Natural Disasters: How to Recover

June 13, 2013

The tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, left 24 fatalities, nine of them children. An estimated 12,000 homes and many businesses were destroyed or damaged along the estimated 17-mile-long, 1.3-mile-wide tornado path. While the immediate concern is response and recovery, the residents of Moore will soon have to turn to the task of rebuilding, say Daniel J. Smith, an assistant professor of economics at Troy University, and Laura Grube, a Mercatus Center Ph.D. Fellow in Economics at George Mason University.

Due to the insufficiency and unreliability of post-disaster data, as well as the extreme difficulties of quantifying the important human element of recovery, social scientists conducting disaster-recovery research have increasingly relied upon intensive field work and interviews to supplement conventional data sources.

While disaster recovery isn't a race, when rebuilding lags, residents become less likely to return as they become frustrated with the slow recovery, become accustomed to their new communities, or lose faith that the old community will ever return. Entire communities and their cultural heritage can therefore be lost by a slow or incomplete recovery.

A number of factors impact recovery, but the two most important lessons from research on previous natural disaster recoveries are:

  • Allow churches, charities and businesses to lead the response and recovery efforts.
  • Waive the licensing, regulatory, and zoning requirements that complicate and impede rebuilding.

Businesses also play an important role in disaster recovery. One of the simple ways they help is simply by returning people to familiarity and routine by reopening and reestablishing local commercial flows. Commercial entities create the social spaces, employment, and the goods and services necessary for returning residents to their lives.

The importance of insurance companies is often overlooked, too. In any natural disaster, insurance claims will dwarf charitable contributions. The consensual pooling of risk is an important element in a free society, and while the industry will never be free of complaints, insurance companies in past natural disasters have done a remarkable job of getting on the ground after the disaster and issuing checks immediately to disaster victims so they may meet basic needs. The larger claims process helps victims pull their lives back together.

Source: Daniel J. Smith and Laura Grube, "Lessons in Disaster Recovery," Foundation for Economic Education, June 10, 2013.

 

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