Expert Commentary

Natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy and recovery efforts in the U.S.: Research roundup

2012 literature review of research and analysis relating to disaster recovery in the United States, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

(Library of Congress)

Hurricane Sandy’s impact is still being registered in communities across the Eastern United States, and the full toll is only now being fully calculated. Preliminary estimates of total economic losses have varied widely. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that “while aggregate employment may be affected minimally in the long run, many individuals and businesses have indeed experienced a permanent loss.”

As the Congressional Research Service notes, the “anticipated need for federal support for Hurricane Sandy relief is projected to exceed the available balance” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund for fiscal year 2013. In January 2013 — after considerable political controversy — the U.S. Congress passed a $51 billion relief bill. In March 2013, the Congressional Research Service also provided further insights in a report titled “Analysis of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013.”

According to 2010 Census Bureau data, there were “479,075 business establishments in the Connecticut, New Jersey and New York counties declared major disaster areas. The total employment and annual payroll in these areas was 6,723,791 and $427.4 billion respectively. These counties represent 61.2 percent of the total employment in Connecticut, 45.7 percent of the total employment in New Jersey, and 59.2 percent of the total employment in New York state.”

In the background are a variety of other relevant trends and data patterns: Weather-related fatalities have continued to increase in recent decades; and insurance payouts due to extreme weather have steadily risen over the past 30 years, with net underwriting losses in the U.S. totaling an estimated $34 billion in 2011. Climate change and the potential for more powerful storms and extreme weather continue to loom — with the effects predicted to be particularly acute for the East Coast. However, quantifying these risks and pricing them properly is proving a vexing problem for insurance companies, and some are calling for new industry approaches. The climate change-Sandy connection has been featured in a wide variety of coverage already, in publications such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek and The Economist. Moreover, experts are already examining questions about the effectiveness of existing infrastructure to limit damage, especially for New York City.

In coverage of this issue, it may be worth mentioning that a 2012 study published in Nature Climate Change, titled “Physically Based Assessment of Hurricane Surge Threat Under Climate Change,” noted that the “change of storm climatology will probably increase the surge risk” for New York City and “may cause the present NYC 100-yr surge flooding to occur every 3–20 yr.”

Of course, the issue of how the federal government should respond to natural disasters has a long, and at times highly political, history; the proper role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) continues to be debated in real time, in the wake of Sandy.

Though every disaster is particular in terms of the patterns of damage it inflicts, many policymakers, scholars and relief managers continue to study previous events and strategies, with the goal of making disaster relief more scientific and effective. However, those covering such events should know that, despite myriad natural disasters in the United States in recent years, systematic research on recovery remains limited. An August 2012 article in Natural Hazards Review — published by the American Society of Civil Engineers — notes that the “study of post-disaster recovery is in its infancy, and there is as yet no body of theory to guide researchers.”

The following are academic studies and reports that provide background and context on disasters, relief efforts and related issues in the United States:

Note: This document will be periodically updated.



“Federal Involvement in Flood Response and Flood Infrastructure Repair: Storm Sandy Recovery”
Carter, Nicole T. Congressional Research Service, October 31, 2012.

Excerpt: “Developing and investing in flood-prone areas represents a tradeoff between the location’s economic and other benefits and the exposure to a flood hazard. Storm Sandy in 2012, Midwest flooding in 2011 and 2008, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita renewed interest in the suite of tools available to improve flood resiliency. In addition to oversight and funding of emergency response activities, at issue for Congress is deciding on whether and how to enact and implement feasible and affordable flood policies and programs to reduce flood risk. The challenge is how to structure federal actions and programs so they provide incentives to reduce flood risk without unduly infringing on private property rights or usurping local decision making. Tackling this challenge would require adjustments in the flood insurance program, disaster aid policies and practices, and programs for structural and nonstructural flood risk reduction measures and actions.”


“Disaster Relief Funding and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations”
Lindsay, Bruce R.; Murray, Justin. Congressional Research Service, April 2011.

