All Commentary
Monday, June 10, 2013

Lessons in Disaster Recovery

The EF-5 tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, left 24 fatalities, nine of them children. An estimated 12,000 homes and many businesses were destroyed or damaged along the estimated 17-mile-long, 1.3-mile-wide tornado path. It’s hard to get your head around that kind of devastation.

While the immediate concern is response and recovery, the residents of Moore will soon have to turn to the task of rebuilding. But among the first steps toward emotionally healing from the storm is removing the debris—that is, the physical vestiges of the storm. And that step needs to be taken quickly. 

The longer it takes to rebuild and reopen businesses, the less likely it is that communities will fully recover. Social scientists have been studying what has helped or hindered community recovery in the hopes that future communities—like Moore—can recover more rapidly and comprehensively.

Every disaster is unique, as each presents a new array of difficulties that only the residents of the disaster-stricken community can fully understand. But the lessons from communities previously affected by natural disasters can offer insights on how better to recover.

Due to the insufficiency and unreliability of post-disaster data, as well as the extreme difficulties of quantifying the important human element of recovery, social scientists conducting disaster-recovery research have increasingly relied upon intensive field work and interviews to supplement conventional data sources. These methods were employed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, as well as in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, following their 2011 tornadoes. 

The Need for Speed

While disaster recovery isn’t a race, when rebuilding lags, residents become less likely to return as they become frustrated with the slow recovery, become accustomed to their new communities, or lose faith that the old community will ever return. Entire communities and their cultural heritage can therefore be lost by a slow or incomplete recovery. 

A number of factors impact recovery, but the two most important lessons from research on previous natural disaster recoveries are these:


  1. Allow churches, charities, and businesses to lead the response and recovery efforts.
  2. Waive the licensing, regulatory, and zoning requirements that complicate and impede rebuilding.

Trying to manage the recovery efforts through central planning only impedes the response efforts of the local organizations—churches, charities, and businesses—that often have better access to local circumstances and needs. 

Daniel Smith and Daniel Sutter found that the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce played a vital role in determining the needs of disaster-stricken business owners and finding other business owners who could meet those needs. Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr found that the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans played an important role in coordinating a recovery through the provision of services and goods. 

In the case of New Orleans, Father Vien of Mary Queen of Vietnam describes how the church anchors the community, and as such, could effectively provide aid after Katrina: “We organized—because there were so many people—we organized cooking teams so that people could get food. So in that sense we helped facilitate the return of the people … there’s the other principle and it is this: During all of that time our focus was on the recovery of the people.” Later, Father Vien and others began to rebuild the physical structure of the church.

In Tuscaloosa, a local grassroots organization called Tuscaloosa Temporary Emergency Services quickly expanded its operations in the wake of the tornado, managing 22 warehouses of donated goods and coordinating volunteers to sort and deliver these items to disaster victims. Local churches and charities in both Joplin and Tuscaloosa showed a remarkable ability to minister to disaster victims and to house and coordinate volunteers. Social media, such as and even Facebook, also played an important role in coordinating donations and volunteers.

Businesses also play an important role in disaster recovery. One of the simple ways they help is simply by returning people to familiarity and routine by reopening and reestablishing local commercial flows. Commercial entities create the social spaces, employment, and the goods and services necessary for returning residents to their lives. For example, the sight of the walls of a Walgreens going up in the midst of the tornado scar in Joplin, only three months after the storm, provided much-needed hope. One Joplin resident explained, “We love to see walls go up … When we saw Walgreens cleared and going up people were all talking about Walgreens.” Residents even reported having a countdown to the opening of Chick-fil-A about three months after the tornado. 

The importance of insurance companies is often overlooked, too. In any natural disaster, insurance claims will dwarf charitable contributions. The consensual pooling of risk is an important element in a free society, and while the industry will never be free of complaints, insurance companies in past natural disasters have done a remarkable job of getting on the ground after the disaster and issuing checks immediately to disaster victims so they may meet basic needs. The larger claims process helps victims pull their lives back together. (Insurance also provides the incentives for efficient risk-mitigating measures to be implemented before a disaster strikes.)

