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5 Lessons We’ve Learned from 15 Years of Katrina Recovery

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

This year marks 15 years since Hurricane Katrina when the failure of the federal levee system devastated southern Louisiana. As we reflect back to commemorate the lives lost, homes disrupted, and the communities that were forever changed, the CSRS Disaster Recovery and Resilience team is also taking a moment to be grateful for all the progress and renewal we’ve had the opportunity to support. Our community has been in a state of recovery for 15 years and has seen many success stories and silver linings. This progress should also be remembered and recognized.

In New Orleans and surrounding communities, Katrina recovery funding has been invested, and is still being invested, in housing, schools, roads, infrastructure, and businesses. And we are not simply putting them back the way they were, but rebuilding in smarter, stronger ways: housing is elevated to reduce flood risk, schools are modernized and energy-efficient, and our infrastructure is seeing the largest amount of reinvestment in over a generation.

Most of us have spent the last fifteen years dedicated to the recovery, renaissance, and resilience of greater New Orleans. When we think back to the early days of post-Katrina recovery, we remember what it was like to be working at plastic folding tables, staying in FEMA trailers, and gutting out rotting buildings. But since then, we’ve also learned so much about disaster recovery and resilience that other communities with less experience need to know. So, we’re marking the fifteenth anniversary by looking back on the most important lessons we’ve learned with the hope that it can help other communities.

The top 5 disaster recovery lessons Katrina taught us:

1. Use the recovery to support long-term community goals

After a disaster, every community just wants to get back to “normal” as soon as possible. However, it’s critical that this aspiration not just result in focusing on immediate needs and miss the opportunity to also improve or change things that weren’t working well before. New Orleans has become the model for this type of change. Before Katrina, the health care delivery system was over-reliant on emergency rooms for all types of treatment, not just emergencies. Post-Katrina, the city started by rebuilding a system of neighborhood clinics with access to primary care providers. Similarly, community groups had long advocated for transforming former industrial sites into vibrant parks. These dreams were realized when new spaces such as the Lafitte Greenway and Crescent Park were made possible with Katrina recovery funding.

The best way to bridge the gap between getting back to normal and transformative change is to have a clear plan with long-term community goals and outcomes. New Orleans did not have many current plans or vision documents to guide the recovery, so we collectively did an enormous amount of planning as part of the recovery process. One of the most important planning processes was the school’s rebuilding plan, which not only resulted in a strategy to preserve historic schools and build modern new facilities but also changed where schools were located based on the school-aged population. The plan also made determinations for buildings that would not return as schools but could be re-purposed for housing or businesses. This process was arduous and controversial, but it has resulted in 87 new, renovated or refurbished schools and 9.3M square feet of floor space dedicated to education, and a school system which meets the needs of the New Orleans community.

CSRS, as consultant to both Recovery School District and, then, Orleans Parish School Board, worked aggressively to get specific legislation to help craft the first-of-its-kind single settlement with FEMA Public Assistance. This $2.4B single settlement allowed both agencies to consolidate all their eligible Public Assistance funding into a single FEMA Public Assistance grant which could then be used to create,  through new construction, repairs, and renovations, a right-sized school system for the city of New Orleans, rather than being limited to the repair of elements directly damaged by Hurricane Katrina as standard FEMA policy dictates.

Working from the Master Plan for New Orleans Public Schools, the success of this groundbreaking single settlement is evident in the 21st-century school facilities, historic renovations, and improved school campuses we now see across the New Orleans landscape.  The single settlement for New Orleans Schools was so successful that the Robert T. Stafford Act has been amended by the federal government to include Section 428 – Public Assistance Alternative Procedures. This federal law, directly modeled on the single settlement for New Orleans schools, allows disaster-impacted communities the ability to consolidate their eligible federal disaster recovery funding and utilize that funding in a manner that best meets the post-disaster needs of their communities.

Perhaps the best way for a community to make sure its recovery supports long-term community goals is to have these plans in place to refer to if faced with the challenge and opportunity of post-disaster recovery.


2. The money comes with strings attached!

Federal funding for disaster recovery comes with volumes of rules and regulations about how the money can and cannot be spent. It is critical that any community, especially ones with less experience with federal grants, have access to the experts needed to navigate these rules and procedures. The disaster recovery industry has become increasingly specialized, and the compliance requirements change regularly, so having advisors and even day-to-day grant and project managers to guide the process is crucial.

Critical advice we provide to clients and recipients of federal disaster recovery funding:

  1. Document everything – Receiving and retaining federal disaster recovery funding relies upon the quality and completeness of documentation related to disaster recovery efforts, which demonstrates what the funding was used for, why it was used for that purpose, how the services or goods were procured. Documentation is rule number one in any federally funded disaster recovery effort.

  2. Understand procurement requirements – The number one reason for a de-obligation of federal funding is improper procurement of goods and services.

