Michael Weil
Wandering Jewish communal guy with an opinion

LEARNING FROM OTHER DISASTERS — Planning for Post Corona Renewal

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As the novel Corona virus morphed into a global pandemic disaster, many analysts began to look at earlier pandemics such as the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu in the hope of finding useful parallels. While interesting, their efforts have possibly been of modest relevance given their focus on historic pandemic disasters far removed from the complexities of our contemporary societies. Effective insights can actually be gained by examining more recent disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks.  Although very different in nature, these disasters and the responses to them can provide valuable pointers into anticipatable patterns of recovery. This is especially true as often post disaster recoveries follow similar patterns of what recovery can consist of, when it can occur, and which actions best help it come to pass.

Some disasters are immediate and very short in length like tornadoes and earthquakes; some are lengthy like oil spills, nuclear accidents and pandemics. Some disasters are very local, like 9/11 or tornados, while others are more widespread like plagues and environmental disasters. So while the impacts are diverse, enormous and complex impacting people, buildings, infrastructure, organizations, services, the environment and so on and in parallel ways, research has shown that the recovery processes take similar patterns and are for the most part, linear and consecutive.

This article examines different aspects of post disaster recovery and relevance to Corona; covering timing, process and substance, while looking at other major disasters, their impact and their recovery. We have chosen to examine three recent major disasters. 9/11 Attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the South East Asia Tsunami. These have been selected due to their enormous magnitude, their global impact and their successful recovery.

9/11 Attacks 2001

The September 11 attacks in 2001 were a series of four coordinated acts of terror which resulted in the deaths of 2977 people and 25,000 injuries with a total damage estimated at $10 billion. While the attacks were very local and limited in the extent and geography of direct damage, their impact on America and indeed the rest of the world were enormous. Direct repair and recovery took 3-5 years although the rebuilding of South Manhattan took much longer.

The indirect impact but consequential impacts were considerable. They led to the reconstruction of the world airline industry and the transformation of security policy in the US and globally, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. The new global and often unseen enemy of terrorism was recognized and America and its allies engaged in two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan. These led to huge increases in defense and security expenditures as well as the development of new technologies especially related to security, and also cloud data storage.

 Hurricane Katrina 2005

Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Southern Mississippi and Alabama in August 2005. The most damage was in New Orleans as a result of the collapse of the levy system maintained by the US Army Engineer Corps. There were 1830 fatalities, 80% of the city of New Orleans became submerged, tens of thousands of people were stranded in the Superdome, Convention center and other places, over one million people along the Gulf Coast displaced and the most of the city was uninhabitable for a couple of months. At an estimated $125 billion, Katrina (together with Hurricane Harvey in 2017) was the most costly natural disaster in American history. The footprint of Katrina was very wide and a few million people were affected. The direct recovery and rebuilding took 5-8 years while some areas took much longer.

Impacts of Katrina led to a complete overhaul of emergency and disaster response of the Federal government.  New forms of hurricane and environmental sustainable housing were developed and the successful recovery of most neighborhoods and sectors was achieved largely by bottom up extensive voluntary and not for profit efforts. Rebuilding was accompanied by a huge outpouring of sympathy, volunteers, funding and support from across America and even globally. In parallel, the rebuilding led to resurgence of creative activity in New Orleans in the fields of tourism, music and culture as well as a construction and business boom with a new start up and entrepreneurial sector.

South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami 2004

The Tsunami originated in one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in December 2004 with its epicenter in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Several countries along the surrounding coast of the Indian Ocean were severely affected. At 228,000 fatalities from 14 countries, the Indian Ocean Tsunami was the deadliest natural disaster recorded. It triggered a worldwide humanitarian response with some $14 billion donated. The direct damage was estimated to be only $4.5 billion due to the relatively low level of physical development and infrastructure in the region. Most of the direct rebuilding and recovery took some 5 years but the process is still continuing.

As a consequence of the Tsunami, a regional early warning system was created and substantially improved infrastructure was put in place. Better health, education, water and sanitation services were introduced in most of the affected countries. The Bande Aceh area of Northern Indonesia where some 200,000 died or were missing, was totally rebuilt and transformed at a cost of $7 billion and in parallel, the Government of Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement signed a peace agreement in 2005 after 70 years of conflict. In general, the Tsunami provided an important opportunity to address underlying social inequities and strengthen human rights protection for vulnerable groups in Indonesia, India and other countries.

