From the CPJ Archives: Steps Towards Recovery – An Integrated Platform for Disaster Recovery Planning, Management, and Tracking

This week we’re sharing an article that originally appeared in Volume 42 of the Carolina Planning Journal back in 2017. The theme of that edition was Re:(Anything) from Revitalization to Resilience. This volume sought to understand the convergent and contradictory meanings behind the prefix ‘re-‘. Articles covered diverse topics like revitalization, resiliency, and reinvestment. In this piece, Jennifer Horney and Katie Kirsch, both of Texas A&M at the time, presented the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool, a guide for local officials to use to facilitate a careful and deliberative recovery process. With everything going on in the world today, we can’t forget that hurricane and wildfire season will be upon us soon and that these kind of tools remain critically important to ensure effective and equitable recovery, particularly in an era of COVID-19.

Volume 42 and other back issues of the Journal can be found on our website at

By Katie Kirsch (MS) and Jennifer Horney (PhD, MPH)

The persistent movement of people and economic development to highly vulnerable regions, such as the U.S. Southeastern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, has dominated growth in disaster losses for the past 50 years (Pielke et al. 2008). The escalation of economic losses resulting from natural disasters in the U.S. rising faster than either overall population or gross national product —- highlights the critical need for more effective, and resilience building, strategies for disaster recovery (Gall, Borden, Emrich and Cutter 2011). While the inherent geographic vulnerabilities of a coastal community cannot be modified, pre-disaster recovery planning has been shown to significantly improve post-event recovery outcomes (Zukowski 2014). After a disaster and during a time of high stress and uncertainty, pressure to make decisions and allocate funds to quicken recovery results in decisions that may be made with little time for deliberation or data gathering (Olshansky and Johnson 2010). In the absence of pre-disaster planning for recovery, insufficient recovery management can result in a failure to restore or improve upon pre-disaster conditions (Smith and Wenger 2006). 

At the federal level, the Disaster Mitigation Act requires state and local governments to adopt hazard mitigation plans as a condition of receiving certain forms of federal disaster assistance (Disaster Mitigation Act 2000). Despite the recognized benefits of pre-disaster recovery planning, no such federal requirement exists for recovery plans. For this and other reasons, the development of high quality disaster recovery plans has lagged at both the state and local levels with some notable exceptions (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2016; Berke et al. 2014). The City of Los Angeles, California, created a Recovery and Reconstruction plan in 1987, several years before the 1994 Northridge Earthquake (City of Los Angeles Emergency Operations Organization 1994). Florida enacted legislation in 2008 requiring all local governments to adopt pre-disaster recovery plans either as a component of the local comprehensive plan or as a stand-alone document. The North Carolina Coastal Area Management Act has required the adoption of recovery elements in land use plans in coastal counties since the late 1990s, and community-engaged post-disaster recovery planning processes in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina led to the adoption of a regional recovery plan (Norton 2005; Louisiana Speaks 2007). However, mandates for recovery planning that are put in place without funding support, clear standards, and strong oversight have generally resulted in either low levels of compliance or low quality plans.

A core set of plan quality principles provide a measurable, adaptable, and sufficient way to form a holistic evaluation of a community (Berke et al. 2014). Since established plan quality principles may not be fully suited for the development and evaluation of recovery plans, researchers have sought to define indicators or metrics to measure and better understand recovery trajectory in disaster affected communities (Chang 2010; Cutter, Burton, and Emrich 2010; Dwyer and Horney 2014; Horney et al. 2016; Jordan and Javernick-Will 2014; Norris et al. 2008). 

Federal guidance has been offered as well. The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) was developed to guide local, state, and federal planning activities, core capabilities, and operational structures in preparation for and in the aftermath of disaster events (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2016). The core capabilities described in the NDRF include planning, public information and warning, operational coordination, economic recovery, health and social services, housing, infrastructure systems, and natural and cultural resources (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2016). Continuous monitoring and evaluation is required to determine the progress of a community in becoming proficient in these capabilities. However, capacity of local governments to monitor the multiple domains of a community may be impeded given that disaster recovery is subject to the compression of multiple types of redevelopment and recovery activities into a shortened post-disaster time period (Olshansky, Hopkins, and Johnson 2012). Therefore, resources that streamline the process of data collection and analysis are needed to eliminate this burden and allow decision-makers to more efficiently allocate their time to the benefit of the whole community.

The Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool

Recovery from disasters is a core responsibility for federal, state, and local governments. Systematic means of measuring the disaster recovery process across events and over time are needed to plan for and recover from disasters. Developed as part of the former Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence (now known as the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool ( was created to provide a free, secure, web-based disaster recovery management platform for local governments and decision-makers. 

