I like to think we can learn more from studying others’ successes than focusing on our own failures. Emergency management and homeland security offer endless opportunities to do both, but we often fail to acknowledge the pitfalls associated with one approach versus the other.
Perspectives on recovery are not unique to emergency management and homeland security. Psychologists, social workers, therapists and counselors have developed and refined an approach to managing addiction that defines recovery in terms that should seem fairly familiar to emergency managers and homeland security professionals whether or not they have struggled with such issues in their personal lives.
The 12-steps to addiction recovery begin with an acknowledgement of powerlessness and an overture or openness to assistance from a higher power. Acknowledging the need for change, the addict is encouraged to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory.” Having made such an assessment, the addict is encouraged to seek forgiveness and make amends to those harmed by her behavior. The addict must then humbly commit herself to making self-reflection, repentance, and reconciliation a consistent and ongoing part of her life. This leads to the ultimate steps of aligning one’s thoughts and actions with the intention to do what is right and encourage such actions in others.
The recent publication of a draft National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) presents an opportunity to see how much we have learned since Hurricane Katrina. A comparison of the principles guiding the NDRF with the recovery strategies of those coping with addiction might prove insightful for several reasons. Not the least of these is the fact that we (as a nation, if not a profession) have been in denial of the need to address recovery systematically and strategically for many years. Like addicts, our tendency to engage in serial self-defeating behavior has been enabled by a system that has tended to put restoration ahead of renewal and reflection ahead of re-norming or reforming obsolete ways of thinking about and dealing with our circumstances.
In contrast to the 12-steps to addiction recovery, the NDRF identifies eight core principles anchored in transparency and cooperation and derived from stakeholder submissions as the prospective core of federal disaster recovery policy and process:
- Individual and family empowerment
- Leadership and local primacy
- Preparation for recovery
- Partnership and inclusiveness
- Unity of effort
- Timeliness and flexibility
- Resilience and sustainability
As I read through these principles and the accompanying documentation released by the Disaster Recovery Working Group, I was overtaken by the impression that the efforts that produced them were formulaic acts of penance for Katrina rather than genuine acts of contrition. Reconciling ourselves with our past requires much more than a simple act of atonement for the mistakes of Katrina.
Unlike the 12-steps to addiction recovery, the eight principles guiding disaster recovery do not start with the recognition of the helplessness and hopelessness of our present situation and a commitment to leaving past patterns of behavior behind. While they make a welcome overture to more engagement and give a nod to the importance of resilience and sustainability, the eight principles and the accompanying narrative take far too much for granted when it comes to suggesting how we might go about achieving such lofty goals.
By failing to acknowledge either the need for humility in the face of tragedy or the need to reconcile people with the reality of their situation, the recovery framework misses an important opportunity to convince people that the challenges they face reflect their previous failures to adequately prepare. Absent “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” how will we know people are prepared to do the hard work required to mitigate vulnerabilities to future disasters?
Confronted with the realities of a disaster and the resource limitations that invariably arise, not the least of which is the patience of those responsible for or affected by the process, recovery tends to fall into one of four familiar patterns:
The Recommission strategy avoids the hard work of doing anything more than what is immediately necessary to put things back as they were. It is particularly well suited to situations that are not wholly inconsistent with our expectations of self-efficacy and that do not overwhelm our resources. Most disasters fall into this category.
The Reconnection Strategy describes the sort of response typical when the damage experienced is greater but not beyond what we expected in aggregate but beyond what we are willing to tolerate in future. This situation reflects the sort of incident typified by the Northridge earthquake. With some outside technical help, an infusion of resources, and some minor to moderate adjustments, such as improvements in building codes and better emergency planning, we can make significant improvements to guard against similar failures in future events.
When the extent of the damage exceeds our resource capacity but does not significantly violate our expectations, we can embrace the opportunity to rebuild better than before by applying the Realization Strategy. This approach allows us to invest in our values, to remake our community consistent with our aspirations, often using someone else’s resources. This situation arises following many but not all floods, when recovery resources are invested in relocating activities out of flood plains or rebuilding structures to resist future floods.
The most difficult situation, the one that requires the most work, takes the longest, and often fails to succeed fully is the Reorientation Strategy, which arises when our expectations and our resources both prove inadequate to the tasks at hand. Catastrophes like Katrina and the Haiti earthquake completely reshape our sense of what we need to do and at the same time require us to undertake not only the routine work of daily living but the extraordinary efforts required to embrace a new reality. Our past mistakes hang around our neck like a millstone in these situations, limiting our options and sapping our resolve.
Layered on top of all of these strategies is the demand for accountability, which often delays the recovery process by focusing on allocating responsibility for past mistakes rather than committing ourselves to the work needed to avoid making them yet again. This is not to say that accountability and recovery are inconsistent with one another, but only that the processes often compete with one another for our attention and our resources.
Succeeding with the work of recovery requires us to break with past practices. Past recovery efforts failed not just because we failed to work hard enough or to work together well enough. We failed because we shared the mistaken impression that working together, working harder, or both was enough in and of itself.
Like an addict and his enabling spouse, local, state, and federal officials and the public they serve have become co-dependent on one another and need someone sober to step forward and perform an intervention, preferably before we hit rock bottom. Neither the people of the United States nor her leaders can afford the luxury of assuming that either or both of them will do the right thing if only given the opportunity.
We have had too many opportunities to mitigate our vulnerabilities and build a more resilient nation but failed to do so. Today, our infrastructure and our economy teeter on the brink of collapse. Assuming transparency and cooperation will make up for our previous failures to maintain public trust and ensure accountability is no way to ensure a more resilient future for us all.