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Steps to recovery for stricken communities

The authors gratefully acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Linda Holden, Economic Developer for the City of Moss Point, Mississippi; Frank Thompson, Exec. Director of the Enterprise Coffee Geneva Economic Development Corporation; Stephanie Blankenship, Director of the Henry County Economic Development Authority; and the many others who contributed their advice and experience to this analysis

If you are reading this, the chances are that you live in or are assisting a rural community that has been struck by some type of economic disaster: a hurricane, tornado, flood, or a major industry closing. It may be day 2 or 3, and if your home or office was affected you've managed to find your way to a working computer and internet connection.

If so, we've got some bad news and good news. The bad news you already know: life as you knew it in your community has changed radically and dramatically, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to get your community back to normal--or, at least, a new form of "normal" for everyone concerned.

The good news is that you have a wide world of support out there. You are now part of a regional, state, national, and even global community that has "been there"--that has survived and recovered from economic disaster. They are your support team. Everyone who has experienced, researched, or assisted with a disaster-stricken community is eager to assist you with advice, expertise, and resources.

One major player in this support team is USDA Rural Development. If you are, or work with, a rural community, chances are you are already familiar with the work of this agency, which has supported a wide variety of development program in rural communities across the U.S.

Of course, every disaster that strikes a rural community is unique: ranging from hurricanes that destroy a multi-state region to a tornado that destroys a community's high school; from a flood to the closure of a community's textile factory.

Although every disaster situation is unique, all of these disasters have much in common in terms of the impacts on their communities: severe disruption of the community's economic and social life, psychological trauma that in many cases grows deeper with time, and--more positively--a willingness within and outside the community to pitch in and make recovery happen.

The following information is based on the authors' (Miller and Edwards) own experience working with communities recovering from Hurricane Katrina, in addition to extensive interviews with communities recovering from other forms of economic disaster. This is far from an exhaustive or definitive list, however. One of the primary reasons for publishing this resource center on the web is to make it a living document: so that you, the readers, can comment, correct, and add to this center based on your own experiences, successes, and learning curves. Please contact us to help us build this or any other section of this web site.

The purpose of this section of the web site is to walk you through some of the basic steps toward recovery and connect you with this larger support community at every step of the way. We have organized these steps as follows:

Immediate steps to survival: the first few days and weeks

The first few days to the first few weeks of the disaster: this is the period of shock, denial, chaos, misinformation, miscommunication and lack of communication, and just about everything other emotion and condition.

Of course, the better prepared you are for disaster, the better off you are--but this isn't the time to kick yourself for not preparing yourself ahead of time. (There will be time for that later.) No community is ever prepared for every possible disaster, or quite as prepared as they needed to be. Life makes many demands. Even communities that have experienced a disaster situation are often shocked to recognize how poorly they have prepared themselves for the next such situation. And so, every community in a disaster situation, well-prepared and not, can benefit from a basic checklist of first, immediate steps toward recovery.

The following steps begin from the smallest possible scale (you and your professional office) to your community to the larger world of assistance beyond. The logic is that outside agencies--like God--best help those who help themselves. You're not going to be able to make effective use of outside assistance until you and your community are reasonably well organized.

• Gather yourself together

Secure your documents. This may seem a trivial concern in an immediate disaster situation, but you will recognize in the weeks, months, and years ahead that it is far from trivial. If you have already secured duplicate copies of your documents in case of disaster, check to be sure those copies are secure and available when necessary. If you had not taken that step, then take an hour or two as soon as possible to gather and secure all the documents that may be relevant. Do this right away, before weather, crime, forgetfulness, and other factors take their toll. Relevant documents may include:

  • Contacts for all employees and service providers
  • Contracts with service providers
  • Insurance records
  • Titles and deeds
  • Photographs of property and equipment
  • Maintenance records for property and equipment

Load your camera and start taking pictures of the damage. Once again, this may not seem like the right time to start a photo album, but clean up crews and mother nature will alter the original scene sooner than you think.

• Connect your community

"Social capital" theory is one of the of the most prominent theories today for providing some perspective on recovery from disaster situations. We're all familiar with "financial capital," and other assets necessary for disaster recovery. Just as important, however, especially in the earliest days of disaster recovery, is "social capital," or the complex networks of trusted relationships that every community relies on in the best of circumstances--and much more so in the worst of circumstances.

There are three major forms of social capital. The first is termed "bonding capital," which consists of the networks within your own community--the connections that hold you together as a functional and self-supporting community.

Outsiders will be able to assist your community--but they will only be able to do their jobs effectively and appropriately to the extent that your own community is connected and functional.

