Editor’s Note: In last month’s newsletter, we wrote about the cyclical nature of fire and the importance of speaking openly about the process of recovery. Recovery has to be an everyday conversation – a pre-disaster planning effort, and a way to create a vision of what will come after the event – an ongoing effort at all scales and across all sectors to imagine and create the post-disaster future we want to see. What can we create when we demand the unprecedented recovery we need? In this blog, Tiernan Doyle, FAC Net’s Member Services Coordinator, offers further insights and reflections on the long and often inequitable road of recovery.

We recognize that many communities are currently experiencing difficult roads to recovery. This blog is meant to contain thoughtful ideas and encouragement. If you are feeling sensitive to reading about disaster recovery, you may consider reading some of our other blog content.


The word “unprecedented” seems like it’s everywhere these days. Fire tornadoes making their own weather, overwhelming heat waves, record breaking fire and flooding above the arctic circle, and millions of people displaced due to flooding, fire, and storms around the globe. In the United States, over 85% of our weather and climate disasters now come with individual price tags of over $1 billion. In terms of economic and infrastructure losses, disaster costs have topped half a trillion dollars since 2017 alone. It is hard to conceive of that amount of money let alone the number of acres, people, and homes impacted by these hazard events. And still, those numbers don’t tell anywhere close to the whole story of costs in time spent rebuilding, ongoing mental health needs, and lives altered by the loss of economic, housing, or educational opportunities.


Table summary of disaster costs.

Summary statistics of billion-dollar disasters by decade and by latest 1, 3-, and 5-year periods. Credit: climate.gov.


Where, in all of this unprecedented disaster, are we planning for our unprecedented recoveries?

Recovery funding is like mushroom hunting. There’s little guarantee of anything, but if you’ve got the right conditions, you might get a huge crop of morels. In 2019, then-FEMA director Peter Gaynor told FEMA’s National Advisory Panel, “The only way we can survive as a nation, is to set aside pre-disaster money and build state and local capacity.” What this means for disaster response and recovery funding in each state varies widely as states have different rainy day and disaster funding pools with various restrictions on them. This disparity likely only gets wider at a more granular level. Moving from county to city, the tax base of each jurisdiction may prevent there from being any rainy day or disaster recovery funds at all. What money there is will always be prioritized for response and life safety. Funds to rebuild and repair might be available from the state, but even if there are resources and a state disaster declaration, individuals are likely left cobbling together a variety of underwhelming insurance payments, community and volunteer resources, and donations from privately sourced GoFundMe pages, where the money waxes and wanes with media attention, other disaster funds, and personal storytelling ability.


Morel mushroom growing out of a forest floor.

When life gives you morels… Photo credit: HaizhanZheng from Getty Images.


For those that do have a federally declared disaster, resources from the federal government are no guarantee of an easy path forward. Multiple studies have shown that those with more wealth and more capacity are provided with more resources to recover, because they can adequately prove that their losses were large. The way that we have structured the system means that those with obvious material wealth are more legible to the system and granted more recovery dollars. Those who have less availability to fill out forms or technology to access them, those that can produce fewer receipts, don’t have housing deeds, or need to pay off urgent debts cannot spare the time to participate in the administrative burdens required by government assistance. And for those most vulnerable, the system is usually the most opaque.

If there is a private disaster fund set up, recovery dollars are often distributed by a committee appointed by a long term or local recovery group. After massive flooding in Colorado, I served on an unmet needs committee in Boulder County that dispersed private funds for several years, hearing cases and awarding money as best as we could. Our committee was composed of people that had money to give away, but we were not elected or appointed by anyone impacted by the hazard itself. We heard case after case of people who had just been scraping by before the flood. Now, in escalating disasters of unpaid bills, increased transportation costs, and lost livelihoods, they were slipping through the cracks and didn’t fit into the requirements of any other aid system. We funded as much as we had money for, and somehow it ended up even, but I don’t know who was left behind. Although we argued and sweated over each case, and tried our best to be fair, it was frustrating and debilitating to not fully know what our community impact was, and conversely, to know that those impacted by the disaster had to struggle through such a non-transparent process. 

Recovery is not a process that we should trot out after every major hazard event and force traumatized people into. We can and need to build recovery planning into everything and at every scale well before an event occurs. 


At an individual scale, we need to talk about how preparedness leads into recovery: what exactly are our important documents and why are we making backups of them? How can we most effectively tailor our preparedness plans to support getting housing, medication, and other critical resources during rebuilding?

At a community scale, we need to discuss better and more openly how to work with your local government and what rebuilding resources are available in the community: what continuity of operations plans do your government offices have? Are critical community infrastructure pieces such as food banks or neighborhood communication hubs included in your hazard mitigation plan? How many of your residents know how to get the right permits or how to access large state and federal programs for utility assistance? Are bilingual, bicultural recovery staff provided with funding, mentorship, and ongoing support to help ensure all homeowners and business owners can navigate a post-disaster landscape?

And to support recovery on a long term basis, we need to talk about the availability of mental health support systems for everybody impacted. We need to do asset mapping and scenario planning before the event so we can work from a place of community strengths to effectively advocate for policy changes and funding pools that will serve our whole community.


Quote overlaid a photo of a destroyed wall.


There is so much more that we can do. And we need unprecedented and transformative recovery processes that allow us to rise to these new climate challenges. The more we lose people from our communities and plunge more communities into poverty because of our poor recovery planning, the worse off we all become.    

All of this is a learning process, and requires ongoing conversations that reach across divides of people, place, public and private sector, race, class, language, ability at every level to be truly effective and holistic. There is no rubber stamp that says “recovered!” After the storm, the fire, the flood, we find ourselves in a space of constant rebalancing, learning to stand up on new, shaky legs, and remembering how to breathe. With the patchwork options of recovery funding and lack of coverage for our most vulnerable, we cannot afford the time to fully hold and process all of our emotions. Insurance, government assistance, donations management, ash out, debris removal, volunteer management, grants, all create a full time job of planning, phone calls, and paperwork that fill the time and space we need to grieve. The unrelenting decision making is retraumatizing and recovery becomes another test of survival; the air noisy with questions rather than sirens: Is this right? Is it the best decision? Will this make things worse? Will we ever be whole again? 


Quote overlaid photo of a burned forest.


The answer to that is always yes and no. We will never be the same people after recovery that we were at the beginning. We will dream new dreams even as we sorrow for the old ones. But the immense beauty of recovery is that in the middle of hardship it brings incredible opportunity. Hazard events not only break our systems, they also tear down barriers and give us a short window to imagine new possibilities and new partnerships. They help us acknowledge the critical importance of our place, and our collective responsibility to and reliance on one another for survival. And by making recovery an everyday conversation before the event, we create the space to imagine and enact better futures in the midst of change.  

Planning for post-fire before the actual event enables us to better recognize the new pathways that emerge during recovery rather than being mired in the overwhelm. The more work put into building diverse and equitable partnerships that ensure we serve and plan with the whole community before the disaster, means the better we are all prepared to find the resources we need to rebuild. Pre-recovery work reduces gaps, makes systems more inclusive and responsive to diverse needs, and frees up decision-making energy for other problems during the actual event. Recovery will take absolutely everything you give it, and come back for more. But it also holds up a mirror for us to see the immense strengths we never knew we had, and the vibrant love of place and community that can be our deepest, truest fuel. Planning for recovery before the event gives us the chance to make better futures. We need this unprecedented commitment to ourselves and to each other.