Build Back Better (BBB) has become the new disaster recovery mantra. In this series, we explore recovery as a balancing act. Based on case studies from around the world and around the corner, we collectively explore key tensions during recovery. These include balancing the immediate need to return to ‘normal’ with the need to reduce future vulnerability, improve equity outcomes and increase resilience; balancing interests across sectors of a community with external pressures; navigating incentives versus disincentives of recovery funding programs; addressing cultural and psychosocial dimensions of recovery; seeking synergies between economic development and emergency management before and during recovery; and understanding recovery as an outcome and as a process. We have brought together an exceptional team of researchers and practitioners to distill some of the key lessons for designing a thoughtful, inclusive and effective recovery process and critically examining opportunities for building back better.

The beautiful illustrations for this article were contributed by Margaret Anne, a former resident of Fort McMurray, Alberta. She has been living in the Kootenays, British Columbia, for the past four years.

Building back better is both an outcome and a process:

Lessons from the South Pacific

Lisa Strychar, Urban Planner, Vancouver, BC

The following empirical findings of post-disaster ‘building back better’ are the result of 2016 fieldwork from Vanuatu, an infrequently studied South Pacific island nation. Vanuatu’s vulnerable and at-risk islands endure an annual cyclone season, though 2015 Tropical Cyclone Pam caused record high destruction. Three differing peri-urban communities of the capital city Port-Vila were interviewed for their evaluation of housing reconstruction programs. The key findings of this consultation offer robust, qualitative evidence that building back better (BBB) is just as much about integrity of process as it is about rebuilding with structural integrity.

Technical professionals and planners can and should develop housing and land use policies that reduce potential hazards and make communities more resilient to future disasters. However, respondents identified as imperative designs and plans that resonate with, have internal validity with, and are fundamentally appropriate to community needs and norms. Agencies responsible for recovery processes who genuinely consulted with affected communities created a learning feedback loop whereby the agencies explain BBB requirements and rationale, and communities offer local knowledge and context to put flesh on the bones of the BBB framework.

Through collaborations, learning and partnerships, agencies helped build vital community capacity and resiliency rather than just building houses. All communities’ housing was designed to cyclone standards; however, communities involved in the process reported greater success across various indicators. Conversely, communities not adequately and appropriately consulted demonstrated how inappropriate processes lead to long-term technical failures in housing and even enduring social harm.

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The Disaster Recovery Program in Alberta following the 2013 floods

Eva Bogdan, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

The 2013 flood impacted 30 communities in southern Alberta. The greatest shortfall in Alberta’s recovery efforts was identified as the Disaster Recovery Program (DRP) for individual claimants. Alberta’s DRP provides financial assistance for uninsurable property damage, loss and other expenses resulting from a disaster and helps return property or contents to a basic, functioning level. Albertans are fortunate to have the DRP since in many jurisdictions around the world it is not available or is not as generous.

However, improvements are needed to enhance resilience in the short- and long-term for individuals and province-wide. My research on perceptions and practices of flood management in High River following the 2013 floods, as well as official reviews of DRP, revealed numerous areas for improving DRP, including reducing the complexity and length of application processes and providing opportunities to “build back better.” One research participant summed up the impact of dealing with DRP: “To be honest, every single person…says that it was not the disaster itself that has caused the most emotional stress and strain and general ability to move forward. It has been the DRP.”

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Balancing Economic Resilience and Economic Development

Jeremy T. Stone

Recovery and Relief Services, Inc. / University of British Columbia

Following the 2013 Colorado floods, the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Department of Local Affairs at the State of Colorado commissioned the evaluation of economic resilience planning in 25 affected jurisdictions. Our key findings included the following:

1) Economic resilience planning in most jurisdictions was under-developed or non-existent. From a 52-element tool used to evaluate economic development and emergency management plans, nearly two-thirds of the elements were not present. Validation interviews with staff supported these results.

2) Economic developers and emergency managers are rarely integrated for planning. Few jurisdictions exhibited any systematic coordination between economic development agencies and emergency managers.

3) Emergency managers were often circumspect in their interest in economic resilience. EMs tended to assert that economic recovery and resilience was not in their realm of responsibility.

4) Economic developers and local government officials were often persuaded by an emphasis on low-cost growth initiatives. When economic resilience was described in terms of initiatives to increase growth, local officials were far more engaged than recovery-only suggestions.

Overall, bureaucratic silos seem to be the largest barrier to economic resilience planning. Economic development agencies and emergency managers need to be better aligned for planning.

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Ratmate, Nepal: “Once the earth settles, we will build back better”

Martina Manna, MSc, International Cooperation Sustainable Emergency Architecture
Nepal is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. When talking about earthquakes it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’. On April 25th 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Despite the high frequency of earthquakes, disaster risk reduction is underfunded. Further contributing to the vulnerability of the country is the political instability that delayed legal enforcement of the building code until 2005.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, owner-driven reconstruction was promoted and the Rural Housing Reconstruction Program was launched, seeking to foster ‘build back better’ practices, training, technical support and subsidy programs. Ratmate, a rural village strategically located at the center of Nuwakot (one of the most affected areas) was explored as representative of other rural areas of the country. Although exposed to some best practices on how to build back better, when observing the reconstruction process of private homes, some inconsistencies were readily noticeable. When villagers were informed of the increased vulnerability caused by certain reconstruction practices, and asked their reason for neglecting the building back better criteria, most of them revealed a surprising reasoning: “The earth needs time to settle and it is not worth building back in a good way now, on unstable earth. Once the earth will settle, we will build back better” (interviews, December 2016). This shows the temporal tension with regards to implementing BBB approaches on unstable (physically and politically) soil.

