A giant crane pulls crushed cars out of the debris after an expressway was devastated during the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

A new book draws recovery lessons from recent natural and man-made calamities.

When a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Chinese province of Sichuan in 2008, entire towns were wiped away. Some 70,000 people died, and nearly 1.5 million had to be relocated. But with the summer Olympics were right around the corner, China’s government tried to reconstruct everything in as little as three years.

Not surprisingly, quality suffered. Rural residents lost their livelihoods as the government relocated them to urban areas. Others wound up in oversimplified villages that ignored basic things like road access. And because national officials ignored local knowledge of hazards like landslide zones, high-profile developments came undone before completion.

Compare that to the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake that devastated Japan’s port city of Kobe and knocked down a network of highways. There, local governments led recovery efforts, with national leaders providing funding and resources. Kobe today is filled with new, earthquake-proofed development, though 20 years on, the city acknowledges that the rebuilding progress has been challenging.

Both events present useful direction and cautionary advice for how to rebuild communities when calamity strikes. In fact, there’s no one right way to do it. “It’s hard to say that any disaster is a complete disaster,” says Laurie Johnson, an urban planner and disaster planning consultant. “There are lessons

to be learned in all recovery efforts.”

In a new book, After Great Disasters, Johnson and co-author Robert Olshansky, head of urban and regional planning at University of Illinois, draw from decades of research to examine how six countries navigated the complex process of shelling out funds and leading action in times of panic and confusion. In examples from China, Japan, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, and the U.S., balance—of speed versus deliberation, short-term rebuilding versus long-term planning, centralized approaches versus grassroots efforts—turn out to be key.

The world faces all manner of environmental threats. Cities, in particular, are vulnerable to calamity—but can also be particularly prepared. CityLab spoke to both authors to find out how.

What is a common misconception about disaster recovery among leaders?

Olshansky: The [top-down] method is seen as a way to accomplish physical reconstruction quickly, which a lot of governments see as an indicator [of success].

But there's a lot more to recovery. Public involvement and citizen empowerment are really critical. In China, [the government] was just really focused on physical reconstruction, and it was done at the price of not fully considering the social and economic issues.

Governments need to think in terms of information management and transparency—and to listen. Really, the citizens need to be treated as full partners.

The metaphor I use is the masses with torches and pitchforks outside the castle, all wanting to have their houses rebuilt. The natural response is to hunker down and figure this out quickly so we’ll close the castle doors. But the people get shut out like that. You’re better off to open the doors and let them be a part of it. Ironically, you may actually end up doing things more quickly because you won’t get bogged down with excessive lawsuits and protests.

Personally, I really like the Indonesia case; they had very much of a emphasis on owner-driven housing construction and community driven processes.

Going back to the idea of transparency, Indonesia really embraced the idea of sharing data following the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. They set up a public database tracking 500 recovery organizations and their projects, as well as where the money was coming and going. And this was back in 2005.

Olshansky: When you award reconstruction money, you want announce it publicly [to avoid] corruption and redirection of funds. That was [Indonesia’s] stated purpose.

It takes resources and intention to do that. You have to have the budget and people designated to do that. And if you don’t have that pre-stated as a goal—that you want to be transparent, and you want to list all of the grants and all of the contracts online—it won’t happen.

But I think a lot of places are doing that now. It took a while in New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina], but eventually, everything was getting posted.

How should the roles of the national and local governments be divided for maximum efficiency?

Olshansky: The national levels of government are really good at providing resources, which is money and technical guidance. But because of that, they tend to want to micromanage everything. That's where you start to run into problems, because they don't really know what the local circumstances really are.

To me, the best way to do this is to is for them to provide large amounts of flexibility to local governments. Sometimes you just need to be willing to take risks, in terms of fears about how the money is being spent.

In Japan, the national government is requiring that the local governments had to have at least 80 percent of [private landowners] agreeing to [government land acquisitions for post-disaster redevelopment]. But some people were dead, and some of them [moved] far away. To hold up this whole process, it would take forever. And so [local leaders] just went and they fought it. Sometime it’s just about local governments pushing back and making the case for themselves.

Japan is no stranger to large-scale disasters, like the 1923 earthquake that nearly wiped out Tokyo. The mayor then had a grand vision for its long-term recovery to transform the nation’s capital into an ultra-modern city—which didn’t happen as quickly as he had hoped. You often hear that the silver lining of disaster is that it offers a blank slate for a city to reinvent itself. What are the lessons to be drawn from this ambition?

Olshansky: A city is a complicated self-organizing system, and there's no one body in charge. After a disaster, businesses are starting to organize themselves, individuals are starting to figure out how to rebuild their homes, and utility districts are figuring how to fix their sewage. The idea that everything can be completely reinvented is not really realistic.

But the goal [for leaders] is figuring out where you might intervene in that system to make its come back better and smarter. That’s where it helps to have more information and better transparency so that all of those individual actors cooperate.

You argue that, in the U.S., 9/11 was a turning point for disaster recovery, in that it changed how the national and state governments coordinated recovery policies.

Johnson: In a way, the first U.S. disaster policies were agrarian—thinking of crop disaster and floodplain management. With 9/11, you've got tremendous infrastructure needs in a dense, concentrated area. You couldn't you couldn't just slowly repair one piece of infrastructure without repairing another [as you would in a more rural town]. You need to have money come swiftly, and coordinated.

Congress [was already] beginning to use Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery provisions. [In post 9/11 New York,] that really went on steroids for the community-scale housing and commercial support that was needed. That set the precedent for using CDBG after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and for the way the program is structured—now, the grant recipient is the state, instead of HUD-entitled communities. That just wasn't efficient for the standpoint of creating [coordinated] action plans. It was also easier to manage the money.

One similarity across the countries is the creation of new federal entities in the midst of a disaster. You have the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority in New Zealand and the national Reconstruction Agency in Japan, for example. What have you learned about why these emerge, despite the fact that recovery is usually best left to local leaders?

Johnson: The process of recovery is very localized—it's putting your house and livelihood back, repairing our roads and infrastructure. But with large-scale disasters, demands for money raise the stakes for financing the recovery. They need to make sure that the money is well spent. So I think these organizations emerged to manage a part of that conundrum.

So for recovery to go smoothly, you can’t just pursue a centralized management approach, or a decentralized one. You need a bit of both. How do you strike that balance?

Johnson: Well, you can have multilevel governance. You can have a centralized process, but still have a process by which you're gathering information and input into that process in a more collaborative way.

It's really interesting, the way New Zealand is set up. If they're going to revise a national act, they make the announcement and then collect input for a period of time. Some policy guys go and write the draft, and then that goes out for another round of public input. That's with local governments, with the public, and with special interest groups—they all sort of get treated this kind of equally as a submission.

In recovery efforts, those actors are not all the same. But governments do better when they realize, “Here are your stakeholders, here are your key actors in recovery. We need to give them some sort of role in the decision making.”

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