Once again, this is a task that's much more effectively done in preparation for a disaster, rather than after the fact, but no community is perfectly prepared for this task. How does a community quickly establish a network that reaches across all neighborhoods and social groups?

One of your first and best established networks will be through your community's network of churches and other religious institutions. One of the tightest forms of bonding capital within nearly any community will be within its individual religious congregations. Especially in the case of neighborhood congregations, it's likely that parishioners will be in touch and assisting one another before the disaster has even passed. The challenge will be to connect these congregations with one another and with community-wide government leaders. The Church Disaster Mental Health Project (Retrieved June 3, 2008: contains a wealth of resources for church involvement in disaster situations short and long term.

It is quite likely that your community already has some form of inter-faith council, which has established a network and communication system among the various local churches. This is the time to put this council to use: identify the leadership and membership of the council and attempt to connect them. This council won't include all groups in the community, but it's likely to be a good start at building a more comprehensive network.

Your local chamber of commerce or economic development organization is another excellent networking resource for local businesses. Their business leadership role is established, as well as databases for reaching their members--and perhaps other businesses in the community that are not members. These organizations can also be great sources of assistance in the weeks and months ahead for data, maps, and other information required to secure grants and other outside resources. These organizations also can help organize volunteers to check on local businesses, and serve as intermediaries between these businesses and government agencies.

Your local public and private schools provide the most extensive possible network throughout your community. There are many reasons to reestablish and work with your local school systems as soon as possible after a disaster situation. Functioning schools can be one of the most important factors in re-establishing a psychological sense of normalcy. Schools also can provide important sources of demographic information necessary for securing grants in the future. Schools also can provide networks for disseminating information throughout the community: public meeting dates, neutral venues for public meetings, calls for volunteers, etc.

Perhaps most important of all, schools provide a safe location for local children, freeing the adults to return to work after a disaster, or allowing the adults to dedicate themselves to community clean-up and other volunteer activities.

Don't neglect your local day-care centers, either. These institutions care for the most dependent children. Your community's economy will not be fully functional until the youngest children are well provided for. What do your local day-care centers require to re-establish themselves and re-connect with their students and their families.

Assess your public spaces. Enterprise, Alabama, was surprised to learn how broadly the impact was felt of losing its high school and elementary school. Not only were these critical spaces for their primary educational missions, but they also served as vital public spaces for a wide variety of community organizations and functions. The local Enterprise-Ozark Community College was able to step up and fill some of the space gap for the community.

As quickly as possible, try to establish a central point of contact and coordination for your community. This may take the form, for example, of an informal council of city, county, and other leaders that meets once a week--if for no other reasons than to minimize duplication, share information, and identify common interests. Otherwise, information--typically in the form of rumors and misinformation--tends to circulate around the community by word of mouth. This coordination may be particularly important as your community begins working with FEMA. In the experience of many frustrated Mississippi communities following Katrina, FEMA representatives changed on a regular basis, with little institutional memory, so it largely depended on the community itself to maintain continuity in their dealings.

Establish a volunteer coordinating committee or other form of volunteer coordinating leadership. Your community will miss out on a lot of resources--or utilize those resources inefficiently--if you don't have a central point of contact and advice for outside volunteers. Donated clothing, shoes, and other supplies piled up in parking lots along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina, largely for lack of coordination between donors and local relief organizations. There will be a rush of good will, materials, donations, and volunteers ready to help after a major disaster, but to be used effectively they must be matched with appropriate organizations already networked within the community. Salvation Army and local churches

Re-establishing local communication infrastructure is challenging but critical. Effective community communication linkages can be challenging in the best of circumstances, much less in the wake of a disaster. However, effective and regular lines of communication are critical components of every recovery initiative: both presenting a community’s best face to the outside world, and providing effective and productive communication lines within the community itself.  Telephone, text messaging, and email contacts are important from the earliest days, but they aren't always reliable after a major disaster. Regional media—TV and newspapers—are important, but most rural communities lack their own TV station, and tend to be on the fringe of regional newspaper coverage. Community meetings are crucial, but it all these communication issues can make it difficult to publicize meetings or assure a large turnout. (The promise of food helps, we found!). 

In the cases of Moss Point and Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi, following Katrina, we concluded that a web site would be the most promising medium for building a communications network for the future. Our logic is that a good web site can function as a community newspaper for a new generation: both promoting the community without and contributing to community cohesion within. In the case of Wiggins/Stone County, we worked with a talented local web designer. In Moss Point we worked through the Moss Point School System as a central community hub. Time will tell if this medium proves successful. The learning process continues! 

