One year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, the recovery and rebuilding efforts continue in many communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The Rockefeller Institute recently published GulfGov Reports: One Year Later, a comprehensive study that examines the damage, recovery, and economies of the states and localities affected by the hurricanes – as well as the support lent by government and nonprofit agencies.

The report is the first in the GulfGov Reports series, based on a three-year longitudinal field study, a joint venture between the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

Among the study’s major conclusions is that the communities affected by the hurricanes can be divided into three categories: those that are struggling, rebounding, or growing. Another is that housing and labor shortages in the entire region has posed a hindrance to recovery efforts.

“Hurricane Economies” emerge in Louisiana and Missouri

Karen Rowley, Special Projects Manager for the Public Affairs Research Council, and principal author of the report, says that the most surprising finding of the study was that the storms created “hurricane economies.” According to Ms. Rowley, “the expectation had been that the economies of both Louisiana and Mississippi would be hurt badly and that cuts of some sort would almost certainly be necessary. That has not turned out to be the case.”

“Both states ended their budget years with surpluses, fueled in large part by the sales taxes on “replacement spending” on the part of residents who lost everything in the storms and by the increasing cost of construction materials as the repair and rebuilding work began.”

At the local level, the economic impact has been more uneven. The report indicates that the economies in certain parishes – like East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany, for example – are “booming.” Many businesses and residents choose to evacuate and then relocate to these areas because of their proximity to New Orleans.

“But even in those areas that are struggling that are struggling – New Orleans, Cameron and St. Bernard parishes in Louisiana and Hancock County, Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississippi – more tax revenue is coming in than expected,” says Rowley.

In the case of state and local economies alike, the downside is that the increased consumer spending – which was in response to the disasters, and won’t likely continue – was the force that generated the rise in revenues.

Help from non-profits was slowed by lack of coordination

The report includes several other good news/bad news findings. One example; non-profit agencies and faith-based organizations were often the first to step in to provide relief as well as to fill the gaps where governments were unable to provide assistance. But, as the study points out, lack of coordination among these various agencies and government recovery plans slowed progress.

Strategic, swift planning with clear direction from leaders and coordination of volunteer efforts key to the recovery process

State and local governments in other areas of the country can benefit from the results of this study – and can learn from the experiences of those communities impacted by last year’s hurricanes – by becoming better prepared to react in the case of any type of emergency.

Planning for the rebuilding process needs to begin as soon as it’s possible and practical. “That planning works best when local officials take the lead, creating a clear process that invites participation from all segments of the community,” according to Rowley. “Without such direction from local leaders, there is a danger that the rebuilding process will take on a haphazard quality.”

State and local officials should also consider the role of non-profit and faith-based organizations, she says. “These organizations can offer a lot in terms of services or expertise and a plan that integrates them into the disaster response efforts will be that much stronger and effective. In addition, state and local officials need to have some mechanism in place to coordinate the efforts of individual, unaffiliated volunteers who simply show up and want to help.”