  3. Understand the federal policies which govern federal disaster recovery programs – Without a clear understanding of the code, law, and policies that govern the disaster recovery funding, it is almost impossible to execute a truly successful disaster recovery program.

  4. Hire an advocate – Federal disaster recovery funding, with all its nuances and various applications and implementations, is confusing and difficult to navigate.  Because federal agencies provide funding for the management and oversight of these programs, and the recipient is well advised to hire an experienced advocate to both secure the federal funding and ensure that funding is retained through the life of the recovery program.

Since federal recovery funding is reimbursable, it’s also critical for grantees to be able to cash flow the funding. We have supported clients to establish revolving funds between grantee and sub-grantee, track their recovery expenditures separately, and expedite the reimbursement process. Many recovery funds also require a local match, and we have also supported clients in using their Community Development Block Grant (CDBD-DR) funding as a match for their FEMA Public Assistance funding and other creative strategies to leverage funding when they were unable to fund the match with their own dollars.


3. Use recovery funds to build resilience

A disaster may reveal weaknesses, but recovery funding is an opportunity to rebuild with resilience. This means that in repairing what was damaged, the building or infrastructure can be made stronger, smarter, and safer. Examples of this include elevating buildings out of the floodplain, flood-proofing them, rebuilding with wind- or fire-resistant materials and techniques, and providing back-up energy sources. It can also mean taking a completely different approach to what was done before the disaster.

In New Orleans, intense rain events can also cause localized flooding in many neighborhoods. Rather than just simply drain and pump the stormwater out as quickly as possible, greater New Orleans is moving towards a strategy of “living with water” – finding places in the landscape for floodwater to go temporarily until the pumping system can catch up – instead of into streets, and homes, and businesses. New Orleans and other surrounding jurisdictions are using their available federal mitigation and resiliency funding, namely their FEMA Hazard Mitigation (HMGP) funding and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG-NDR) to transform parks, streets, and people’s yards into beautiful places to capture and detain stormwater.  The Gentilly Resilience District is the primary example where a concentrated set of resilience investments in green infrastructure and stormwater management has been made possible with disaster recovery funding.

Similarly, the State of Louisiana has launched an effort to transform how we collectively manage flood risk in every community across the state. The Louisiana Watershed Initiative seeks to overhaul our fractured system of governance to align state agencies, local governments, and single-purpose entities like economic development districts and waterway authorities, into a coordinated system that manages flood risk at the regional scale of watersheds. The initiative will also fund the science and analysis needed to model future flood risk and support resilience projects focused on managing flood risk in innovative ways. CSRS is supporting the Louisiana Office of Community Development to employ its federal mitigation dollars, namely $1.2B in Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation (CDBG-MIT). Every dollar spent on mitigation and resilience strengthens and hardens our communities and community assets to better withstand a future disaster, providing for a quicker return to normal functions and operations in a post-disaster environment.


4. Move from reactive to proactive.

With the increasing impacts and costs of natural disasters, the federal government has begun to shift its focus and investment from post-disaster recovery to pre-disaster mitigation and resilience. A recent study from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that for every dollar spent on climate-resilient infrastructure, society saves six dollars in reduced damages. New funding opportunities are just now becoming available at a significant scale and should be pursued by any community seeking to reduce its risk.

FEMA has posted the Fiscal year 2020 Notice of Funding Opportunity for the new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) pre-disaster mitigation grant program and the Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) grant program. This year is the largest allocation of funding for eligible mitigation activities of $660 million available through FMA and BRIC programs combined. $160 million has been allocated to FMA and $500 million for BRIC. The application period begins September 30, 2020, and closes January 29, 2021. CSRS not only helps our clients navigate the funding once it’s received but also assists in the application development process for competitive funding awards such as these.


5. Get ready for the next one

Unfortunately, disasters can no longer be considered one-time events. Whether a community is still in recovery mode or whether it has not seen a disaster in decades, it is never too early to be prepared. We have worked in places that have seen ten or more years pass between disasters and had to recreate their recovery systems all over again. We help clients get ready for the next one in several ways:

  1. Institutionalize good practices, whether it’s procurement, records management, documentation, or project management, so they can be called upon in peaceful times or in disaster recovery.

  2. Establish pre-positioned (before a disaster) contracts for project management and grant management that can be called upon if and when they are needed.

  3. Obtain and maintain insurance at the highest coverage levels possible to ensure some recovery funding for the next disaster is available regardless of federal funding availability.

  4. Establish or reinvest in a rainy-day fund that can jumpstart recovery while federal funding is still pending or to be used as required match for federal funding.

When disaster recovery experts came to New Orleans shortly after Katrina and, based on their experience in other places, advised that it would take ten, fifteen, even twenty years for the city to fully recover, no one wanted to believe them. Now, we see the wisdom of learning from previous disasters. And now, Katrina is that disaster in the rearview that we can all learn from. Let’s not forget these lessons learned the hard way, let’s stay vigilant for the challenges ahead, and let’s never stop learning.



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