The Last Responders: Approaching the Disaster after the Disaster through Community-Led Long-Term Recovery Coalitions

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Alana Tornello

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Recovery is the disaster after the disaster. The claim has been whispered around the proverbial campfires of emergency management (EM) for decades.[1] Scholars, practitioners, and survivors provide evidence to support this claim, particularly for long-term recovery (LTR)—the recovery period when “restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the physical, social, economic, and natural environment” extends to months, years, or decades.[2] Classic EM approaches may fail to address LTR because its issues can be classified as “wicked problems.”[3] These problems evade traditional top-down systems and planning, which is why scholars recommend rapid and sustained mobilization of various stakeholders in a network approach.[4] This approach aims to make sense of wicked problems and identify ways to tackle them.[5] One model takes this approach in LTR through an organizing phenomenon developed by the “last responders”—the community-based leaders who serve survivors in the long shadow cast by disaster.

Last responders across the nation have organized LTR coalitions, rapidly forming and sustaining perspectives and services from diverse stakeholders across three sectors of LTR practitioners: emergent groups, governmental EM, and nongovernmental EM. LTR coalition building has been recorded at the hyper-local level through a subset of community-led coalitions, such as long-term recovery groups (LTRGs).[6] These community-led LTR coalitions have developed across the country to coordinate nonprofits, congregations, associations, businesses, and other service providers to streamline the delivery of disaster case management, home repair, legal aid, financial counseling, and health/mental health services, among other support groups.[7]

This study examines community-led LTR coalitions in depth, exploring how they approach wicked problems in LTR. The central inquiries of this study are the following:

  • What contributes to a community-led coalition’s ability to make sense out of LTR’s complexity and aid decision makers in advancing recovery efforts?
  • What approaches do community-led coalitions use to tackle the wicked problems of LTR?

This study employs qualitative analysis of five community-led LTR coalitions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in NYC. The research design includes in-depth analysis of publicly available and privately shared materials produced by and about those coalitions that used the LTRG model, such as testimonies, reports, websites, presentations, and other print and digital information. The method includes five 90-minute interviews with individuals who had coordinating roles in LTRGs for a Sandy-impacted community.

The study focuses on the approaches of community-led LTR coalitions in facing five wicked problems derived from LTR scholarship. The problems identified are the: (1) union of large-scale disaster effects and the challenges and inequities of every-day emergencies; (2) race against dwindling public interest and resources; (3) barriers in helping survivors make choices between building back, building stronger, and abandoning their homes; (4) difficulty of navigating complex programs in a landscape lacking clear leadership and coordination; and (5) complex costs from the slow burn of serving communities through years (or decades) of LTR. How community-led LTR coalitions made sense of and tackled these wicked problems form the heart of this thesis.

This study finds that LTRGs had clear approaches to making sense of the union between every-day impacts and large-scale disasters. They demonstrated clear strategies towards mitigating these dual impacts, such as ensuring that members brought experience with both disasters and community-based emergencies. LTRGs were also intentional about acknowledging and tackling dwindling attention to their cause. They leveraged the resources and attention of earlier periods of LTR while continuously assessing unmet needs to help “tell the story” of later periods. LTRGs were also skilled in coordinating across organizations and selecting coalition-oriented leaders to assess and counteract the wider landscape’s crisis of too many leaders and not enough leadership. LTRGs were less able to help communities identify a common vision for their recovery and navigate the decisions of building back, building stronger, or abandoning. They also struggled to understand and tackle the costs of slow-burning crises. Although they attempted to raise funds to support the immense costs that accrued in LTR, this effort failed to successfully overcome shortsighted funding cycles. For these problems, the limited ability for LTRGs to overcome problems arising from decisions made at high levels emerged as a common theme. These problems occurred in the design and execution of federal programs responsible for the majority of LTR funds, which for the most part did not incorporate LTRGs (or their members) into design, funding, or service coordination.

Recommendations address LTR practitioners across the sectors of emergent groups, governmental EM, and nongovernmental EM. They include the creation of a national platform by and for last responders that showcases coalition case studies and tools for leaders initiating or developing community-led LTR coalitions. Recommendations outline how governmental and nongovernmental EM professionals and scholars can support these coalitions. The study explores the significance of these coalitions in the fields of emergency management, homeland security, and broader democratic participation in disaster recovery. This thesis aims to apply scholarly rigor to approaches taken by community-led LTR coalitions in NYC to make sense of LTR’s wicked problems and collectively tackle them. It is written by a last responder, for last responders.

 

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[1]Thomas E. Drabek, The Human Side of Disaster, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: CRC Press, 2013); Claire B. Rubin, “Long-Term Recovery from Disasters: The Neglected Component of Emergency Management,” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 6, no. 1 (January 6, 2009), https://doi.org/10.2202/1547-7355.1616; Federal Emergency Management Agency, “National Preparedness Goal,” FEMA, accessed March 12, 2019, https://www.fema.gov/national-preparedness-goal.

[2] Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Disaster Recovery Framework, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2016), 5; Gavin P. Smith and Dennis Wenger, “Sustainable Disaster Recovery: Operationalizing an Existing Agenda,” in Handbook of Disaster Research, ed. Havidán Rodríguez, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell R. Dynes (New York, NY: Springer, 2007), 5, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-32353-4_14.

[3] A wicked problem has multiple (or no) solutions, lacks a definitive “right or wrong” dichotomy, is hard to understand prior to finding solutions, and has an unclear stopping point, among other perplexing qualities. Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin W. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155–69.

[4] Jeff Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity,” in Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), 7, http://cognexus.org.

[5] C. F. Kurtz and D. J. Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World,” IBM Systems Journal 42, no. 3 (2003): 469, https://doi.org/10.1147/sj.423.0462.

[6] National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Long Term Recovery Guide (Alexandria, VA: National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, 2015), https://www.nvoad.org/mdocs-posts/long-term-recovery-guide.

[7] National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

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