In the wake of a natural disaster, there are two major factors for policymakers to consider when approaching the recovery phase of emergency management: the capacity and well-being of reconstruction workers. These are both essential for a quicker, more efficient recovery process and for more-resilient communities (Gyimah et al. 2021). Most crucially, reconstruction workers need proper safety education and supportive workforce policies to do their jobs effectively.
This brief presents key arguments for prioritizing and supporting reconstruction personnel working in the aftermath of flooding disasters. Our aim is to promote policies and practices that consider the well-being and capacity of these workers and contribute to a sustainable recovery process (Gyimah et al. 2021).
We recommend: 1) educating workers on safety measures and providing them with necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against safety hazards and 2) enhancing the capacity of the post-disaster workforce through supportive policies.
Impact of Flooding Disasters
Flooding occurs when an excessive amount of water accumulates in an area, causing rivers, lakes, or coastal areas to overflow. This can result from heavy rainfall, snowmelt, storm surge, or the failure of man-made structures such as dams or levees. Flooding and other types of natural disasters can have severe consequences for affected areas, often significantly damaging infrastructure, displacing residents, and disrupting essential services. They can also contaminate water sources and increase the risk of disease outbreaks.
Such situations can require extensive repairs and reconstruction efforts, with reconstruction workers playing a vital role in the process (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction 2021).
Reconstruction Workers Face Many Challenges
Reconstruction workers operating in post-flooding environments face a range of physical and environmental challenges that can impact their well-being and ability to perform tasks effectively. Floodwaters can cause structural damage to buildings, bridges, and roads, creating an unstable work environment and putting workers at risk of unstable ground conditions and structural collapses. These safety hazards can cause serious injuries or fatalities (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 2013). The presence of debris, hazardous materials, and electrical hazards further increases the risks for workers.
After a flood, moisture can promote mold growth in buildings and other structures. Exposure to mold can cause respiratory problems, allergies, and other adverse health effects. Workers involved in post-flood cleanup and restoration may be exposed to high levels of mold spores and dangerous air quality if proper precautions are not taken (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021; Occupational Safety and Health Administration 2013).
Other hazards include infectious agents. Floodwaters can be contaminated with pathogens, bacteria, and other harmful substances that pose a risk of waterborne diseases. Workers exposed to contaminated water may be at risk of contracting gastrointestinal or skin infections, respiratory illnesses, or other diseases (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021).
Further, the psychological stress of disasters — which can result from witnessing devastation and dealing with personal loss — can significantly impact a worker’s mental health and resilience.
Despite these challenges, reconstruction workers face many barriers to support. For example, workers often receive poor logistical support, with no dedicated provisions for food, lodging, or transportation. Wage theft is common. Further, despite the hazardous conditions they face, immigrant reconstruction workers often lack access to health care. In general, being undocumented or having an otherwise tenuous immigration status makes workers more vulnerable to wage theft, job site abandonment, and lack of fundamental health and safety supplies.
The Prolonged Nature of Recovery
Due to the complex and extensive nature of the rebuilding process, recovery is often the longest phase of emergency management. After a disaster, communities must rebuild infrastructure, restore essential services, and support the physical and psychological well-being of affected individuals. They must remove debris, reconstruct housing, revitalize the economy, and focus on community development. All of these interconnected components of the recovery process require significant time, resources, and coordination (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019). Additionally, the recovery process is influenced by bureaucratic processes and other factors such as the scale and severity of the disaster, availability of funding, and level of community engagement.
Recent examples from the United States illustrate the prolonged nature of the recovery phase:
- In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage to infrastructure and displaced thousands of residents in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The recovery process, which among other things involved rebuilding homes, restoring utilities, and revitalizing the economy, took years to complete (Federal Emergency Management Agency n.d.).
- In 2017, Hurricane Harvey resulted in widespread flooding in Texas and Louisiana. The rebuilding process, including housing recovery and infrastructure repairs, remains ongoing (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2020).
Both of these examples highlight the long-term nature of the recovery phase and the challenges involved in restoring communities after a natural disaster.