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Building Back Better – Observations from Aceh

Dilnoor Panjwani, PhD University of British Columbia, Toronto, Ontario

Enabling a culture of resilience through “building back better” was a core component of recovery aid efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia. A community level exploration of the long-term impacts of these efforts almost a decade after the disaster point to a number of indirect impacts that have resulted. These include the emergence of new characteristics of social vulnerability grounded in increased inequalities within and across communities in Aceh.

New and exacerbated inequalities at the community level have surfaced across Aceh. Some examples include disparities between relocated and non-relocated communities, host communities and newcomers, renters and homeowners, aid recipients and non-recipients. For example, though situated away from hazard-prone land on the coast (and therefore “safer”), communities relocated to high ground face substantive challenges in earning and accessing traditional sources of livelihood (i.e. fishing). Inclined slopes for certain relocation sites have led to levels of inequality based on factors such as elevation of home and quality of view, along with well-being outcomes due to ease of access to key infrastructure including health clinics and schools. Lottery assignments for community members assigned to particular resettlement villages have resulted in a breakdown of social networks, community identity and trust. In several cases the built environment (i.e. standard housing design) has disguised the distribution and prevalence of social vulnerabilities. For example, interactions with villagers point to an inability to identify fellow community members struggling to meet ends, in comparison to those who were thriving.

How (or why) to BBB in shrinking cities?

Lorenzo Chelleri, Chair, Urban Resilience Research Net – International University of Catalonia

The city of L’Aquila (central Italy) was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in April 2009. During the reconstruction of the city, dozens of medieval mountain villages sprawled within the surrounding provinces were hit by a chain of earthquakes that took place between August 2016 and February 2017. The complexity of simultaneously managing multiple reconstruction processes at different stages posed serious challenges both at the technical and governance levels.

However, among the many lessons learned from these challenges, one particular trade-off embedded within the BBB paradigm needs to be highlighted. The energy, investments, technology, planning and public engagement (if any in Italy) for a better city have been focusing during the recovery and reconstruction processes on how to reduce future risks by upgrading previous infrastructures though smarter and modular networks, upgraded building codes with new seismic standards, and a recently launched open public database for tracking the reconstruction process.

The process of building the city and the surrounding villages and towns back better temporally masked the uncertain future of the region prior to the earthquake, the major (pre-existing) challenge being the shrinking regional economy of central Italy. An aging population, declining economies and demographic emigration represented a slow variable stressing and characterizing the recent economic history of central Italy. The earthquake brought an unprecedented infusion of funding and resources from the central government for reconstruction and governance support. As the build back better process continues, central Italy will soon be better planned and prepared to withstand future earthquakes. The questions remains: who will live there?

Lessons Learned or Lessons Ignored? – A Commentary on Disaster and Hazard Mitigation for the Navajo Nation and Beyond

by Rosali​ta​ (Rose) Whitehair (Dine’ Nation) – Emergency Management Specialist, New Mexico Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management

There is great hesitancy to write of successes and “lessons learned”. The lessons are not being learned. The successes are trial and error, and FEMA’s After Action reports on the “next disaster” will reflect an accelerated degradation of natural and human environments. This will be most severe for marginal areas (such as tribal lands) least able to recover from the aftermath. Moreover, these areas will see a rise in “secondary disasters” (lost infrastructure, human disease, livestock death, despair and suicide) that follow the initial disaster. How do we prepare for the next “200-year flood” that will occur in less than 5 years? How do we teach our Native children their heritage of smoking salmon, or elk, caribou when there are cancerous spots in the meat of what sustained our people previously? How do we teach our children to use every part of butchering a sheep, when the organs are the main parts that will be affected by lead poisoning?

Climate change and the disaster it brings will continue to wreak havoc with the practiced norms and lifeways of Native peoples. It is with a heavy heart that it is written, again and again, that harmful change is occurring at an increasing pace. For the Emergency Managers, there is job security, but for the people there is ever increasing imbalance in our human condition. So how do we, as Tribal people, move forward towards disaster resiliency? How does a tribal nation with historically very little funding and poverty stricken communities prepare for disasters and move towards recovery?

In one word: Resiliency. It is in our bones; it is in our blood. The earth has always moved, and our People have always moved with her. Adaptability and awareness of our surroundings has always been key. Adaptability to ever-changing policies and accelerated disaster events can be somewhat mitigated through federal funding. This is facilitated by training, testing and credentialing of Native American professionals in the policies and practices of FEMA.

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BALANCE by Margaret Anne

Margaret Anne is primarily a self-taught artist practicing since 2008.
Being creative has always been a defining part of my character and shapes my daily experience and perception. I recognize a driving force to express myself creatively. It is something I must do and so I choose visual art as one of the ways to express this creativity. There is a fulfillment in beginning with an idea or inspiration and taking it through a chosen process that makes it into art.

I look to create balance, harmonies and interest in my life, my home and the art I produce. It is important for me to create art from the foundation of personal experience.

I would like people to take away from the series: BALANCE a sharpened interest in examining varying perspectives and an impetus to explore beyond their usual routine.

series: BALANCE

This series pays homage to our surrounding Selkirk Mountains in the Valhalla of Slocan Valley.
From the eroding mountains, along the shoreline, fractured and tumbled slate is found as small stones rounded and worn smooth by the unremitting waves of Slocan Lake.
For this project, these stones were collected, stacked, sketched, dismantled and scattered as they were found.

The images in this series are meant to be calming and lead to introspective thought. The precariousness of “balance” contrasts with the endurance of rock. Each drawing is to be symbolic of the balance we strive for in our lives and surroundings.

The stacking of stones is an ancient practice. Canada’s historical Inukshuk is a human-like rock stack marking the right way, the safe way, which others have gone before.