fishing boats on land next to buildings that have been heavily damage due to a tsunami
Alaska 1964 Good Friday earthquake and tsunami damage (Source: NOAA/Unsplash).

Recovery – “Coming Back” After Disasters and Emergencies

Natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency, and so is their impact. Munich Re, the worldwide reinsurance authority on coverage, disaster impacts, total damages, and recovery work, collects information from local, state, and national governments, nonprofits, and private sector organizations. Its calculation for 2023 was $250 billion in losses globally, exceeding many countries’ total gross domestic product. In 1993, when I was appointed Associate Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that estimate was $10 billion per year in the U.S. and $10 billion per year for the rest of the world.

However, these formal numbers do not include many disaster impact factors. For instance, it is often difficult to estimate losses in some countries that do not have broad insurance coverage or governmental and nonprofit disaster recovery operations. The human and structural impact of broken supply chains, psychological and physical effects, losses in individual productivity, and disrupted schools, colleges, and other educational processes are challenging to estimate. So, many are underinsured or uninsured. The 2023 losses from natural disasters (categorized as geophysical, meteorological, hydrological, and climatological events) also included more than 74,000 fatalities. About 63,000 of those fatalities occurred during geophysical events like the earthquakes in Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, and Morocco, where few people had insurance coverage.

Another weakness of this data is that small disasters are not reliably reported or covered in this report. However, Munich Re seeks to secure as much information as possible to meet the increasing challenges of technology costs, expertise, and access. At the same time, small disasters add up and often have a more devastating individual impact on communities’ economies and quality of life. Increases in heat, floods, freezes, populations, pandemics, aging populations, wars, and migration add to the difficulty of obtaining exact information worldwide.

Updating Processes for Managing Disasters

In 1993, FEMA emphasized ongoing civil defense efforts to build up response activities to perceived and potential international threats. My charge was to develop pre-disaster expertise and vision for preparedness planning, training, higher education, exercises, and global outreach. However, the public and public officials looked to FEMA to be in the field immediately after a disaster to help communities make quick and complete comebacks.

FEMA leaders at that time immediately recognized the need to ramp up efforts in all four phases of disaster – mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. It was obvious that disasters were increasing, along with losses and damages that were devastating communities. Within FEMA, some people, equipment, supplies, and other resources began to shift from civil defense to other community-related efforts. FEMA’s administration increased its outreach and partnerships with state and local governments to address the primary goals of governors, county executives, and city officials. Although changes were challenging, Congress was supportive as FEMA began transitioning into a more responsive agency and partnering with the National Guard to enhance its disaster responsibilities.

Faced with Midwest Flooding, North Ridge, California Earthquake, Oklahoma City Bombing, Nor’easters, and an extreme snowstorm in the Washington, D.C., area, FEMA had presidential and congressional support as it began to work toward true partnerships with state and local governments, private sector, and nonprofits. However, the laborious, complicated recovery process would prove to be the most significant challenge over the next few decades.

Next Phase – Revamping Recovery

Recovery challenges are a key focus in 2024 for FEMA as its leadership revamps the recovery process. By working closely with the White House and Congress, FEMA aims to significantly update the process to make it more user-friendly and potentially more effective for state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector to drive successful disaster recovery efforts. These expected changes could help facilitate responsiveness and assistance based on new logical processes that are easier to understand by those struck by disasters. For example, “Individual assistance” focuses on helping private individuals and households as they begin to work through the recovery process. “Public assistance” focuses on help for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, nonprofits, and private sector organizations.

FEMA is in the process of making the following changes and expects them to take effect on or after March 22, 2024:

  • If eligibility requirements are met, the new Individual Assistance Program provides an immediate $750 check for instant access to recovery support for “serious needs” such as immediate shelter, evacuation, and household costs.
  • Displacement assistance provides applicants flexibility when making decisions about their immediate recovery needs, such as housing and funding for living accommodations. Previously, people were given travel trailers or assigned to hotels or other lodgings for uncertain periods.
  • In general, FEMA expects to reduce the “red tape.” For decades, one of the most confusing parts of the recovery process was requiring those seeking recovery assistance to apply to the Small Business Administration for loans, even if they were unincorporated businesses. They would then be turned down before receiving financial aid toward recovery for uninsured expenses.
  • Another gap was assistance for underinsured survivors. The previous requirement limited assistance to a total of $42,500, which meant no additional FEMA assistance if the survivor received $42,500 or more from their insurance company. Under the new plan, the FEMA Disaster Recovery Fund covers up to $42,500 beyond what insurance covers. In addition to $42,500 from the Disaster Relief Fund, businesses would also be eligible for loans up to an additional $42,500.
  • FEMA’s new plan allows for mitigation coverage. Previously, disaster assistance was available only to bring back a facility to the way it was before the disaster. Updates or mitigation measures were not allowed or funded, even if they could reduce future disaster recovery costs.
  • New accessibility improvements allow survivors with disabilities to make accessibility improvements to homes damaged by disasters, even if those accessibility features were not in the home before a disaster.
  • More flexibility on deadlines removes the limiting provisions on late applications. Meeting strict deadlines can be challenging when families and entities are disrupted after disasters. More flexibility reduces this challenge.
  • FEMA is also streamlining the temporary housing application process and simplifying the appeals process.

Learn More

FEMA provides online resources and will continue to update its website to facilitate a straightforward application process for disaster assistance. To follow the agency’s progress and keep up on changes before being faced with the next recovery phase of a disaster, visit FEMA’s website:

When struck by a disaster, survivors have many issues to consider. Resources and tools that facilitate the recovery process can help reduce the time necessary to “come back” from a crisis and make entire communities more resilient. FEMA’s reform to its Disaster Assistance Program is underway. Updates FEMA has already made, combined with additional planned changes in 2024, are a significant step toward faster recovery for future events.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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