Across the country, there has been an increased frequency and severity in natural disasters. This includes forest fires in the western part of the nation and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Research has developed to better understand the health and psychosocial outcomes for communities that experience such disasters, but little research exists to better understand the process by which community leaders develop recovery plans after a disaster. The recovery planning after hurricanes Irma and Maria in the United States Virgin Islands provides a unique opportunity to better understand the recovery process. Administrative data of audio recordings from recovery working group meetings allows for the analysis of the process whereby priority setting and consensus building were established across diverse stakeholders.
This paper helps to fill the gap of analyzing the process of recovery rather than just the outcomes. As disaster scholarship evolves, studies on process have become increasingly important for informing how to implement effective recovery strategies. Little research exists about how decisions are made related to recovery planning, and this study provides for unique opportunity to better understand it. Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the three main islands of the USVI in September 2017.In January 2018,the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the USVI government transitioned from an immediate response period into a formal recovery phase. From January to April 2018, a series of working group meetings focused in five thematic areas were convened to identify priorities for recovery in the health and human service sectors.
Audio recordings were made of the five recovery working groups and provided the basis of the analysis. Each working group met for at least three times and each session was approximately one hour in duration. Participants represented both public and private sectors, and working groups ranged from approximately five to twenty individuals. The audio files provided a rich set of data to determine themes for how decisions related to recovery were made. The audio recordings were transcribed and coded for emerging themes using a grounded theory approaches for analysis. Themes were then checked against the expertise of professionals in the recovery field.
Data analysis revealed a complex process of balancing professional relationships and identifying priorities for recovery. Themes emerged around community empowerment, different priorities for private and public sectors, and power imbalances across decision makers. An additional recurring theme was challenges in the USVI that existed prior to the hurricanes that could be addressed through a long-term recovery process.
Conclusion and Implications
This analysis of the process of decision making for recovery in the USVI provides a better understanding of how a community still in distress after a disaster comes together to set a path forward for rebuilding. Models could be developed for recovery that focus on community empowerment and engagement. Communities and leaders across the country could integrate lessons learned from recovery experiences in the USVI to inform their own preparedness planning.