovery and needing to view that through a different lens as well.
Most disaster recovery, and in fact the way the Stafford Act is written, reflects physical damage from disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes. We are dealing with debris, damaged infrastructure, displaced masses, and the like. The pandemic is something completely different. While we may see shades of some more traditional recovery activity, recovery from the pandemic is giving us a very different way of seeing things.
Before we get into the details, one of the biggest factors in all this is trying to determine where recovery fits in. It’s long been a conundrum for people who want to make emergency management an exact science to be able to stick a pin in the exact spot where response ends and recovery begins. Not only does the lack of that delineation persist for the pandemic, it’s exacerbated. But that’s not all. While some recovery activity has already started (more about that in a bit), the big push may not be able to start until society can at least begin to intermingle (though likely with some continued precautions). Further, true recovery arguably can’t take place until we have a vaccine. Until we reach that point, recovery efforts are likely to have a stutter, as we start, then have to stop or at least slow down when infection rates increase again, then resume once they subside. This is simply not a formula we are used to working by.
I suppose the best way to examine this is to look at it through the Recovery Mission Area Core Capabilities:
- Operational Coordination
- Public Information and Warning
- Infrastructure Systems
- Economic Recovery
- Health and Social Services
- Natural and Cultural Resources
Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning – I’m initially lumping these three together as they are the ‘common’ Core Capabilities and we generally see these in recovery having eventually transitioned over from the response focus. The challenge with the pandemic is that we see the overlap of response and recovery, in some circumstances, more than we are used to compared to other disasters. Also, a lot of the recovery we currently see is coming in the form of direct services from the Federal government, with little to no connection to state or local governments. This is heavily emphasized in matters of Economic Recovery (more on this later). The overall sense I’m getting is that the fundamentals of these three common Core Capabilities haven’t substantially changed (obviously some of the tasks have), though the experience different jurisdictions are having varies. Consider that most jurisdictions aren’t used to dealing with prolonged incidents such as this. In fact, many jurisdictions have decided to no longer operate EOCs (hopefully these were virtual!) as the impacts within their jurisdictions have been minimal and what problems do exist are largely being addressed by an emergency manager supported by a multi-agency coordination group. Other jurisdictions, obviously, are being hit much harder and their management of this incident has continued to grow as they address the myriad issues that rise up and prepare for what they expect to see next. There are some of the differences in Operational Coordination.
Looking a little closer at Planning, this should still be taking place regardless of the volume of work your jurisdiction is experiencing, and even if your jurisdiction doesn’t have a public health department. There is a lot of planning that still needs to take place to account for recovery, continuity of operations, and contingencies. This one really permeates the other Core Capabilities the most.
Lastly within this group, Public Information and Warning. Absent jurisdictions that are used to dealing with more prolonged responses and recovery, most haven’t had to address a need for persistent public messaging. While a lot of it is echoing guidance coming from certain authorities like the CDC or state health departments, more localized matters still need to be addressed in terms of what local services are or are not available (or how they now need to be accessed), providing information on planned events, and addressing rumors and mis-information.
Infrastructure Systems – Restoration of infrastructure is often a big emphasis in most disasters. Roads, bridges, water and waste water systems, electricity, and other systems are often damaged or destroyed as the result of the disaster of the day. In the matter of the pandemic, generally the most impact we see in these systems is delays in maintenance because of some decreased capacity among those that are responsible for them. Perhaps the one significant exception, through from a very different perspective, is internet services. While internet services weren’t damaged by the pandemic, they were heavily impacted with many organizations directing staff to work from home. College students are now engaged in classes from home instead of the campus. Families and friends are connecting more often via video calling. Even on-line gaming has seen a surge with people spending more time at home. All this changed the dynamic of internet use. Most businesses are provided with dedicated lines by internet service providers, designed to handle the concentrated surge of internet use demanded by a facility or collection of facilities. Much of that use has dwindled, shifting to a drastic increase on residential services. We also see increased demands on either end of this, with attention being drawn to entire areas that have no internet service as well as the need for increased server capacity of companies that host video calling and gaming platforms. Even organizations and their employees have had to scramble to ensure that employees (and students) have internet access at home, the hardware required to access the internet, and the ability to connect to the organization’s servers and services.
Another interesting perspective on infrastructure, however, comes from the emphasis on essential services and essential employees that we hear of every day. While definitions of this have existed for some time, in this disaster alone we have seen that definition change a few times as we realize the connectivity between certain services and organizations. Some important lessons to be documented and applied to future planning efforts.
Economic Recovery – For as much as Infrastructure Systems (largely) haven’t been impacted, Economic Recovery has needed to be significantly re-imagined. With businesses being forced to close and employees being furloughed or laid off, the global economy has taken a significant hit. This is certainly a prime example, perhaps our first, of how deep a disaster of a global scale can cut us. As a result, many nations around the planet have been pushing out some sort of economic stimulus, helping those that are unemployed as well as those businesses that are still open yet struggling with decreases in revenue. The economic hit from the pandemic will take years to recover from and will require some very different ways of solving the problem. Governments have only so much money to give. Many jurisdictions are also examining the association between infrastructure and economic recovery in a different light, especially as thought is being put into when and how to re-open our communities and economies.