Broad community engagement is critical to success--as early as possible--on scales both large and small.  Effective and extensive community engagement doesn’t happen easily or readily, especially in a crisis situation.  Prepared community developers ideally should have a plan in place for developing broad-based community engagement, before, during, and after a disaster situation. Early work in community network-building, communications, and planning helped provide hope for leaders and citizens of these communities.  Early spadework also helps provide a foundation of community organization and coordination that can be invaluable for future work and grantsmanship.  

In the case of Moss Point, Mississippi, following Katrina, the University of Southern Mississippi's (USM) early networking and subsequent community organization was probably one of the most comprehensive such efforts in the city’s history.  Meanwhile, a number of much smaller initiatives helped encourage goodwill and inclusiveness at a closer neighborhood scale.  One of these initiatives has been the continuing Moss Point Oral History Project, which brought together key Moss Point community members, respected local senior citizens, and USM students in capturing some of Moss Point’s history, stories, and traditions.  One of the many reasons motivating this project is its contribution toward building community identity.

Early organizing initiatives in Moss Point eventually led to the creation of the Moss Point Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal—an umbrella organization that sponsored an overall downtown development plan, neighborhood meetings in every Ward of Moss Point, and a city-wide meeting to build community spirit and capacity. In Wiggins/Stone County, early planning efforts provided the foundation for a long and continuing series of successful community development grants and private sector investment.

Get your local small businesses back in business. This is critical for so many reasons: to supply community members with food, drinks, ice, batteries, medicines, and other fundamental goods and services; to maintain the community's tax base, so the community can continue supplying basic services; and for psychological assurance to local residents that the community is functioning and returning to normalcy once again.

For many small businesses--such as crucial restaurants and other food-service providers--returning potable water service is just as important as electric power and gas. They also likely will need to be certified by a local health department before returning to operation. In large-scale disaster situations, employee housing may be a significant issue; some companies have addressed this with permission to create temporary trailer housing on company property. Immediately after a disaster situation, well-prepared companies check on the well-being not just of managers, but also key operations personnel--and all other personnel to the extent possible.

Be especially good to your regional utility companies, which often are well-prepared and dedicated to returning services in disaster situations. Mississippi Power and its parent Southern Company were seen as models following Hurricane Katrina:

Cauchon, Dennis. 2005. The little company that could. USA TODAY. Retrieved June 27, 2008:

Connect with your region and your state

"Bridging capital" consists of the networks that bond your local community with the other communities that surround it. In this case, we will define bridging capital as the networks that bind your community with your larger region, state government, and other organizations within your state.

For major disaster situations, FEMA will play a major role in your community's life for the next months and years to come. Communities experienced with disaster situations, however, strongly recommend relying on your state emergency management agency as an intermediary in assisting you to work effectively with FEMA. FEMA provides the following list of state emergency management agencies:

USDA Rural Development, too, can be a major contributor to your recovery efforts in the next few months and years. As a rural community, you're likely already connected with your state and regional USDA Rural Development offices, but just in case, you can find contacts for your own state office of USDA Rural Development through the national office site:

Call on the expertise of regional universities. Most universities suffer from some degree of "town/gown" syndrome, in which their work is often viewed as obscure and ivory-tower with little connection to the surrounding region. In fact, one of the mandates of most universities is to serve their constituent states and communities, and many university professors are eager to get involved in and assist local communities--especially in disaster situations. Regional universities also are likely to have extensive contacts of their own which they can contribute, within the state and at the national and even international level. In the case of Moss Point and Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi, following Katrina, USM was able to build quickly on long-established contacts with USDA Rural Development, local community colleges, and regional economic development agencies.

Outside agencies, organizations, and sister cities are invaluable, of course, for their expertise, resources, and overall goodwill.  However, regionally-based institutions such as regional universities and state and regional USDA Rural Development offices often are able to “hit the ground running,” because of their extensive and long-established network of contacts in the region and their trusted reputation.  Following Katrina, these local connections probably saved everyone involved one-to-three months of community organization work.  Then, after the outsiders’ bags are packed and farewells said, we will remain in the region to assist these initiatives to continue and bear fruit far into the future.

Make full use of local community colleges. This can be be especially important in the case of economic disaster, such as the sudden closure of a major factory or other employer. Community colleges can be major players for planning, designing, and quickly establishing job training and re-training programs. They often are also well-connected with a variety of state and federal agencies. They may draw on U.S. Department of Labor data, for example, to identify regional in-demand skills around which to build traing programs for residents who have lost their jobs.