Excerpt: “Since [fiscal year] 1989, Congress has appropriated roughly $292 billion for disaster assistance in 35 appropriations acts, primarily supplemental appropriations acts after significant catastrophes occurred in the United States. The mean annual appropriation is approximately $13.3 billion ($292 billion / fiscal 22 years). The mean annual appropriation for all 35 bills is approximately $8.3 billion ($292 billion / 35 bills)…. Since the 1950s, the level of financial assistance given to states for disaster relief by the federal government has steadily increased. In light of the federal deficit, the increased federal involvement has raised policymaking questions concerning how disaster relief should be equitably funded. Some of these questions include the following: The model for emergency and disaster response is built on the premise that emergencies and disasters are local. Requests for assistance from the next level of government are made only if that unit of government is overwhelmed. Some would argue that some incidents funded by the federal government do not meet this requirement. An example might be snow removal or repairs after minor flooding. Is the federal government funding emergencies and major disasters that do not meet the criterion of the states being overwhelmed before requesting assistance? Are states using federal funding for disaster relief to protect their budgets?”


“Post-disaster Coping and Recovery: The Role of Perceived Changes in the Retail Facilities”
Liu, Chanluan, et al. Journal of Business Research, Vol. 65, Issue 5, May 2012.

Excerpt: “This study confirms the important role of retail businesses in post-disaster recovery and rebuilding within communities. A central conclusion is retail recovery should be an immediate priority in order to facilitate recovery among residents, districts, and communities. The public sector needs to consider retail recovery as an immediate necessity. Relying on market forces potentially slows recovery effort. Public sector inaction assumes the retail sector can recover once enough people return and retail demand increases. Yet, the lack of vibrant retail facilities not only impacts retailer recovery, but causes substantial hassle and inconvenience for individual consumers attempting to return some sense of normalcy to their day-to-day consumption. Affected residents returning to their neighborhoods had to leave again due to lack of viable retail facilities. Thus, while all provided public support should focus on efforts to bring individuals back to their community or neighborhood and restore their personal losses as quickly as possible, restoring viable retail facilities should not be neglected.”


“Building Community Resilience: What Can the United States Learn From Experiences in Other Countries?”
Moore, Melinda, et al. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, April 2012.

Excerpt: “The disaster experiences described here were not undertaken within an explicit framework of building CR [community resilience], yet they provide numerous illustrations of the various components of CR as actually applied across disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. They support a contemporary (and evolving) paradigm for CR that includes all of the elements described in HSPD-21 plus two new ones: education and public risk communications of impending threats (e.g., hurricane, volcanic eruption) and education regarding services and other opportunities following a disaster; empowerment — leadership and supportive national policies and direct community involvement in disaster planning, response and reconstruction; practice — community training and simulation exercises; social networks — working through respected community leaders and maintaining the integrity of the community even when they are displaced as a result of a disaster; familiarity via education and communications to enhance the public’s understanding of (and familiarity with), predisaster early warning systems, appropriate disaster responses, and postdisaster services and opportunities; physical security — prepositioning of disaster supplies and construction of disaster-resistant housing; and economic security to support and preserve livelihoods. These elements of CR are not mutually exclusive but rather are intertwined with one another. For example, community education and practice both contribute to familiarity (perhaps all three could be combined into a single element); these in turn contribute to community empowerment.”


“Retail Recovery from Natural Disasters: New Orleans Versus Eight other United States Disaster Sites”
Pearson, Michael M., et al. The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, Vol. 21, Issue 5, 2011.

Abstract: “This study seeks to determine retail recovery patterns after a natural disaster and to provide useful information for areas recovering from a major disaster. The New Orleans metropolitan area serves as the primary area studied in this research due to Hurricane Katrina’s status as the most costly natural disaster in the history of the United States. Eight additional cities that were impacted by natural disaster were also investigated in order to compare and contrast the retail recovery rate of these cities to New Orleans across 10 retail categories. The Yellow Pages telephone book and the United States Census of Retail Trade were utilized to determine recovery rates and the existence of possible patterns of recovery in each of the 10 retail categories. The analysis also includes a provision for population shifts due to the respective disasters. The results, which demonstrate both consistencies and inconsistencies across the disaster recovery areas, are discussed and future direction for retail recovery research is advanced.”


“Natural Disasters and Local Demographic Change in the United States”
Schultz, Jessica, et al. Population and Environment, March 2012.

