Cloud Technology Insights

Leveraging Technology in Long Term Disaster Recovery

By David Donnelly, Emergency Management Director, City of Savannah

David Donnelly, Emergency Management Director, City of Savannah

As I write this, tropical storm Barry is about a day from landfall in Southern Louisiana. While not a major storm, there will likely be significant impacts from flooding. And someone is already thinking about recovery. As we have more disasters occurring in the United States, one might ask how we can leverage technology to assist the recovery process.

Recovery 101

Conventional wisdom states that disaster recovery starts before the response to the incident is concluded. In fact, recovery needs to start before the catastrophe even happens. The Federal Emergency Management Agency ( FEMA) has developed a continuum to highlight the progression of recovery activities.Short term recovery in the days following the event involves re-entry, damage assessment and the commencement of debris management. While sheltering and mass care services are delivered to a displaced populace, temporary repairs are applied to restore some of the infrastructure. The intermediate phase of recovery transitions includes finding temporary housing, the continuation of debris management and infrastructure restoration.

Additional needs brought on by the tragedy may involve physical and mental health services, small business assistance and more.

"Developing a plan that will serve as a roadmap to your citys redevelopment is critical in order to know what the end state of a natural disaster would be"

Long term recovery takes months, even years, as communities try to secure long term housing for a population base that may never return. Infrastructure restoration is completed but how many small businesses survive and if so, how long before they close? FEMA states that 40 percent of businesses fail to re-open after a disaster and another 25 percent will fail within a year. The Small Business Administration states that 90 percent of the businesses fail within two years of a disaster.

The one step some communities miss is the preparedness phase. Developing a plan that will serve as a roadmap to your city’s redevelopment is critical in order to know what the end state should be. While serving as the Emergency Management Director of Alachua County, Florida, we developed one of the first Post Disaster Redevelopment Plans (PDRP) for inland counties. This plan was to cast the vision of renewing our community if the worst was to happen.

Current Technology

Technology and Emergency Management have had a long relationship. From emergency notification systems to critical incident/emergency management solutions to crowdsourced mapping, our nation has a long history of using tech to assist us at our worst times.

Savannah and Chatham County utilize technology as a force multiplier to speed securing assistance from the State and Federal governments. Chatham County has developed an award winning damage assessment app utilizing ESRI’s Collector for ArcGIS. Additionally, the County utilizes crisis cleanup to match unmet needs to non-profits or other providers to assist the community in its return to normalcy.

With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), we are entering a new phase of technical applications that can assist with pre-incident planning and mitigation. AI can forecast the areas at greatest risk. Based on this information, jurisdictions can develop plans to reduce the hazards or to send scarce resources where they are needed most.

End Game

Depending on the scope of a disaster, recovery can be a long haul. Some communities never return to normal. This is the crux of the matter. Mr. Jack Harris has researched the recovery for Super storm Sandy and five years on, found approximately 750,000 individuals had not recovered fully. A year prior to Sandy, my hometown of Owego, New York experienced record flooding from tropical storm Lee. 1200 of 1600 homes had damages, 550 of them major, which mean they were unliveable.

These are what Mr. Harris calls “…big public challenges.” And this is what we need to start addressing. Quick, turnkey, long term housing solutions are available, due to technological advances. However, accessing these resources post disaster with FEMA’s blessing is a matter of policy. Choosing where to spur economic revival in the face of a mass exodus will be a tough choice for decision makers if businesses can’t be supported.

So where does technology fit into this picture? Can we utilize AI to forecast migration movements post-disaster? How can machine learning anticipate economic impacts and develop solutions that can be implemented sooner? How can these solutions be applied in blue skies and not just only for grey sky events? Ultimately, we need to build a resilient America. Technology can assist in that process but it will take new policy direction to ensure communities are built to withstand these hazards that could otherwise uproot them.

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