In the case of Wiggins/Stone County, the local campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCC) provided an established network and a trusted “neutral ground” for community meetings.  In contrast, outside agencies such as FEMA relied heavily on contract labor that often seemed to change weekly, resulting in much confusion and frustration for the affected communities.  The active engagement of established regional institutions helped encourage a sense of trust and confidence in the “staying power” necessary to make a real difference.

It's often difficult--even in the best of circumstances--to figure out even whom to contact in something as big and complex as a major university. Don't be afraid to start at the top, especially if your community is suffering from a high-profile disaster situation. After all, your taxes pay the president's salary, and they're not likely to say "no" to a constituent community in need. If you begin contacting university departments, we suggest you start looking for academic disciplines that are traditional focused on community work, including geography, planning, economic development, sociology, and anthropology. If still in doubt, contact us, and we may be able to help you navigate your local academic maze.

Short-term steps to recovery: the first months

The final form of social capital is termed "linking capital," or the networks that connect your community with the larger resources available through national-level government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

In the first few months of recovery you'll be working in ernest to forge your working relationships with these outside, national-level agencies and other organizations.

Under our WHERE TO TURN? link, you'll find many of these agencies and organizations listed, with details of many of their programs available for disaster recovery & redevelopment.

The USDA Rural Development national web site, in particular, provides a wealth of information to begin preparation for longer-term recovery, including:

At the same time, however, while you're identifying outside resources, now is also the time to identify, utilize, and encourage local leadership and expertise. Nearly every community has strong, well-recognized, and respected local leaders, both among public officials and citizen volunteers.  We encourage them to take responsibility in the recovery process, while also encouraging community residents to accept their leadership.  In most of our experience, we have been very pleased to find that community leaders rise to the occasion, providing the community with sustainable local leadership rather than relying exclusively on outside (and sometimes conflicting or inappropriate) advice.

In the case of Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi's recovery process one of the most important local assets identified for recovery and redevelopment was an experienced local grant writer.  Working with her, the nearby University of Southern Mississippi was able to provide her with data, the assistance of a graduate student, and other resources necessary to result in several successful community grants.

This is also time to re-enforce networks within the community, which will be critical to sustaining any recovery process.  In Moss Point, Mississippi, most of the early emphasis after Katrina was placed on assistance from outside partners: Red Cross, the Governor’s Commission, sister cities, USDA Rural Development , FEMA, and so on.  Obviously, these external linkages provided essential life-support resources for communities that were struggling simply to survive.  The community soon recognized, though, that this outside assistance would lead to little or no success in medium-to-long term recovery and redevelopment efforts without effective networks within the community. Communities quickly bind together in adversity situations such as Katrina.  It doesn’t take long, however, for old divisions and earlier failures to build community-wide networks to re-emerge as huge obstacles to progress on all fronts.
As such, Moss Point--working with one of the authors (Miller)--worked persistently and continuously to meet with leaders of all segments of the community: the mayor, city council members, clergy and other neighborhood leaders, leaders of the African-American community, local civic organizations, school officials, community volunteers, and so on.  We believe that this significant investment of time and effort was essential to building trusting, working relationships for larger-scale progress.

Working with a broad coalition, establish a master list of projects, prioritized, with each ready with a mini-proposal--linked as closely as possible to your community's existing strategic plan. You'll be ready to step forward in a timely, prepared, and well-coordinated manner as soon as resources come available. Follow the money, as it comes available, but don't confuse being responsive with simply being reactive.

In general, key to timely recovery is "first-come first served," especially in the case of a large-scale disaster. In any circumstances, there will be scarce resources, many competing needs, and unfortunately often short attention spans. Those communities that are served best will be those who are best prepared. In the case of Mississippi communities recovering from Katrina, only those communities who had a formal hazard mitigation plan in place were eligible for many forms of recovery assistance. In turn, communities which did not have such a plan already in place before the hurricane often found themselves at the end of a waiting list for the agencies that were qualified to prepare these plans. Wiggins / Stone County was able to sidestep the line by working with the University of Southern Mississippi to prepare their own plan and make themselves eligible for recovery resources ahead of many other communities.

As soon as your dust has begun to settle a little bit, start trying to anticipate the unexpected. Think about your community's geography, its location, its situation. Wiggins / Stone County was grateful to have avoided the worst of Katrina's destruction, but were relatively slow to recognize the hidden hazard of refugees and explosive relocation demand from the regions that did get hit with the worst of it. The county's land use planning was completely unprepared for explosive, unplanned, and unpredictable growth, and had to scramble to protect the community's quality of life.

