Authorities take on multiple roles in disaster response: learnings from the Hurricane Sandy effort could be useful internationally

An unexpected crisis challenges authorities in many ways. Preparedness and active action in different roles help to overcome disasters, says Anne Quarshie, Postdoctoral Researcher at the LUT School of Business and Management.

Hundreds of homes destroyed when Hurricane Harvey hit to Texas, United States in 2017.

Extensive disasters test authorities' ability to steer the activities of different organisations. Unexpected natural disasters and other sudden crises often demand efficient interaction with little time to prepare.

"The Hurricane Sandy rescue operation proved that it is important for authorities to operate actively in many roles. In addition to their conventional practices, authorities supported businesses and supply chains in staying operational, and they did this more successfully than during Hurricane Katrina," explains Anne Quarshie, Postdoctoral Researcher at the LUT School of Business and Management.  

Quarshie studied the roles that New Jersey state government agencies took and the practices they employed in the disaster response efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the United States in 2012. For her interview and field study, Quarshie interviewed altogether 29 people from 18 organisations, including state government agencies, leading disaster relief organisations, and private sector actors.

Only few similar qualitative studies have been carried out on humanitarian networks.

Three roles of authorities

During disasters, authorities take on three main roles: organiser, facilitator, and supply network member. The study identifies 16 practices employed by the government in these roles.
In the role of organiser, authorities aim to steer and influence how various types of organisations respond to the disaster.

"For example, they involved in the operation not only key public actors but also representatives of industry associations and non-profit organisations. This helped to keep all critical actors up to date on developments and to coordinate activities efficiently," Quarshie relates.

In addition to commanding public actors, the government tried to orchestrate the efforts of non-profit organizations together with a local non-profit coalition.
As facilitators, government agencies transmitted information, provided training and coordinated interaction among different actors, for example. As supply network members, the government agencies aimed to secure the continuity of their own supply chains and those of critical private and non-profit actors.  

"When the hurricane hit New Jersey, power outages lasted for up to two weeks, the infrastructure broke down, and shortages of basic commodities complicated efforts. The authorities did their best to enable critical actors to purchase supplies and delivery trucks to reach their destinations."

Five ideas for disaster preparedness and response

Quarshie's research results may be helpful in preparing for disasters in various contexts. At the moment, the coronavirus is challenging the response capacity of authorities globally. Moreover, climate change increases the risk of extreme weather events everywhere.

Authorities could, for example, pay attention to the following in their interorganisational disaster response efforts:

  1. Update your preparedness plans and perceptions of who the most important actors are, and make sure that they receive all possible support. Also consider critical private and third sector actors.
  2. Pay special attention to the interfaces between sectors and network levels to ensure that information flows in all directions. Interaction could be enhanced with the help of umbrella organisations from other sectors, for example.
  3. The local level is important in preparing for and responding to disasters. Individuals and families must have access to up-to-date information on the situation and how they could best respond to the crisis.
  4. Communication is important in all directions. In extensive crises, conventional communication channels often break down or become clogged, as large numbers of people and organisations reach out to the authorities at the same time.
  5. Governments should take an active role in securing the continuity of supply networks and the flows of goods, information and money within them.

Anne Quarshie is a postdoctoral researcher at the LUT School of Business and Management. The article "Interorganizational interaction in disaster response networks: A government perspective" by Quarshie and Rudolf Leuschner is forthcoming in the Journal of Supply Chain Management and available open access.

More information:

Anne Quarshie, Postdoctoral Researcher, LUT School of Business and Management
tel. +358 50 433 2514, anne.quarshie(a)