Excerpt: “Environmental hazards of one type or another occur just about everywhere in the United States. If we count events that caused at least $50,000 in (non-crop) property damage or resulted in at least one fatality, we find that less than 4% of all counties escaped such harm during the 1990s and that those that were hit experienced property damage totaling more than $52 billion (in constant 2008 dollars). Second, we find strong evidence that disasters and associated recoveries bring with them local growth in population and housing beyond what we might otherwise expect. This finding is significant because it indicates that earlier findings by researchers … no longer apply. Instead of merely achieving ‘functional recoveries,’ disaster-affected areas now tend to experience demographic growth spurts, and the greater the cumulative damage, the bigger the spurt. Third, this type of disaster recovery appears to polarize the socioeconomic structure of local areas by raising median family incomes without reducing the relative number of residents in poverty. This finding offers generalized support for case studies that find that disasters and associated recoveries tend to affect different strata of local populations differently, with residents positioned toward the top of local income distributions often benefitting while those positioned toward the bottom continue to struggle…. Overall, our findings have several implications. First, they suggest that under current conditions, it may be more appropriate to think of disasters as long-term demographic ‘pulls’ to affected areas than as short-term ‘ pushes,’ although the two dynamics need not be mutually exclusive.”


“Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy”
Healy, Andrew, et al. American Political Science Review, Vol. 103, No. 3, August 2009.

Abstract: “Do voters effectively hold elected officials accountable for policy decisions? Using data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, we show that voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending. These inconsistencies distort the incentives of public officials, leading the government to under-invest in disaster preparedness, thereby causing substantial public welfare losses. We estimate that $1 spent on preparedness is worth about $15 in terms of the future damage it mitigates. By estimating both the determinants of policy decisions and the consequences of those policies, we provide more complete evidence about citizen competence and government accountability.”


My Disaster Recovery: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internet Intervention”
Steinmetz, Sarah E., et al. Anxiety, Stress and Coping: An International Journal, Vol. 25, Issue 5, 2012.

Abstract: “This pilot study tested the efficacy of the My Disaster Recovery (MDR) website to decrease negative affect and increase coping self-efficacy. Fifty-six survivors of Hurricane Ike were recruited from a larger study being conducted at the University of Texas Medical Branch at the first anniversary of the storm. Restricted randomization was used to assign participants to the MDR website, an information-only website, or a usual care condition. Group×time interactions indicated that MDR reduced participant worry more than the other conditions. A similar trend was also identified for depression. Both websites were accessed a small to moderate amount and participants reported mixed satisfaction for both websites. Although the effect sizes for worry and depression were in the moderate to large range, small sample size and timing of the intervention qualify the findings. These preliminary findings encourage further evaluation of MDR with a larger, demographically diverse sample and indicate that the MDR website might be helpful in reducing worry and depression.”


“Temporal and Spatial Changes in Social Vulnerability to Natural Hazards”
Cutter, Susan L. Proceedings of the National Academy, Vol. 105, Issue 7, February 2008.

Abstract: “During the past four decades (1960-2000), the United States experienced major transformations in population size, development patterns, economic conditions, and social characteristics. These social, economic, and built environment changes altered the American hazardscape in profound ways, with more people living in high-hazard areas than ever before. To improve emergency management, it is important to recognize the variability in the vulnerable populations exposed to hazards and to develop place-based emergency plans accordingly. The concept of social vulnerability identifies sensitive populations that may be less likely to respond to, cope with, and recover from a natural disaster. Social vulnerability is complex and dynamic, changing over space and through time. This paper presents empirical evidence on the spatial and temporal patterns in social vulnerability in the United States from 1960 to the present. Using counties as our study unit, we found that those components that consistently increased social vulnerability for all time periods were density (urban), race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The spatial patterning of social vulnerability, although initially concentrated in certain geographic regions, has become more dispersed over time. The national trend shows a steady reduction in social vulnerability, but there is considerable regional variability, with many counties increasing in social vulnerability during the past five decades.”


“Vulnerability of Community Businesses to Environmental Disasters”
Zhang, Yang, et al. Disasters, 2009.