Change, reform and transformation were common themes of these three disasters and potentially will be following the current pandemic. The question today is. How, when and what can happen?

THE WHEN OF RECOVERY – The day after the day after tomorrow

 Very often the finishing line of the direct impact of a disaster can vary. Think of a tornado versus a pandemic or the aftershocks from an earthquake or volcano. Whereas 9/11 ended pretty much immediately with the trauma extending beyond, much of New Orleans remained underwater for weeks and it took months till residents were able to return and rebuild devastated homes. With Corona, the starting line of recovery varies, whereby China and South Korea got to recovery point some weeks ago.

Norway, Greece, New Zealand and even Italy are at that point now, while Russia, Brazil, USA and the UK for example, have a long way to go. Even within countries, the finishing line varies. The young reach it earlier and the old age homes much later.

But it doesn’t mean that one can’t think of planning for the future even in the midst or early waning of a disaster. Indeed the earlier the thinking process begins, the better all round.

 We tend to think of the process from disaster to recovery as a binary or two dimensional one. Namely, either pandemic or, normalcy. And the sooner we transition from pandemic to normalcy, the better we are. But that is a fallacy. First, many disasters and especially pandemics don’t end suddenly, rather they taper off slowly and in some cases they even present a second wave. Secondly, there is no “normal” after a disaster. America has yet to completely recover from the shock of 9/11. Yes, there are attempts to bring about some sense of normalcy but we never actually reach “normal”. Nor do we probably want to. For the “normal” that was wasn’t perfect and maybe we can achieve a better and new “normal”.

An alternative approach to the binary or two step process and one that is often applied to post disaster recovery is to think in terms of a sequential three phase process:

(1) Immediate and urgent response – this initial phase is about saving lives, protecting and salvaging structures and protecting and governing the impacted community. This phase extends to the end of the actual disaster and the aftershock.

(2) Intermediate recovery — this second phase is about re-opening, starting to operate businesses (but not as usual) and services, repairing buildings and so on. This medium phase takes a number of months and sometimes up to a year or more (depending on the physical damage). In New Orleans after Katrina, it took many months to locate all the bodies and survivors, and then still thousands were housed in temporary encampments for extended periods.

(3) Long-term rebuilding and renewal. — This third transformative phase is about preparing for a new future and a new normal and taking advantage of the new opportunities. This long term phase takes a few years for full effect.

It is the latter third phase that is the most important because it is transformative and allows for a better future, as described in the three disasters’ rebuilding above. Thinking about the third phase and planning for the long term future should begin as soon as possible and maybe even before the dust settles in the first phase. Even though, it is hard to think positively and creatively about the long term future while still in the midst of the carnage, it is imperative to create a mindset where we are not just concerned about today and tomorrow but actually imagining about the day after, the day after tomorrow. Yes, to be two steps ahead of the game.


 Corona has made us think of the previously unthinkable, like the virtual Seder, like the cross continent minyan, like balcony concerts and a return to drive-in movies. Indeed it is amazing how imaginative people can be during a crisis. But it is imagination that’s required to achieve transformation and only by dreaming big and different and considering the unthinkable can we reinvent society. I remember hearing the late President of Israel Shimon Peres answering the question on his 90th birthday what he regretted most, and he answered, “I wished I had dreamt bigger”, and he was a man of many dreams. The Free Aceh movement never really thought that they could achieve a peace settlement with the Government of Indonesia. And would we have thought of storing all our data in the cloud before 9/11? We can now dream about a JCC without walls and without sports facilities, of prayer without synagogues, of new forms of tourism or cities without automobiles.

But while dreaming and planning for a better future, let’s not forget the trauma of the present. For if we don’t deal with trauma today, it will bite us harder in the future. Trauma affects individuals obviously. Loved ones have passed, businesses have gone bankrupt, employees are out of work and life cycle events missed and postponed; all of these take a toll. But trauma and additionally exhaustion and fatigue also impact at the organizational level. Furloughs and layoffs, cancellation of funding, loss of orders also cause businesses and organizations to behave erratically and require urgent attention. Trauma and fatigue are evident pretty much in all disaster recovery processes.