As a related side note, we were recently awarded a contract to provide guidance on the reopening of transportation and transit in major cities. Continued preventative measures as well as human behaviors are going to apply some interesting demands on urban planning, prompting cities to respond appropriately to these changes if they want to see businesses rebound, or even thrive as we move further into recovery.
Health and Social Services – Rarely does public health lead the way through a major disaster. Though we realize that just with other disasters where we might like to think that people are in charge, the disaster itself still remains in the driver’s seat and we are really just along for the ride, trying to address problems the best we can. Our health system is stretched, yet we see an interesting irony of hospitals laying off staff, as elective surgeries and other non-emergency services are presently suspended. Obviously public health will continue to lead the way through our recovery. Even with others seemingly in charge of other recovery functions, it is public health markers which will become the decision points that dictate our overall recovery. On the social services side of this Core Capability, we also see a change in dynamics. While the pandemic doesn’t have the physical impacts of a more traditional disaster, we are also seeing fewer people being displaced overall due to emergency legal protections being put in place to prevent evictions and utility service disconnections from lack of payment. That said, we are still seeing traditional social service issues related to food, medicine, and mental health exacerbated due to the pandemic, the economic impact from the pandemic, and the mental stresses imposed by the pandemic as a whole, as well as social distancing, deaths, and other factors. While many social services have traditionally been very hands-on and face-to-face, many of these services have moved to remote models, though others, by necessity, are still physically operating. Social services recovery, linked to economic recovery as well as psychological matters like PTSD, will persist long after the pandemic. Recovery plans must be re-imagined to address this. Public health recovery, similarly, will last long after the pandemic as we need to take an honest look at the gaps in our system and work to address them.
Housing – As mentioned earlier, there are few displacements (that should be) happening as a result of the pandemic. Houses haven’t been destroyed as a direct result of the pandemic. Though how long will landlords be able to reasonably wait for back rents to be paid to them? While those that own large apartment complexes may be able to absorb these losses, landlords with small properties will not. They are small businesses, with bills to pay and mouths to feed. While it’s great for tenants to get a reprieve, this also has impacts. Local economies will likely need to figure out how to address this.
Natural and Cultural Resources – Similar to infrastructure and housing, our natural resources have seen, overall, limited impact from the pandemic. In fact, by many reports, many of our natural resources have seen marked and measurable improvement due to decreases in pollution and other impacts of ‘normal’ human activity. Many cultural resources, on the other hand, have been impacted. I speak not of historical sites, which are often considered in the reconstruction activities associated with disaster recovery, but of museums and performance centers. Museums, as with any other organization, rely on income to survive. Many are non-profits, and generally put revenue into improving the facility and its collections, leaving not much of a ‘rainy day’ fund. Similarly, collections haven’t been damaged, as they might have in another disaster, so there is no insurance claim to cover losses. Similarly, performance centers, such as the 1930s era theater where I perform improv, haven’t seen revenue in weeks. Here, we blur the lines between a different perspective on cultural preservation with economic recovery. Another challenge local economies will have.
So where does this leave us? Clearly we are seeing different perspectives of each of these Core Capabilities, requiring us to approach them in ways different than we have in the past. While the easy solution to many of them is money, an economy globally impacted has little funding to adequately do so. We also see the interconnectivity of these Core Capabilities. For many, there is reliance on others to make progress before another can see tangible improvement. That said, planning is still the crux of it all. We must make deliberate planning efforts to address each of these. Sure, we can reference current plans, but I argue that most current plans are inadequate, as the problems and the resultant solutions were not anticipated to look like this. Planning also needs to occur at all levels, and there absolutely must be an emphasis on the first step of the CPG 101 planning process… Form a Team. Our recovery from a global, national, and community level requires people working together. We see now, more than ever, how interconnected things are. This is no time to be insular. We must consider all stakeholders, including citizens, organizations, and businesses, as part of our planning teams. And by the way, we’re already behind.
A couple more items before I close this rather long post. First of all, consideration should be given to Continuity being added to the Core Capabilities. Perhaps as a common Core Capability, but at least as one that is included in more than one mission area. It’s a specific effort that, yes, does include planning (as should any other Core Capability), but has a very specific function and implementations.
Second (and lastly), you absolutely must be capturing and documenting lessons learned (strengths and areas for improvement). In fact, don’t wait to hotwash. If you haven’t already, do one now. You will do another later. And likely one or more after that. The duration of this disaster, and the different focal points and phases of it will constantly shift our attention and cause people to forget what they have learned. Lessons learned must be captured in phases, allowing us to focus on sets of activities. Be sure to document your lessons learned, share them far and wide, and set a timeline for implementing improvements. There is so much to learn from this disaster, but it’s a waste if we ignore it or expect someone else to tell us what to do.
I hope I delivered in this piece, highlighting the different perspectives of disaster recovery we are dealing with. Are all disaster recovery activities fully turned on their heads? Of course not. We are still able to apply the standards we have been for decades, though some of them do need to be looked at and approached from a different perspective. I’m very interested in feedback and thoughts.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP