Albert McKeon

Jun 5th 2020

Lessons to Learn From Disasters Can Shape Preventative Measures


The destruction caused by a natural disaster launches emergency services and rescue teams into action, and usually triggers waves of donations and support from those far away. Inevitably, though, focus turns elsewhere, and the rebuilding often receives limited widespread attention.

It’s only inevitable that another fire, flood or hurricane will strike and that resources and public attentiveness will follow. However, it’s imperative to not lose sight of successes and failures of the after-disaster period because there are long-term lessons to learn from disasters.

If anything, studying how governments, communities and organizations respond to disasters sets the table for more effective preparedness, resilient infrastructure and less money spent on disaster relief. In just six months during 2018, the U.S. government spent $140 billion in disaster assistance, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 report on global risks, cumulative findings by federal agencies suggests that in the U.S. alone, climate-related economic damage could reach 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of the century.

“We are a country that feels really good about helping out. After these disasters we have the Red Cross and other organizations providing assistance and raising money to help after the crisis,” said Olivia Aguilar, an associate professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College and director of the college’s Miller Worley Center for the Environment. “It doesn’t translate, though. Recovery costs are in the billions. If we demanded policies that were proactive, it would cost us less. We wouldn’t be doing all of these out-of-pocket recoveries.”

In other words, studying the past can inform future actions.

Learning About Disaster Relief

More than 18,500 people died and more than 2,600 went missing after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The two events destroyed 130,000 homes and severely damaged another 270,000.

“Learning from Megadisasters – Lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake,” an exhaustive study commissioned by the World Bank, reviewed the structural and non-structural measures that were in place prior to Tohoku. But it also reviewed the many forms of disaster response — including the field work of emergency and medical teams and the logistic supply chain for emergency supplies — as well as how the country could move forward to rebuild home and lost careers.

An unthinkable triple-blow of earthquake, tsunami and accident at Fukushima Nuclear Power Station gave the Japanese government and outside experts such as the World Bank a lot to consider.

Perhaps one of the most chilling findings was how delayed warnings might have affected how many residents fled the path of the tsunami. With about 602,000 people in those at-risk areas, 20,000 were killed or went missing. “The Japan Meteorological Agency’s underestimation of the tsunami’s height issued three minutes after the earthquake is likely to have delayed the evacuation,” the World Bank report said. “Others, believing that the coastal dikes would protect them, may have delayed evacuations.”

The World Bank study didn’t just go on a shelf. It had another aim. Eight countries — Armenia, Indonesia, Kenya, the Kyrgyz Republic, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Uganda — vowed to use the report’s results and visits to Japan to tailor disaster preparedness specific to their local systems.

In Armenia, government officials developed structural measures and building codes based on their learning experiences in Japan. Armenia is at high risk for earthquakes. While studying how Japan handled post-Tohoku responses, government officials from Sierra Leone also wanted to learn more about the country’s disaster prevention and risk management practices, specifically how natural hazards can slow economic development. “The measures and tools that the Japanese have designed and implemented were presented to (Sierra Leone) to demonstrate that a culture of prevention helps to sustain growth,” the World Bank report said.

Overcoming the Roadblocks of Recovery

With natural disasters increasing in frequency, and the need to learn from them perhaps greater than ever, the consulting firm McKinsey looked at why governments can’t always effectively manage recovery. Although released in 2015, the McKinsey report “Improving Disaster Recovery: Lessons Learned in the United States” provides valuable advice today.

McKinsey found four roadblocks for governments:

  • Political pressure to disperse disaster relief is intense. Public expectations about the amount, pace and flexibility of recovery funding are rarely met because public officials tend to set unrealistic targets before they understand recovery issues.
  • Receiving and spending political aid can take a long time. For example, congressional approval of emergency funding can take months and environmental assessments even more months, while the rebuilding of complex capital infrastructure is not a quick endeavor.
  • Government leaders have an abundance of resources but face complex tasks they are unprepared to administer, so they often misjudge resources and skills required to deliver.
  • Recovery governance requires commitment to bold organizational changes that leaders are often too risk-averse to make.

McKinsey offered a long list of recommendations to improve response, and there are a few worth noting. Governments should appoint a “strong, experienced” leadership team and establish an integrated governance body to gain the support of the public, other government agencies and financial backers. This will help with other efforts, such as securing the ongoing advice of disaster experts, having vendors implement specific recovery programs, creating a procurement team and ensuring the leadership team has complete independence.

Focused and disciplined disaster recovery is possible, the report notes. McKinsey cites the “quick win” recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. For instance, New Jersey allocated about $200 million worth of federal homeowner grants, giving more than 18,000 people $10,000 grants for construction expenses. And in only 100 days, a New York City program gave away $640 million to restore heat, power and hot water to 11,700 housing buildings. Those programs worked because those governments prioritized projects that required less lead time to establish than full-fledged repair and reconstruction programs, the report said.

Disaster Prevention at All Levels of Government

“Whatever you think can’t happen, assume it will,” are wise words from a North Carolinian quoted in the Zurich Insurance report, “Events Are Natural, Disasters Are Not.” As with the other studies, this one also offers lessons to learn from disasters.

That North Carolina resident was quoted after Zurich examined the damage Hurricane Florence caused in that state in 2018. And things did “happen” because of flooding from Florence. Stricken coal ash waste storage sites released heavy metals into rivers, while hog waste escaped from storage lagoons and killed thousands of fish in the Cape Fear River. Here was, the report noted, an opportunity to transcend cross-jurisdictional hurdles (those posed by separate regulations in the energy and agricultural industries) and have stronger coordinated enforcement by governments.

Indeed, governments will inevitably drive the response to disaster and the preparation for them, according to Mount Holyoke’s Aguilar. “Government matters,” she said. “Without government support it will be really hard to address these issues at the local levels.”