Businesses also played a large role in delivering meals, supplies, and equipment to victims and volunteers in New Orleans, Joplin, and Tuscaloosa. Big-box retailers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to arrive with needed supplies and services in disaster-stricken communities—often before the federal government can arrive on the scene. For instance, Steven Horwitz provides a detailed analysis of how Walmart and Home Depot met the needs of disaster-stricken communities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In Joplin, Smith and Sutter found that the manager of Joplin’s unaffected Walmart (the town’s other Walmart was destroyed) was given the discretion to stock non-traditional items that the community needed, such as mattresses, appliances, and even lumber. He also had direct access to Walmart headquarters and was able to receive the much-needed products quickly. 

“[I] made a phone call [and] within three days, had a trailer full of mattresses,” the manager said. 

Tide’s Loads of Hope and Duracell’s Power Stations were on the ground doing laundry and charging cellphones in Joplin and Tuscaloosa, and, according to the Red Cross, are already in Moore as of this writing. 

More Durable Than the Levees

Unfortunately, a tremendous civil-society response by churches, charities, and businesses can be hampered by insensible regulatory barriers, such as complicated or uncertain licensing, zoning, and building codes. 

Many states have laws that restrict or prohibit out-of-state specialists—including electricians, carpenters, nurses, and physicians—from practicing within state borders. Licensing laws that restrict economic freedom in good times cause even more harm following a natural disaster. Implementing or expanding reciprocity laws, even if only for emergency situations, can go a long way toward helping volunteers and workers from other states aid in the response and recovery efforts. 

Complicated or uncertain regulations can also affect the ability of disaster-stricken communities to get back to normal. Businesses, especially long-established ones that have deep roots in the community, are often grandfathered in under past zoning laws. It is frustrating, confusing, and costly for destroyed business owners when they can’t rebuild based on their pre-disaster design and configuration. Time spent deciding on the correct square footage of greenery in front of a business, or preventing businesses from returning because they don’t have the requisite number of parking spaces, create further delays that jeopardize community recovery. City leaders can waive these zoning laws and also bring in more building inspectors to reduce wait times for inspections.

Other types of regulation can also inhibit recovery. Following Hurricane Katrina, families that had evacuated New Orleans were hesitant to return because childcare centers were still struggling to get up and running. Parents faced with the task of rebuilding homes and getting back to work could not bring their children home without childcare. Those daycare centers that had reopened were forced to turn away parents and children because of required child/teacher ratios. These child/teacher ratios are meant to ensure the safety of children during mundane times; but during disaster recovery, these same regulations can put children at risk if the alternative is having the child in a damaged home or separated from parents during the recovery process.

In order to preserve “fairness” after Hurricane Sandy, politicians disabled the price signal that would have alerted entrepreneurs of a profit opportunity and would have effectively increased the supply of gasoline and lowered its price through the market process. Instead, price-control regulation made gasoline shortages worse and contributed to long lines at the pump. After Hurricane Katrina, residents of Louisiana and neighboring states anticipated that storm victims would need generators. Entrepreneurs purchased generators in their hometowns, then drove several hours to New Orleans to supply the needed generators. However, these entrepreneurs were fined and even arrested for trying to sell the generators above a specified price, which prevented New Orleans residents from getting the power they needed. The generator story provides yet another example of how bad economic policy can slow recovery.

As John Stuart Mill recognized in 1848 in his Principles of Political Economy, throughout history humankind has exhibited a phenomenal resiliency in the face of natural disasters. While this resiliency has been hampered at times, every disaster provides lessons for future disaster-stricken communities. With these lessons in mind, we have no doubt that the residents of Moore will exhibit the same remarkable resiliency.

  • Laura Grube is a visiting instructor of economics at Beloit College and a Ph.D. candidate and Mercatus Fellow at George Mason University.
  • Daniel J. Smith is an Associate Professor of Economics at and the Associate Director of the Johnson Center at Troy University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network