One way of dealing with trauma and changing the mood is sharing good news about good news. In New Orleans post Katrina, it was when people noticed the presence of newcomers who had moved to the city to be part of the rebuilding that the mood changed from dour to optimistic. And the more we share and publicize good news, the better we can cope with trauma and feel positive about the future. The recent videos of balcony concerts and clapping for first responders made us feel so much better and hopeful.

The doing and the planning are important, but also critical is sending out the word. The stakeholders and all the community need to know that there is progress and that there is a vision about a better future. The shared knowledge of what is happening motivates lay leaders and staff to contribute more. Such that marketing and publicity by all mediums as well as rebranding are important.

Implement as you go along. So when someone comes up with a good positive initiative and if there is consensus about its effectiveness, it’s recommended to run with it already, and not wait till the full planning process runs its course. Especially if it will bring good news. In New Orleans, the newcomers program indeed emerged in the midst of the strategic planning process and was immediately implemented with great results.

In fact, the best way to move forward is in parallel. Working on the day to day and getting things running, but at the same time thinking and planning long term. Long term solutions for Ground Zero in New York took a long time implementing, but short term arrangements came pretty soon. Similarly the establishment of DHS and new security arrangements evolved very quickly.

A crisis tends to bring people together. It’s a common experience and people like to share and commiserate. It’s also a time when barriers are broken down and there is a common willingness to work together and even do things cooperatively that would not have been feasible in normal times. Cooperation between governments, not for profits, aid agencies and community groups in several of the South East Asian countries after the Tsunami was remarkable. The togetherness can be applied both to dealing with the present day issues of the crisis but also with planning for the better future together, and maybe with new partners. Post disaster rebuilding should be viewed as a unique opportunity to work collaboratively.

Speed is of the essence. The window of opportunity to rebuild and take advantage of opportunities is narrow. Change is possible while there is a sense of urgency and a willingness to be bold. But once memories of the disaster start to fade, complacency on the one hand and resistance on the other set in. and newly available funds dry out. The massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010 took attention away from New Orleans and support and interest in Katrina rebuilding stopped suddenly.


Jewish organizations are pretty good at re-organizing but not so good at re-inventing. Look at Israel’s new emergency government with its 36 ministers, 16 ministers and 31 government departments. Yet is there something new and unique about it? Clearly no. Or in 1999, when in North America, the United Jewish Appeal merged with the Council of Jewish Federations to form a new combined entity called then – United Jewish Communities (later Jewish Federations of North America), yet it too was not even the sum of its parts and nothing new was added.

After a major disaster, re-inventing is what is needed, charting a new direction, and becoming something different. Indeed, the visions that were adopted by organizations before Corona are no longer valid and they have to grasp and develop a new vision, based on where they are now and where they would like to be in the future. Think about Amazon that used to be an online warehouse for books and is now the super mega logistics market for purchasing pretty much everything. Or Apple that moved from chunky PCs to the handiest, hand held devices and phones, and most recently NASA switching to commercial carriers to send astronauts back into space, 17 years after the Columbia tragedy. Or conversely, think about Kodak and Blackberry that failed to re-invent themselves. In post disaster rebuilding, the city of Kobe in Japan after the 1995 earthquake rebuilt the entire city’s infrastructure to make it earthquake proof for the future or the transformation of New Orleans with its spurt of economic, entrepreneur and cultural growth.

Organizations and their leadership tend to resist change and prefer the old and familiar however ineffective they may have become. Moving to new fields or collaborating with others are often met by walls of resistance due to fear, conservatism and territorialism. But in times of crises, the fight to survive and the awareness of a common issue, leads to lessening of resistance and more willingness to work together and to make drastic changes. Such that organizations and their leadership should be encouraged to be bold and to consider changes and new approaches as well as reaching out to others to work together. The peace agreement between the Government of Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement would probably never have happened were it not for the Tsunami.

Finally, let us not forget that this pandemic is not the last crisis that we will face. And before we move on to the new normal, we should plan and prepare for the next crisis. This can be done by creating a playbook of crisis preparedness and management. We know that it will come and hopefully we will be better prepared.

About the Author
Michael Weil is an British born economist and strategic planning consultant based in Jerusalem and Arizona. Until recently he was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans since just after Katrina. Previously, he was a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, held senior positions at World ORT and the Israel Prime Minister’s Office as well as heading an international consulting practice for two decades. He is active on boards in Israel and USA, especially LImmud. Loves to paint, hike, opera and dry jokes.
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