Mid-term steps
to redevelopment: the first year

Communities’ existing long-term plans must be recognized and incorporated into disaster recovery initiatives. South Mississippi was blessed with an influx of planning expertise from across the U.S. after Katrina, as part of the Governor’s Commission.  Their work was exciting and inspirational: 

In the case of Moss Point, Mississippi, however, there was a tendency by these outsiders to overlook plans the community had had in place since 1996 for waterfront and environmentally sustainable development.  This led inevitably to conflicts later in the process and some delays in harmonizing different visions of the community.  Wiggins, Mississippi, benefited from a comprehensive plan that had been completed in December prior to Katrina.  USM recognized the importance of this plan and incorporated it into the recovery process from the earliest stages.  This helped encourage relatively rapid consensus building on the priority projects for this community—which proved very useful for pursuing grant opportunities as soon as they came available.

Community identity is more important than ever in disaster’s aftermath. One of the earliest lessons learned from the planners and architects who volunteered for the Mississippi Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal was the importance of identifying and claiming the unique identity of the communities affected by the disaster.  These experts recognized that a disaster situation presents both challenges and opportunities.  Communities seldom have such an “opportunity” to rebuild and reinvent themselves almost from scratch.  Why build a generic cityscape when you have the opportunity to establish a unique identity for your community?  The process of identity-building can also present a unique opportunity for engaging citizens; recapturing community history, culture, and heritage; and presenting a distinctively marketable real estate market for outside investors. These architects and planners, in the case of Mississippi, were guided by a "New Urbanism" philosophy. Resources on New Urbanism and the closely related "Smart Growth" may be found at these sites:

Don't committee yourself to death. Committee work is vital, but it can also be time-consuming and draining of time and energy. By this point in the process, it may be time to turn as much of the responsibilities as possible to salaried city or county employees--city engineer, attorney, etc.--and invest in whatever additional training may be necessary for them to assume new responsibilities.

Look for additional damage. Not all the damage from the disaster will be readily apparent. Now is the time to discuss this matter with communities that recovered from similar disaster situations in the past. What should you be looking for and anticipating? The Mississippi Gulf Coast, following Katrina, for example, has learned that damage from salt water inundation can become apparent up to four years after the fact.

Address psychological damage and long-term impacts on vulnerable residents. By now the initial excitement and adrenalin surge of the disaster situation has worn off, and the extent of time and energy required ahead is starting to sink in. Access to psychological counseling, community awareness, and adequate mental health care providers are imperative. In addition to the needs of vulnerable low-income, senior citizen, and minority populations in your community, pay attention to the needs of older workers: they typically face major challenges in finding new jobs when their longer-term employers disappear.

Look for opportunity in the face of disaster. No one wishes for disaster, but it is possible for good things to come of disaster situations. After the initial anguish, many communities recognize that they are presented with material resources and various forms of consulting that they would not have had otherwise. Buildings, blocks, and sometimes large swaths of entire communities may now be blank slates, creating positive redevelopment opportunities that would not have otherwise been possible. Some communities take the opportunity to leap into a more modern mode for their economy or community life, often emphasizing tourism and more environmentally friendly development. Greensburg, Kansas, has been widely noted as an exemplary example of the latter--with considerable support from USDA Rural Development.

Focus on economic diversification
. If your community has lost some major employers--through either natural or economic disaster--this can be an excellent opportunity to focus the community's attention on the need for economic diversificaton. Take this into account for long-range economic development planning.

Embrace regionalism. In normal times, you and your neighboring communities may be bitter high school football rivals. Following a disaster situation, though, you are likely to find these the first partners to assist you back to recovery. This may be a chance to reach out to communities with which you may have found little cooperation in the past. This may include working together to absorb some of your residents searching for employment. If you can establish a good working relationship in a disaster situation, perhaps you can even maintain one in better times ahead.

Support and encourage your local entrepreneurs. Your local entrepreneurs are most likely to provide the engine for successful and sustained redevelopment following a disaster situations, which best reflects the values of your own community. Outside organizations and local government agencies can, at best, provide the opportunities and "fuel" for this entrepreneurial engine. This fuel can take forms such as business counselors, seed capital and other investment programs, and small-business incubators.

Prior to Katrina, Moss Point experienced three major industrial closures in the space of a few months. Two brothers who lost their jobs in these local economic "disasters" worked with a local economic developer to return to their first love: the wetlands of the Pascagoula River--the largest unimpeded (without dams or levees) river system remaining in the lower 48 states. They created McCoy's River & Marsh Tours, with considerable success. Then Katrina struck, taking with it almost all of the coastal tourism trade. The McCoy brothers persevered, though, and with support from a new local Audubon Center, they are re-establishing their business, serving students, research scientists, and helping to encourage tourists to return to the region.

McCoy marsh tour