Louisiana Flood Update – Recovery Q&A
Recovery efforts from last month’s historic flood that dumped as much as two feet of rain on parts of central Louisiana in 48 hours are moving ahead slowly, despite an infusion of $132 million in disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to news reports.
Textile Services Weekly recently reported that Barry Scanlon and Drew Sachs of DCMC Partners, a disaster-relief consulting group had headed to the flood-stricken area to assess the damage and provide assistance as needed. The flood, which began on Aug. 12, has claimed at least 11 lives and left some 60,000 people homeless. Sachs, who along with Scanlon, will address emergency-planning issues at TRSA’s Production Summit & Plant Tours program on Oct. 25-26 in New Orleans, agreed to answer a few questions on the recovery efforts now underway in the Bayou State. Excerpts of a longer piece slated for publication in an upcoming issue of Textile Services magazine follow:
How does the response to the Louisiana flooding compare to Hurricane Katrina, and the other disasters where you’ve assisted?
The response to this disaster has been relatively good. For better and for worse, the federal government, the state of Louisiana, and the parishes (similar to counties in other states) have had a lot of experience with flood events over the years, and post-Katrina investments in response capability and resources have paid off.
Are businesses, hospitals, schools, etc., functioning now, or how close to normal are they today?
Remember that floods impact primarily low-lying areas. As such, much of the state was either unaffected or is up and running by now. But in the flood-impacted areas, there are still many, many businesses and public facilities (particularly schools) that were heavily damaged and have yet to be repaired to the point that they can be reopened.
On the business side, it has been particularly complicated. Many businesses not only experienced losses of their own facilities and inventory; they also have customers who were impacted and have yet to restore their own operations. Also, we have noted that few businesses had flood insurance, and those that did were often under-insured (for example, they may have had the basic $500K policy through the National Flood Insurance Program [NFIP]), but did not have commercial coverage in place on top of that to help them deal with the often significant losses above that amount, and/or the costs associated with business disruption that are not eligible under the NFIP. This means that businesses are often weighing tremendous financial and business uncertainties.
Schools have been racing to repair and reopen so that they can limit disruptions for the new school year, but in many instances, children are not able to attend their neighborhood schools and are now being bused to undamaged buildings elsewhere in the community or region. This is further complicated by the fact that nearly 100,000 homes were damaged by the recent flooding, so many families are displaced and schools are grappling with the impacts that displacement will have on their ongoing operations.
An array of federal disaster aid was recently approved. Is it having much impact at this point that you can see?
Very little at this point, but that is not unexpected. Other than the initial response to save lives and protect property during the emergency period, the other resources that are being made available take time to flow. For example, FEMA funds for damaged buildings and infrastructure are paid on a reimbursement basis, mostly after the work is completed. Other programs, ranging from FEMA Individual Assistance, programs from HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and SBA (Small Business Administration), and even the Louisiana Governor’s recently-announced “Stay at Home” program (designed to facilitate quick, temporary repairs to get people back into their homes) require program rules to be developed, applications to be submitted, inspections of damaged homes and facilities, etc., before the money begins to flow. This is one of the real problems with relying on government for disaster recovery aid – it is not as fast as insurance or using your own resources, and it often takes a lot of effort and documentation to access it.
On average, how well prepared were Louisiana businesses affected by the flooding? What could they have done to have placed themselves in a better position today?
Given their extensive history with disasters, surprisingly poorly. Flood insurance is still often viewed as something they buy only if they are required to do so by their bank when they take out a loan. And commercial flood coverage for excess losses above NFIP limits or for other expenses not eligible under the NFIP (like business interruption) are very rare. Some businesses justify this by saying that they are “self-insuring” – a term I liken to having no insurance at all in most cases. It’s really a shame, because statistically, well over half of all small businesses that experience a major flood loss will either never re-open or will close within two years because of the financial strains or lost customers caused by the event.
In addition, I think that many businesses still have yet to learn that disasters create opportunities if you are prepared for them. If you can keep your business operating while others are impacted, you are positioned to strengthen your relationship with existing customers, grow your market-share with new ones, and possibly even provide more services at a time when there could be increased demand. Protecting your own business from becoming victimized and being ready to take advantage of new opportunities in the post-disaster environment can create real benefits.
Were local and state officials reasonably prepared for what happened? How would you size up their response?
I would say that most state and local officials were reasonably prepared for the recent floods. You should expect that, though, given the state’s disaster history over the past decade. They have had lots of practice, and lots of time to get the resources and training they need to address response and life-safety requirements.
Where I think there is still a major deficiency is dealing with recovery needs. Recovery is actually much harder than response:
- Response is over quickly, while recovery can take months or even years
- There are really only a handful of priorities for recovery, mostly dealing with the protection of life and property, while for recovery, agendas are found in long lists and often mix both disaster – and nondisaster-related concerns
- There is no public expectation that a response will be “perfect,” and mistakes made often go unseen or are easily forgiven due to the unpredictable nature of a disaster. Recovery, however, is usually very visible and people’s expectations about “returning to normal” are high and often unreasonable
No one will question if a governmental entity sends resources to support response that are not needed because of the “fog of war” and the feeling that it’s better to have more than less when life-safety is at issue. Recovery, however, needs to be balanced with all of the other fiscal, social and other value-laden priorities that people, communities, and other stakeholders may have.
Despite their long and storied history with disasters, many local communities in Louisiana – and elsewhere for that matter – still have yet to wrap their arms around mid- and long-term recovery as a discipline of its own, worthy of planning and investment of resources in peacetime. That often results in them not being prepared to manage and “own” their own recoveries, thereby struggling through the recovery period.