Researcher: Empowering Civil Society is Right Approach to Disaster Recovery

By Matthew Harwood

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, local and city governments should refrain from developing detailed disaster-recovery plans which could delay the rebuilding process and make it less likely that businesses will reopen and displaced citizens will return to their communities, according to research by a political economist.

“One of the primary things you want to worry about when it comes to natural disasters is allowing civil society--churches, charities, and businesses--to take the lead in the recovery process and recover resiliently and quickly,” Dr. Daniel Smith of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University said during a presentation for the George Mason University Economics Society last week. Smith’s research was supported by George Mason’s Mercatus Center, a research center known for advancing free market solutions to public policy questions.

Smith came to this conclusion after studying the recovery process from two cities devastated by the wave of tornadoes that wrecked portions of the Southern United States last year.

On April 27, a tornado slammed into Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It killed 52 people and damaged or destroyed 5,144 homes and 575 businesses. Less than a month later, another tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, with even deadlier consequences. The twister killed 161 people and damaged or destroyed approximately 7,500 homes and 557 businesses.

“You have two very similar tornadoes striking similar size towns in a similar way with similar damage, it’s an opportunity to go into those towns and see how these towns are going to recover, what’s helping the recovery, and what’s impeding the recovery,” said Smith. “And if they take two different approaches, you can learn even more from that.”

In the aftermath of the tornadoes, he traveled to each city to witness the recovery process and interview victims. Smith found that each city received an outpouring of aid and volunteerism from civil and business organizations but noticed that the recovery process was taking much longer in Tuscaloosa than in Joplin.

“Initially you would expect that Joplin would recover at a slower rate than Tuscaloosa” because of the severity of the twister, Smith said, but in little more than three months after the tornado, 69 percent of destroyed businesses in Joplin had reopened or were in the process of reopening.

In Tuscaloosa, however, Smith found that less than 15 percent of destroyed businesses had received construction permits to begin the rebuilding process more than a year after the tornado occurred.

Moreover, in May of 2011, Tuscaloosa declared a temporary moratorium (attached below) on construction in the areas affected by the tornado while Joplin waived licensing and zoning regulations, even looking the other way as residents and business owners rebuilt without permits.

With businesses open, the citizens of Joplin returned, says Smith. Joplin officials estimate that 90 percent of the population returned and school enrollments were unchanged after the twister. Smith doesn't have these metrics for Tuscaloosa.


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