Metric Development and Application

The monitoring function of the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool consists of eighty-four metrics, organized within four4 themes (financial, process, public sector, and social) and ten focus areas derived from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Recovery Support Functions (RSFs) and core capabilities (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2016). These metrics include both user-entered data (n=49) and data that are automatically populated from publically available sources (e.g., the American Community Survey, County Business Patterns, Disaster Declarations Summaries) across multiple years (n=35). These metrics were developed through a process that included: 1) a systematic review of the literature; 2) a content review of eighty-seven pre-disaster recovery plans developed by U.S. Gulf Coast and U.S. Atlantic counties and municipalities; 3) case studies of disaster affected communities including Hoboken, New Jersey and New Hanover County, North Carolina; 4) twenty-one key informant interviews; 5) two focus groups with ten experts; and 6) a case study of six disaster-affected communities located in Texas (Dwyer and Honey 2014; Horney and Smith 2015; Horney et al. 2016). 

These activities provided validation of the proposed metrics identified in the systematic review. For example, during the content review of disaster recovery plans, a total of 204 potential metrics were identified in plans and categorized by RSF or core capability. All plan-based metrics were categorized into one of the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool’s metrics, indicating that plan-based metrics validated the literature review-based metrics (Horney et al. 2016). Key informant interview and focus groups participants also supported the validity of the proposed metrics, pointing out that they “capture the complexities of community disaster recovery and provide potential opportunities for linkages to the development of disaster recovery plans and other activities that could increase community resilience in the future,” and also suggested changes mostly with the organization of the metrics (Dwyer and Horney 2014). A retrospective review of two case study communities undergoing recovery provided additional validation. The case studies were an attempt to use a community’s actual recovery experiences to collect data on the metrics and demonstrate how local recovery activities could be documented and shown to fulfill national recovery priorities. 

One case study of the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool’s functionality focused on New Hanover County’s recovery from Hurricane Irene in 2011. Hurricane Irene made landfall several times along the east coast of the United States in late August 2011, causing over $16 billion in damages. The storm’s first landfall in the United States was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, just north of New Hanover County. New Hanover County, located in southeastern North Carolina and bordering the Atlantic Ocean, has approximately 200,000 residents (U.S. Census, 2010). Findings from the case study indicated that nearly half (forty-six percent) of the proposed metrics were represented in the Hurricane Irene recovery, both within community planning documents such as the County’s Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan Update in 2010 and in media reports and other documentation such as the New Hanover County Emergency Management Center’s Facebook page, Tweets, and YouTube videos that were created to inform residents about recovery issues (Covi 2012). Both baseline and current status data were most widely available for metrics related to economy, housing, and infrastructure. Fewer data were available for metrics in natural and cultural resources.

The metrics included in the current Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool were developed to capture a concise snapshot of community recovery functions at the local level and are applicable throughout the recovery continuum, defined by FEMA as a “sequence of interdependent and often concurrent activities that progressively advance a community towards a successful recovery” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2016). When leveraged in advance of a disruptive event, the metrics provided can guide preparedness and mitigation efforts by enabling users (e.g., planners, emergency managers, and long-term recovery committees) to readily identify and better understand existing vulnerabilities within the community, such as households without access to a vehicle (Figure 1). For example, practitioners populating the tool with baseline data from existing planning documents can compare pre- and post-disaster status using baseline data and updated current status data to identify disparate patterns of recovery in different focus areas such as housing or economic development. Quantitative data collected about ongoing recovery needs can serve as a means of promoting transparency and fostering public confidence in the actions of the local governing body. Reports generated by the tool can provide users a way to prioritize recovery goals and activities, potentially making recovery more effective and efficient and communities more resilient. 

Figure 1. Example of Disaster Recovery Tool Metric Chart

Management Functions

The management functions of the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool enable local users to maintain records of public outreach activities and meetings; store and access essential information for community organizations and other stakeholders; log, prioritize, and track the progress of recovery-oriented tasks; and capture resource inventories and expenditures for grant eligibility and reporting. 

Tracking and Reporting

Effective management of recovery operations necessitates rapid and reliable record keeping. In the aftermath of a disaster, decision-makers are challenged by resource limitations and time constraints. Therefore, the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool also functions as a disaster recovery management platform, enabling users to maintain accessible records of public outreach activities and local contacts, log and monitor the status of recovery-oriented tasks, and capture resource expenditure data required for grant eligibility and reporting. To streamline the process of required reporting, FEMA summary record forms may be automatically populated following data entry. The ability to generate forms from existing records saves critically needed time following a disaster. 