One important reason behind the long duration of the recovery phase is the significant challenge of mobilizing and coordinating a workforce for extensive reconstruction efforts. Following a disaster, the demand for labor and skilled workers escalates, often exceeding the capacity of the available local workforce. This shortage of skilled labor, coupled with the need for specialized expertise in construction and infrastructure rebuilding, contributes to delays and prolonged recovery timelines (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019). The process of recruiting and deploying a workforce for reconstruction efforts requires careful planning, coordination with various agencies, and sometimes external resources.
Prioritizing Workers Can Speed Up Recovery and Make Communities More Resilient
The ability to meet the demand for a successful recovery may hinge on supporting the needs of the reconstruction workforce. The welfare of reconstruction workers is directly linked to their ability to perform tasks effectively. As such, educating them on the hazards involved in recovery and how to avoid or maneuver around them is crucial, as is providing them with PPE to ensure their physical safety. Together, these measures have a direct impact on workers’ overall productivity in the recovery and rebuilding process.
A strong and resilient workforce is vital for an effective recovery (Gyimah et al. 2021). By prioritizing reconstruction workers, an affected community can not only accelerate its recovery, but also contribute to its own long-term resilience.
Two Key Recommendations
1. Ensure Reconstruction Worker Health and Safety Through Education and Personal Protective Equipment
There are several compelling arguments for providing education to reconstruction workers in the post-natural disaster setting:
- Education equips reconstruction workers with the knowledge and skills needed to mitigate risks, handle hazardous situations, and navigate the challenges unique to post-disaster environments (Li et al. 2020).
- Education fosters resilience and adaptability among reconstruction workers, enabling them to cope psychologically with the aftermath of a natural disaster.
- Education plays a crucial role in building long-term community resilience by equipping workers to handle future natural disasters.
To empower workers with the tools they need to ensure their safety and help them contribute more effectively to rebuilding efforts, agencies and organizations should provide the necessary PPE and offer specific training and education on disaster preparedness and response protocols, comprehensive construction safety practices, and hazard mitigation and recovery strategies (Gyimah et al. 2021; Zhang et al. 2020). In addition, by providing training and educational resources to reconstruction workers, local communities can develop a skilled workforce that is better equipped to handle future disasters. This, in turn, can strengthen a community’s capacity for recovery and reduce the vulnerability of its infrastructure to future natural hazards (UNDRR 2021).
By focusing on these resources, affected regions can benefit from knowing they are helping the reconstruction workers who are, in turn, helping them recover from a disaster.
2. Expand the Recovery Workforce Through Supportive Policies
Reconstruction workers in post-natural disaster settings need supportive policies. It is crucial to recognize the unique challenges these workers face during the recovery phase of emergency management and how to best support them. Issues that need to be addressed include:
- Wage Theft. Workers should be provided with online tools and legally binding documents that include agreed-on wages.
- Access to Resources. Through federal provisions or public-private partnerships, workers should be provided with access to affordable food, lodging, and transportation in post-flooding environments.
- Health Care. Reconstruction workers should have adequate health care access to treat worksite illnesses and injuries and adequately manage nonoccupational chronic diseases.
- Immigration Policy. A policy that allows the U.S. to rapidly grant temporary work visas to foreign reconstruction workers is urgently needed to mobilize large workforces in the wake of natural disaster. H.R. 3194, called the U.S. Citizenship Act, outlines a potential approach to make temporary workers eligible for lawful immigrant status and increase the availability of employment-based green cards (Klobucista and Roy 2023). In addition to legislative action, increasing the rate of temporary visa processing for foreign reconstruction workers through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or other U.S. agencies can also help meet workforce needs in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Prioritizing employee well-being in post-flooding environments brings long-term benefits to both reconstruction workers and affected communities. When workers feel supported and valued, their morale, productivity, and engagement increase. This leads to higher job satisfaction and retention rates, reducing turnover costs for organizations. Additionally, by prioritizing workers’ well-being, agencies and organizations can contribute to the overall resilience and recovery of affected communities. A strong and resilient workforce is essential for effective reconstruction efforts and for a community’s long-term sustainability.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. “Floods.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/floods/index.html.
Federal Emergency Management Agency. n.d. “Hurricane Katrina recovery.” Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/hurricane-katrina.
Gyimah, E., E.O. Owusu, and E. Awuah. 2021. “Challenges faced by construction workers in disaster-stricken areas and the role of construction organizations in post-disaster reconstruction.” In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Sustainable Development in Africa, 1–11.
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