Abstract: “Business plays important roles in community functioning. However, disaster research has been disproportionately focused on units of analysis such as families, households and government agencies. This paper synthesizes the major findings within the business development research field and the disaster research field. It constructs a framework for evaluating business vulnerability to natural disasters. Our theoretical integration of the research conducted to date addresses five major issues. First, it defines the ways in which businesses are subject to the impacts of natural disasters. Second, it identifies the factors that determine the magnitude of business impacts after a disaster. Third, it identifies how and when businesses return to their pre-disaster level in the disaster stricken community. Fourth, it describes measures that can be taken by individual firms and community planners to reduce the impacts of environmental disasters. Fifth, it identifies needs for public policy and future research to reduce business vulnerability to environmental disasters.”


“Governors as Opportunists: Evidence from Disaster Declaration Requests”
Gasper, John T.; Reeves, Andrew. Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, September 2012

Abstract: “How do political forces shape the behavior of governors and the president as they interact after a natural disaster? Federal disaster aid provides dollars to states and potential votes for each official. We examine whether governors opportunistically leverage their states’ electoral importance to the president when requesting aid. We also consider if governors’ requests are influenced by the partisanship of the president. Do governors avoid requesting aid from another party president because of electoral concerns? Analyzing monthly declarations requests from 1972 to 2006, we find that political variables influence governors to ask beyond objective measures of need. Specifically, we find that only reelection eligible governors behave opportunistically. We find no evidence of partisan effects; governors from battleground states request without hesitation from other-party presidents. While previous research has focused solely on presidents, we find that requests for disaster aid are a function of both presidential and gubernatorial motivations.”


“Wal-Mart to the Rescue: Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina”
Horwitz, Steven. Mercatus Center, St. Lawrence University, 2008.

Abstract: “The failures of FEMA and other government agencies during Hurricane Katrina have been widely acknowledged in both the popular press and academic literature. However, much less attention has been paid to the successful private sector response during the storm and its aftermath. Wal-Mart and other private retailers played an extraordinarily effective role in the disaster relief process. This paper describes aspects of Wal-Mart’s emergency response system and details their actions during the storm. I argue that Wal-Mart’s successful response was a product of the incentives, knowledge, and superior organizational routines that emerge through private ownership and competitive markets. Because their effectiveness is a function of that institutional context, policy makers should be wary of trying to import or imitate Wal-Mart’s practices in the very different institutional context of the public sector, or assuming that better management, more concern, or additional resources will improve the performance of government agencies.”


“Five Years After Katrina, Most Say Nation Is Not Better Prepared”
Pew Research Center, August 2010.

Excerpt: “As the Northeast struggles to recover from the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the destruction recalls the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. But while many Americans saw progress in rebuilding the Gulf region when they were asked in a 2010 survey, a majority (57%) said the nation still was no better prepared for hurricanes and other natural disasters than it was when Katrina hit. The survey conducted during the 2010 hurricane season found broad skepticism about the nation’s preparedness. Majorities of most political and demographic groups — including 57% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans — said the nation was not better prepared.”


“Exposure to Hurricane-Related Stressors and Mental Illness after Hurricane Katrina”
Kessler, Ronald, et al. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 64 No. 12, December 2007.

Abstract: “Uncertainty exists about the prevalence, severity, and correlates of mental disorders among people exposed to Hurricane Katrina. Objective: To estimate the prevalence and associations between DSM-IV anxiety-mood disorders and hurricane-related stressors separately among prehurricane residents of the New Orleans metropolitan area and the remainder of the areas in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi affected by Katrina…. Results: Prehurricane residents of the New Orleans metropolitan area were estimated to have a 49.1% 30-day prevalence of any DSM-IV anxiety-mood disorder (30.3% estimated prevalence of PTSD) compared with 26.4% (12.5% PTSD) in the remainder of the sample. The vast majority of respondents reported exposure to hurricane-related stressors. Extent of stressor exposure was more strongly related to the outcomes in the New Orleans metropolitan area subsample than the remainder of the sample. The stressors most strongly related to these outcomes were physical illness/injury and physical adversity in the New Orleans metropolitan area subsample and property loss in the remainder of the sample. Sociodemographic correlates were not explained either by differential exposure or reactivity to hurricane-related stressors. Conclusions: The high prevalence of DSM-IV anxiety-mood disorders, the strong associations of hurricane-related stressors with these outcomes, and the independence of sociodemographics from stressors argue that the practical problems associated with ongoing stressors are widespread and must be addressed to reduce the prevalence of mental disorders in this population.”


