First-Person Report - Forecast 2010: A New Model for Disaster Management

The nation’s fifth largest recent disaster has affected the citizens of Iowa for the past 18 months but, thanks to an innovative approach to disaster management, that state’s weather problems have been almost unknown to the outside world. One result is that, as we begin 2010, the most significant change in disaster management is probably going to be the way in which other states handle their own long-term disaster-recovery programs.

In 2008, Iowa experienced the most devastating series of natural disasters in the state’s history, when severe floods, tornadoes, and storms hit Iowa – resulting in 85 of the state’s 99 counties being declared federal disaster areas. Initial statewide estimates for damages were between $8 billion and $10 billion.

It was immediately clear that the standard disaster-recovery programs and processes were not going to work for Iowa this time around. Governor Chester John “Chet” Culver decided that much greater cooperation and coordination were needed. He sought to engage the public, primarily through the appointment of a volunteer advisory committee through which the citizens of Iowa themselves could find the solutions needed. That decision, and the processes followed, fundamentally changed the dynamics of disaster recovery.

To facilitate the changes likely to be needed, Culver established the Rebuild Iowa Office (RIO) and the Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission (RIAC). The order’s intent was to “turn tragedy into opportunity by building back smarter, stronger, more sustainably, and safer than before.”

RIO & RIAC: The Agents of Change 

In creating RIO, Culver envisioned a ready and responsive organization committed to rebuilding a resilient Iowa that would be safe, sustainable, and economically strong, reaffirming its ties to the land, rivers, environment, and rich cultural history. His vision in establishing RIAC – a 15-member, non-partisan commission made up of business and community leaders from every part of Iowa – was much the same. Members of the commission worked tirelessly to visit communities affected by the disasters, listened to numerous Iowa citizens – and to recovery experts, business and political leaders, and other stakeholders – and determined the top priorities for the immediate recovery process.

Only 45 days after its creation, the RIAC released its first report, which included a list of priorities and recommendations for short-term recovery operations. A more comprehensive report, addressing each of the Task Force areas and detailing longer-term disaster-recovery priorities and recommendations, was released 120 days after the RIAC’s creation.

The RIO originally was staffed with consultants from my company, James Lee Witt Associates, and from the State Public Policy Group, an Iowa-based consulting firm. Other state employees were temporarily “borrowed” from other agencies. The Rebuild Iowa Office-type of organization structure was first developed when we worked with then-Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Iowa Office took on a life of its own. Eventually, the RIO was established within the Iowa Code and was allocated 12 State FTE (full-time equivalent) positions in order to remain staffed through the Office’s “sunset” date of 30 June 2011.

Coordination – The Key to Sustained Progress 

The RIO’s most important role is to coordinate work among the many state and federal agencies and local entities involved in disaster-recovery decision-making and program administration. The coordination process not only has cleared up program bottlenecks very quickly but also has led to several innovations that probably would not otherwise have occurred. Following are but a few of numerous examples that might be used:

  • Using Community Development Block Grant (CDGB) funds, an education campaign is being coordinated by the Iowa Insurance Division on future risks, and the consequences of redeveloping in a flood plain, by advocating for flood insurance in Iowa and has already helped to increase NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program) participation.
  • Displaced workers who received employment through the Emergency Public Jobs Program were able to assist both in staffing the case-management system and in administering the paperwork required for the Iowa Unmet Needs Grant Program. Their efforts helped considerably to move programs more swiftly and to increase the number of loans made to Iowa residents.
  • Using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to pay for improved flood- plain maps for Iowa resulted in more accurate planning and improved risk-assessment decisions.
  • Currently, EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Smart Growth Assistance is being provided to an unprecedented number of Iowa communities to assist with their recovery plans. In addition, the Rebuild Iowa Office and other state and federal agencies are teaming up both to promote Smart Growth in the statewide disaster-recovery effort and to provide the assistance that many communities need to transform their plans into a sustainable reality.

CDGB and State Funding Programs, and a Focus on Case-Management 

As of last month, Iowa had received nearly $800 million in CDGB funds, and the RIO has worked closely with other state agencies to develop innovative action plans to spend the funds provided not only effectively but also cost-effectively. Thanks in large part to the help provided by the RIO – along with the Iowa Department of Economic Development, the Iowa Finance Authority, and the Governor’s Office – several new programs have been created to assist the Iowans hit hardest by the series of floods and other natural disasters mentioned earlier. The RIO’s involvement also has resulted in using these funds in several new and different ways – providing business assistance, for example, and helping with flood-plain mapping, insurance promotion, case management, and other previously neglected possibilities. It seems likely that no other state has used its funds quite so effectively and in so many ways.

In the months immediately following the 2008 weather disasters, Governor Culver used $35 million in state funds to create two additional forward-looking initiatives – the Jumpstart Housing and Jumpstart Small Business Assistance Programs – through which individual citizens have been able to receive interim state funding for housing repairs, interim mortgage assistance, down-payment assistance on replacement homes, and other business assistance in general.

Following Culver’s example, the first bill passed by the 2009 Iowa Legislature allocated $56 million in state funds for disaster-relief programs. That Jumpstart allocation has already assisted more than 1,000 Iowa families, and Individual Unmet Needs Grants have helped more than 3,000 additional families. Both programs provided funds that undoubtedly would not otherwise have been available.

Meanwhile, the RIO continued to focus on case management by creating a system – involving more than 25 Long-Term Recovery Committees established throughout the state – to help locally based case managers work with disaster-affected Iowans to navigate their way through the recovery programs available (and, not incidentally, receive additional assistance through non-profits or other private resources). Without that structure in place, local voluntary agencies would be able to receive little if any guidance in helping disaster-affected individuals through the recovery process.

Iowa’s Success: An Example for the Nation 

The RIO also has started several efforts to help improve and reform the fractured and incomplete national disaster-recovery system. Typically, federal resources: (a) are not designed for use in disaster recovery; (b) come with a multitude of restrictions; and (c) are therefore very difficult to spend in times when unexpected disasters do hit.

In the summer of 2009, the RIO and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) joined together to complete an Iowa Recovery Analysis. That analysis looked both at “best practices” and the accompanying challenges, and suggested numerous improvements in disaster recovery that could be achieved at all levels of government – local and state as well as federal. The Iowa RIO used the analysis to develop a number of federal recommendations that are now being shared with state and federal agencies, Iowa’s congressional delegation, and other interested parties.

The RIO will continue to engage with those who can change the federal disaster-recovery system and to lead discussions on this topic with the hope of improving the system not only for the remainder of Iowa’s own 2008 recovery process but also to help other states cope with future disasters nationwide.

Mark Merritt

Mark Merritt, the President of James Lee Witt Associates, is responsible for the response and recovery division of the crisis and emergency management consulting firm, which is based in Washington, D.C. Witt Associates is now working with approximately one fifth of the nation’s states, in addition to Iowa, to streamline and effectively manage their current systems of coping with natural disasters.



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