Future Work

Ultimately, all communities should have a high-quality, community-wide disaster recovery plan that reflects their own jurisdiction’s culture and practice of recovery planning and focuses on the inclusion of a network of stakeholders who share responsibility in rebuilding efforts. A holistic perspective on the progress of disaster recovery is essential for the development of well-informed disaster recovery plans that are actionable, feasible, and effective. For example, one of the primary indicators of a high-quality plan is a strong community fact base that accurately characterizes local conditions, such as identified hazards and existing resources available to reduce risk. It is often difficult for smaller communities with limited capacity for recovery planning to develop a robust fact base focused on high-priority issues. In this case, data collected to populate the metrics in the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool can guide the development of specific recovery plan elements, such as the fact base, as part of a larger plan, or the development of a stand-alone recovery plan. In the near future, the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool will provide a plan building template to give users an opportunity to leverage their time, effort, and resources by using the data entered into the Tool to develop a pre-disaster recovery plan for their jurisdiction.


Berke, P., J. Cooper, M. Aminto, S. Grabich, and J. Horney. 2014. “Adaptive Planning for Disaster Recovery and Resiliency: An Evaluation of 87 Local Recovery Plans in Eight States.” Journal of the American Planning Association 80:310-23. doi:10.1080/01944363.2014.976585.

Chang, Stephanie E. 2010. “Urban Disaster Recovery: A Measurement Framework and Its Application to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake.” Disasters 34:303-27.

City of Los Angeles. 1994. City of Los Angeles Recovery and Reconstruction Plan. Los Angeles: Emergency Operations Board.

Covi, Michelle. 2012. “Storm Practices: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irene.” Coastwatch: A North Carolina Sea Grant Magazine, Autumn 2012. Accessed October 20, 2014.

Cutter, Susan L., Christopher G. Burton, and Christopher T. Emrich. 2010. “Disaster Resilience Indicators for Benchmarking Baseline Conditions.” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 7:51. doi:10.2202/1547-7355.1732.

Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, Public Law 106-390, U.S. Statutes at Large 114 (2000): 1552-1576. 

Dwyer, Caroline, and Jennifer Horney. 2014. “Validating Indicators of Disaster Recovery with Qualitative Research.” PLOS Current Disasters 6:ecurrents.dis.ec60859ff436919e096d51ef7d50736f. doi:10.1371/currents.dis.ec60859ff436919e096d51ef7d50736f.

Gall, M., K. A. Borden, C. T. Emrich, and S. L. Cutter. 2011. “The Unsustainable Trend of Natural Hazard Losses in the United States.” Sustainability 3:2157-81.

Horney, J., M. Aminto, P. Berke, and G. Smith. 2016. “Developing Indicators to Measure Post-Disaster Community Recovery in the United States.” Disasters 41:124-49. doi:10.1111/disa.12190.

Horney, Jennifer, and Gavin Smith. 2015. Measuring Successful Disaster Recovery. A Case Study of Six Communities in Texas, United States. Tysons, VA: LMI Research Institute.

Jordan, Elizabeth, and Amy Javernick-Will. 2014. “Determining the Causal Factors of Community Recovery.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 32:405-27.

Louisiana Speaks. 2007. Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan. Vision and Strategies for Recovery and Growth in South Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Recovery Authority.

New Hanover County, North Carolina. 2010. “2010 Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan Update.”

Norris, F. H., S. P. Stevens, B. Pfefferbaum, K. F. Wyche, and R. L. Pfefferbaum. 2008. “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness.” American Journal of Community Psychology 41:127-50.

Norton, Richard K. 2005. “More and Better Local Planning. State-Mandated Local Planning in Coastal North Carolina.” Journal of the American Planning Association 71:55-71.

Olshansky, Robert B., Lewis D. Hopkins, and Laurie A. Johnson. 2012. “Disaster and Recovery: Processes Compressed in Time.” Natural Hazards Review 13:173-8. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)NH.1527-6996.0000077.

Olshansky, Robert B., and Laurie A. Johnson. 2010. Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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Smith, Gavin P., and Dennis Wenger. 2006. “Sustainable Disaster Recovery: Operationalizing an Existing Agenda.” In Handbook of Disaster Research, edited by Havidán Rodríguez, Enrico L. Quarantelli, Russell R. Dynes, 234-57. New York, NY: Springer Verlag.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2010. “American Fact Finder: New Hanover County, North Carolina.”

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2016. National Disaster Recovery Framework. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Second edition.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2016. Disaster Recovery. FEMA Needs to Assess Its Effectiveness in Implementing the National Disaster Recovery Framework. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Zukowski, Rebecca S. 2014. “The Impact of Adaptive Capacity on Disaster Response and Recovery: Evidence Supporting Core Community Capabilities.” Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 29:380-7.

About the Author: Katie Kirsch is a Research Associate in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and a PhD Candidate in Epidemiology and Public Health at Texas A&M University. She is the project manager of the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool at Jennifer Horney is a Professor in the Disaster Research Center and the Founding Director of the Epidemiology Program at the University of Delaware (previously Texas A&M). Her research focuses on the public health impacts of disasters and linkages between plan quality and post-disaster outcomes.

Featured Image: This image, by Sha’zire White as part of the ReFraming Food photo series, was the cover of the 42nd print edition of the Carolina Planning Journal.