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Building Back Better

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Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas before it touched 24 states in the U.S.

Large swaths of New Jersey and New York are still reeling weeks after Sandy reached their shores, and New York City officials estimate that thousands could be left homeless because of its impact. Disasters like Sandy exact an incredible toll on families, communities and, at times, the economy. But, through recovery, such catastrophes can also provide tremendous lessons. In the case of housing, we’ve learned that the success of a recovery effort is perhaps best measured by how quickly homeowners can move forward with repairs and reconstruction of disaster-damaged homes with an eye toward “building back better.”

This is possible when several critical factors are in place.

During the immediate relief phase, robust and vigorous efforts must be made to rehabilitate basic infrastructure in neighborhoods. Roads and streets must be cleared to allow access, utilities and drainage systems must be restored and priority must also be given to temporary repairs and interventions to prevent further damage to homes.

While emergency and utility crews; contractors; local, state and federal governments; nonprofit organizations; corporations; faith-based groups and volunteers are mobilized and coordinated under capable leadership, housing assistance programs can assume the critical role of finding, securing, repairing and rebuilding shelter.

The primary focus of housing assistance programs should always be the most vulnerable: the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Effective case work is needed to properly identify and coordinate assistance. Decisions must be made about helping families without the capacity to cover insurance deductibles, providing complementary assistance to address the difference between what insurance payments will cover and the real cost of full replacement/repair of the house, and offering assistance to those who lacked insurance or were underinsured.

Homeowners who have insurance coverage must help begin the process by filing claims as soon as feasible. Once homeowners have an estimate of their losses and the cost of replacement or repairs, gaps for full recovery of homes can be determined.

Reconstruction in the aftermath of a disaster is never easy. The human suffering and the loss at all levels cannot be underestimated or overstated. Beyond that, it is not enough to just rebuild what was before. The goal instead should be to improve and strengthen homes and communities to make them more resistant to disaster by using better materials and proven construction methods–in other words, “building back better.” NGOs, government, housing assistance programs, the business community and other stakeholders can make that happen. It is also important for all of us to start advocating now for enhancements to local zoning, design and building codes that address disaster mitigation before the next disaster strikes.

As with any efforts to attract support, we must tell success stories in ways that inspire people. Numbers and powerful images of devastation paint part of the picture, but it is also crucial to explain the human connections and how those who lend their hearts, hands and resources can help families get back to work and school and rebuild their lives.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is Chief Executive Officer of Habitat for Humanity International.


Welcome to the BPC Housing Commission expert forum! This forum is intended to foster interactive and substantive discussion about pressing housing issues. Each month contributors from different parts of the housing sector will be invited to respond to a discussion topic. Guest posts will feature prominently on BPC’s website, as well as be shared regularly with Housing Commissioners to help inform their work. Have a pressing question you’d like us to consider? Please leave it in the comments section. We encourage you and our expert bloggers to add comments, contributing to the national dialogue on solutions for the future of the housing sector. Expert bloggers are not members of the BPC Housing Commission. Any views expressed on this forum do not necessarily represent the views of the Housing Commission, its Co-Chairs, or the Bipartisan Policy Center.

2012-12-11 00:00:00

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