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How To Learn To Love The Disaster Industry

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Edward Dai/Epoch Times
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Cities and states hire private companies to help handle the workload after disasters, but homeowners still face long delays and other problems.

Disasters are causing more and more damage, and the federal government is spending more and more money to rebuild afterwards.

But before the construction crew can begin repairs, homeowners face months-long delays and poor customer service in the preliminary stages of the application process. Some homeowners even complain that the rebuilding process has become as traumatic as the storm itself.

The complaints are not confined to just one state or just one company. As part of our collaboration with NJ Spotlight and New Orleans Public Radio, we identified five ways to fix the disaster recovery system:

1.CUT THE RED TAPE. New Orleans attorney Jeffrey Thomas has a flow-chart detailing all the steps — public hearings, documentation, environmental checks, reports, etc. — required before spending money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after Hurricane Katrina. It is 7 feet long. He and his colleagues tried to cut it down — but managed only to reduce it to 5 feet.

HUD, which manages the long-term rebuilding funds that benefit homeowners, maintains the regulations are needed to ensure compliance with federal laws and to reduce fraud. The agency has tried to reduce the bureaucracy, but with limited success. After Sandy, for example, New York City complained about having to check with Indian tribes that might have ancestral burial grounds in coastal areas before it proceeded to make basic repairs to homes that were already there. HUD relaxed the rule, but not until August 2013, seven months after Congress approved the $50 billion Sandy aid package.

2. MORE OVERSIGHT. If cities and states use outside contractors, they must watch over them more closely. That’s what the de Blasio administration decided after it took over New York City’s recovery operation earlier this year. Amy Peterson, the new director of housing recovery, said consultants are only going to do what the city tells them to do and won’t try to find big-picture fixes to bottlenecks.  

3. CREATE A POST DISASTER WORKFORCE.  Local governments hire outside consulting companies because they don’t have enough staff to process paperwork on their own. But the private companies often end up hiring their front-line staff through temp agencies anyway, and spend little time training them.

“Now that we’re seeing, unfortunately, an increase in disasters, how do you bring in workers and train them for those opportunities, making sure there’s enough workers in the pipeline?” Said Robin Keegan, the director of community resiliency at one disaster recovery firm, GCR.

That’s the irony: part of the solution to the problems of the disaster industry might be to make the disaster industry a bigger and more permanent part of the economy.

4. STATES AND CITIES NEED A BETTER COOKBOOK.

Brad Gair, New York City’s former Sandy czar, said the federal government gives cities and states too much freedom to design their own housing recovery programs. The process of going back and forth to get those programs approved by HUD takes a long time.

“We’ve got to figure out how to build these programs at the federal level, have them off the shelf, ready to be implemented, turned on right after the disaster and not try to build a program from scratch on each, single disaster,” Gair said. “It just doesn’t work.”

5. MANAGE THE PUBLIC’S EXPECTATIONS.

Shortly after Sandy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited a damaged boardwalk and said the recovery phase would “take months – months, if not years.” It sounded like he was talking straight. But he low-balled his estimate. Two years later, less than a third of the federal aid earmarked for New Jersey’s housing recovery has actually been spent.

More than nine years after Katrina, parts of New Orleans still bear the scars. On Wickfield Drive in the Gentilly neighborhood, one homelooks like it has been gutted and cleaned out, as if someone planned to start work on it, but didn’t get very far. Other houses nearby also look they are in limbo.

That’s the danger of an inefficient, slow recovery, in New Orleans, New Jersey, or wherever a future disaster strikes: people give up, leaving blighted, abandoned properties behind.

Editors:

Karen Frillmann and Matthew Schuerman

Contributor:

Janet Babin