In January, a powerful earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people and nearly destroyed the Caribbean nation’s capital. As aid poured in from around the world, the Washington-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA) was recruiting members to lend a hand during the country’s reconstruction, as they did in India after the 2004 tsunami and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. American City & County spoke with ICMA’s International Team Leader David Grossman about how the association is helping rebuild Haiti.
Q: What is the usual role of ICMA in disaster relief operations?
A: Typically, ICMA will make our contribution in the second phase of a disaster, and that is the recovery and reconstruction phase. Once the emergency phase has been dealt with and the situation stabilizes to some extent, at that point city managers with the appropriate expertise can [go] in and start prioritizing key projects.
We can organize teams that can include senior [American] local government officials who really have a depth of experience in dealing with emergency management, who provide a range of support needed to restore basic services. It’s not just city managers. Department heads from different units, public works and things like that, can get involved with respect to road and sanitation infrastructure projects. Just reaching out to the community and involving the community in the effort is something that U.S. city managers know how to do, and it’s sort of a hallmark of ICMA’s approach to all of these situations. Community participation and involvement is really a key element.
Q: Are there any particular qualifications you look for in team members? Are they usually from places that have frequent natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes?
A: Clearly, managers who live in disaster-prone areas and have honed their skills in terms of planning and preparedness and actual dealing with recovery and reconstruction situations [are well qualified for the team]. ICMA takes a networked approach to emergency management, and it’s really all about preparedness. You get all the players together, and that means at all levels of government — federal, state, local, the police forces, the military and the guard — and you run some simulations to decide who the players are.
We have this approach called “City Hall in a Box.” If a local government is somehow really incapacitated, as it is in Haiti, we can just move in with the whole team that has the technology and other things, restore the financial system, and can really start operating right away.
ICMA was established in 1914, and we have textbooks and manuals on all aspects of city management. So, we feel like we’re really well qualified, and we can make a significant contribution in Haiti as we have in so many countries around the world.