Building resilient infrastructure and inclusive disaster recovery took center stage on the last day of the VIII Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas and the Caribbean (RP23), which ran from February 28 through March 2, 2023 in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Researchers and officials from across the region highlighted the need for people-centric, youth-focused and non-formulaic recovery plans that included the input of the communities in which they are implemented.
However, María Luisa Hayem Brevé, El Salvador’s Minister of Economy, told RP23 attendees that the first step in recovery must be identifying investment priorities and creating a “financial investment plan that allows us to address those needs in the short run and identify which are the investments that have to be carried out in the future.”
Panelists further emphasized the need for rebuilding to incorporate lessons from previous disasters and not simply revert to the status quo that prevailed before the disaster.
“That’s the understandable human impulse to return to the so-called normal, even if it reproduces the very same risk, especially for the most vulnerable,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a Researcher and Principal Scientist at Johns Hopkins University.
She told RP23 attendees that building back more resiliently requires a multi-sectoral approach and must include systemic reform, which includes fixing societal disparities in access to healthcare and economic opportunity.
However, she warned that this would not be easy and may involve pushback from other sectors of society. “These are major changes that may face political and social resistance,” she said.
Along with physical infrastructure, Schoch-Spana also emphasized the need for rebuilding to focus on how disasters affect people.
“Trauma recovery at the population level will require interventions at scale to promote safety, social connection and memorialization,” she said. “Recovery [also has] to involve strengthening workforce resilience and refilling the professional pipeline.”
Cynthia Spishak, the Associate Administrator of the Office of Policy and Program Analysis of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), echoed Schoch-Spana’s point about the need for equity in any recovery.
She said the best way to achieve this is through disaster relief entities developing solid relationships with at-risk communities before disasters occur.
“We want to develop those relationships with communities pre-disaster,” Spishak said. “It becomes more difficult when we are creating those relationships on an ad-hoc basis.”
The FEMA official also addressed the importance of developing tailored recovery plans with communities and using trusted members of those communities to help spread information and build relationships.
“Recovery works best when the community identifies what the specific outcomes are and what success looks like for them,” Spishak said.
She added that these plans must incorporate new technology, citing the example of the national risk index in the United States, which looks at several natural risk hazards that could impact communities. To effectively implement these solutions, local communities and disaster risk authorities must work with the private sector and academics.
A prominent regional example of how various stakeholders can work together for disaster recovery and resilience came from the Caribbean, one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to a range of disasters of natural origin, including hurricanes and earthquakes.
“The work that we are doing in the Caribbean on recovery is very much evidence-based,” said Elizabeth Riley, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
Every three years, countries across the region perform comprehensive disaster management audits, which found that nearly all involved countries lag severely behind in rebuilding efforts.
These audits have resulted in a regional effort by national governments, local communities and other stakeholders to improve recovery efforts. Caribbean countries do this by building national recovery capacities before disasters occur.
“The development of the national recovery framework is, of course, a proactive process that requires anticipating future recovery issues and the building capacity to improve recovery outcomes all before disasters happen,” Riley said.
Part of anticipating future recovery focuses on preparedness and learning from previous experiences.
“Never waste a disaster,” said Stéphanie Durand, the Director General of the Emergency Management Policy and Planning Directorate at Public Safety Canada.
She added that lessons learned from disasters must be applied in at-risk communities before events occur. For example, she said these communities should invest in continuous exercises and training instead of waiting until after the disaster.
Eddy Frank Vásquez-Sánchez, a youth climate and oceans advocate from the Dominican Republic, added that these efforts must include young people. He said governments and officials must help train young people and provide them with the tools to participate in these resilience-building measures.
A separate group of panelists told RP23 attendees that future recovery efforts also require building resilient physical infrastructure that can withstand disasters and data infrastructure that can help provide real-time responses.
“As we look across the landscape of the region, we have seen that risk management governance remains mostly reactive,” said Paola Albrito, the Director of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR). “Investment in resilient infrastructure is not yet embedded in our DNA.”
Panelists said the first step to developing resilient infrastructure is identifying areas at the highest risk and the probability of certain disasters occurring there, considering climate change.
Researchers are currently developing a system, the Global Infrastructure Resilience Index, to map these disaster risks in countries across the region, allowing them to see how resilient their critical energy, transport and housing infrastructure is to current and future disasters.
The day’s focus then turned to discussions surrounding the design of inclusive and resilient infrastructure using nature-based solutions whenever possible.
Kevin Douglas, the Disaster Programme and Emergency Services Manager at the Jamaica Red Cross, said resilient infrastructure must be “scientifically sound and community-centered.”
He cited the example of restoring mangrove forests on the coasts of Jamaican fishing villages as a cost-efficient and sustainable way to make infrastructure resilient to hurricanes and storm surges.
However, the panelists acknowledged the need for solutions across the region to be scalable, especially in densely populated urban areas, which are at disproportionately high risk from disasters in many places.
Victoria Salinas, the Senior Official Performing the Duties of Deputy Administrator at FEMA, said using public policy, regulation, good practices and innovation are critical to scaling up solution.
“Building resilient infrastructure is not just about that infrastructure and its ability to withstand and adapt and bounce back from hazards,” she said. “It is ultimately about people.”
Photo courtesy of UNDDR.