“Population Displacement and Housing Dilemmas Due to Catastrophic Disasters”
Levine, Joyce N., et al. The Journal of Planning Literature, 22:3, 2007.

Abstract: “As Hurricane Katrina revealed, coastal communities have become far more vulnerable to tropical storms and the long-term displacement of residents. Yet, because the emergency management model presumes that recovery quickly follows response, governments focus only on short-term, localized displacement. However, long term and long-distance displacement exposes a gray area between immediate shelter and permanent housing, along with concerns about vulnerability, housing availability, and land development. We begin this article by discussing the transition between response and recovery. We then review literature regarding social vulnerability, displacement, provision of temporary housing, households’ return decisions, and disaster-driven land development and housing construction processes. We close with thoughts on future research to increase planners’ understanding of the issues involved and to help them craft effective policies.”


“Long-Term Recovery from Disasters: The Neglected Component of Emergency Management”
Rubin, Claire B. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2009.

Excerpt: “Presently I am very concerned about the LTR [long term recovery] research field because I think that the amount and quality of research is not adequate for our present needs; I think there are very serious deficiencies in basic and applied research on the topic, and that means a weak foundation exists for current and future recovery planning and implementation. In my view, the progression of research and knowledge about long-term recovery has moved in fits and starts during the past 25 years. This lack of consistent progress in improving the knowledge base contributes directly to the very serious lack of knowledge acquisition, utilization, and institutionalization in professional practice.”


“Disaster Recovery Also Involves Human Recovery”
Chandra, Anita, et al. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304, Issue 14, October 2010.

Excerpt: “After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, the United States invested more than $5 billion for local health departments and hospitals to plan for and respond in the acute phase of a disaster, but only now is the country discussing the length, cost, and complexity of recovery. Emergency planners in the public and private sectors have plans for restoring physical infrastructure, but have given comparatively little thought to the equally compelling issue of human recoverythat is, how to restore the psychological health of communities and their residents. Given the recent frequency of disasters, and the heavy burden borne by Gulf Coast states, it is startling how little progress has been made in developing systems that strengthen community resilience and accelerate recovery.”


“The Economics of Natural Disasters: A Survey”
Cavallo, Eduardo, et al. Inter-American Development Bank working paper, May 2010.

Excerpt: “We have presented some provisional evidence that the extent of adverse impact is related to the ability to mobilize significant funding for reconstruction. We have also shown that poorer countries are likely to suffer more from future disasters, but these countries are also unlikely to be able to adopt the counter-cyclical fiscal policies that can pay for reconstruction. This constraint will make disasters’ adverse consequences more severe in poorer developing countries. A better-targeted reconstruction that is informed by the identified channels of transmission can potentially alleviate some of these resource constraints.”


“Weathering the Storm: Hurricanes and Birth Outcomes”
Currie, Janet, et al. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, May 2012.

Abstract: “A growing literature suggests that stressful events in pregnancy can have negative effects on birth outcomes. Some of the estimates in this literature may be affected by small samples, omitted variables, endogenous mobility in response to disasters, and errors in the measurement of gestation, as well as by a mechanical correlation between longer gestation and the probability of having been exposed. We use millions of individual birth records to examine the effects of exposure to hurricanes during pregnancy. The data allow us to measure outcomes precisely and to follow the same mother over time; we also suggest estimation methods that correct for omitted unobserved fixed characteristics of the mother, endogenous moving in response to storms, and the above mentioned correlation between gestation length and exposure. We find that exposure to a hurricane during pregnancy increases the probability of complications of labor and delivery, and of abnormal conditions of the newborn such as being on a ventilator more than 30 minutes and meconium aspiration syndrome. Although we do not directly measure stress, our results are supportive of the idea that stressful events in pregnancy can damage the health of the fetus. However our results suggest that the effects may be subtle and not readily apparent in terms of widely used metrics such as birth weight and gestation.”


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