When it comes to disaster, we should be talking about adaptation rather than recovery

In traditional models of disaster management following events such as the Kaikoura earthquake, the stage that follows response is usually labelled ‘recovery’.

In a social context, recovery typically follows a trajectory, including heroic and honeymoon phases, as well as the disillusionment phase where obstacles emerge. This is followed by the reconstruction phase, with the whole sequence characterised as a pathway to the ultimate goal of recovery.

I would suggest that this doesn’t reflect reality very well at all. I have lost count of the times that I have heard with a cynical tone words to the effect of, ‘Am I recovered yet?’ The word ‘recovery’ implies that there may be an end-point, and I think this does not do us, or the communities we serve – from Waiau to Wellington – any favours.

A dictionary offers many definitions of ‘recovery’, including; (a) a return to a normal state of affairs, and (b) the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost. Are either of the ideas encapsulated in these definitions realisable after a disaster? I believe it is questionable to raise expectations based on these lay understandings of what recovery means.

A more technical definition is offered by the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management in New Zealand, where recovery is defined as: ‘The coordinated efforts and processes to effect the immediate, medium and long term holistic regeneration of a community following a disaster’.

Furthermore it offers that recovery is a developmental and a remedial process encompassing minimising the escalation of the consequences of the disaster; regeneration of the social, emotional, economic and physical well-being of individuals and communities; reducing future exposure to hazards and their associated risks.

Though this (as one would expect) is a more precise yet broader definition of the scope of recovery in a disaster context , I would argue that it does not necessarily reflect public understanding of recovery or how the concept is talked about in everyday life. I believe it misses some key components.

For example, the concept of ‘Destierra’ gives us a clue as to what might be going on underneath the hood of what we mean by recovery. Destierra is a Spanish word that refers to the psychological effects of being uprooted, displaced or dispossessed from a loved place. There appears to be no direct equivalent for the concept in the English language. However, immigrants often experience mental health issues arising from grief associated with forced and often hurried removal from homes, land and culture, with often limited opportunities to return ‘home’. This can also be mirrored in the experiences of many indigenous peoples, and is accentuated and exacerbated through the loss of a decisive voice say in how these lands are subsequently managed.

Could it be that the loss of place – through natural disaster- also results in the loss of part of our selves and of agency in managing the new or changed place in which we find ourselves? In this sense, recovery is either not possible, or has no end.

This is a fact acknowledged by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman who says the public needs to be mindful that New Zealand appears to be in a natural phase of heightened seismic activity that may last several years.

“As such there is a need for ongoing human and organisational resources, perhaps even those of a conflict resolution team, as well as a long-term commitment to ongoing psychosocial support,” he wrote in a briefing paper prepared with the help of Massey University.

“Keys to success will be to convince people that the physical focus on reconstruction of roads, building etc is not an end in itself but is designed to allow people to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.”

In such cases I say would it not be better to think about adaptation to post-disaster environments? That is, rather than recovering, we think of adaptation, defined as the process of becoming a better fit for one’s transformed environment.

It is critical to also think about one’s agency within this. Not ‘agency’ in the sense of Government departments or NGOs doing things for us, but fostering and supporting a sense of purpose in the place where we find ourselves, so we can exert meaningful influence in our own adaptation pathway. In short, self-determination.

Determination also means the ability to persist in the place of great difficulty.

With these elements and understandings in place, we can scope the post-disaster environment of adaptation – a process of change by which people learn how to better fit with their environment. This doesn’t meant giving up or becoming resigned to a process of fait accompli, but considering how to increase the opportunities for self-determination after a disaster.