Natural and man-made emergencies take a significant toll on communities across the globe. In the U.S., these events have included devastating hurricanes, floods, environmental disasters and even economic crises. Hurricanes Sandy, Gustav and Katrina, as well the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are among more recent events where communities required both immediate relief and long-term recovery programs to help rebuild homes, infrastructures and businesses.
While states and localities have their own disaster plans and emergency funds, the President of the United States can declare a national disaster when the needs and damages reach certain levels. This declaration triggers appropriation of federal funds to assist in long-term recovery efforts.
In the case of natural disasters, immediate relief activities like bringing food and water or setting up temporary shelters tend to flow more quickly than long-term recovery efforts. This is because the activities are practiced and prepared for, and related funds have fewer strings attached. As it should be, “all hands on deck” is the mentality, and even emergency contracts can be created.
Longer-term recoveries have different parameters. The standing up of intake centers, development of software systems, and creation of processes for handling relief applications and funds distribution are new tasks for which existing government employees likely have little or no experience performing. Responsible agencies also may not have appropriate contracts in place to start such programs right away.
Drawing on lessons learned
After immediate threats have subsided, there often is political and media clamor to get funds disbursed for rebuilding. Time and time again, it seems there are significant delays between the appropriation of federal funds and getting that money to the programs or people in need. By their nature, disasters are not planned, so one could argue that more time is needed to set up, manage and disburse funds. Yet, we can identify patterns and similarities from past recovery efforts to help expedite these programs for the future.
Things can be different. We can also learn from processes followed in the early disaster relief stages, such as having contracts or contract vehicles ready to be exercised when needed. Having such contracts on the shelf for long-term recovery programs would allow state or local governments to access experts with experience in setting up processes for eligibility determination, application management and funds management, for example. This step alone might save months of set-up time to get recovery funds to qualified recipients more rapidly.
Another option is repurposing robust technology solutions recently created for collecting and disseminating data, creating applications, determining eligibility, and managing emergency funds in a highly transparent and auditable way. There are millions of dollars spent on long-term recovery efforts, and transparency and accountability should continue to be one of the most important factors in managing the funds.
I invite you to read more on this topic in our white paper, Managing Federal Emergency Grant Funds: Early preparation and accountable solutions are keys to success.