The Sydney Morning Herald

Training in post-disaster recovery is becoming increasingly important, writes Carolyn Rance.

Disaster management is an essential skill for growing numbers of public and private sector professionals, says Edward Blakely, honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

He believes anyone studying or working in urban planning, civil engineering or construction, needs to be educated in one or more of its aspects.

Lack of formal courses means most will need to gain skills by working with consultancies or other organisations that specialise in disaster mitigation, risk reduction and post-disaster rebuilding.

Blakely was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and working on a downtown plan for nearby Oakland in 1989 when parts of the area were devastated by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

He was asked to lead the rebuilding effort and spent four years planning and implementing recovery.

In 1999 he moved to New School University in New York and was again involved in regional planning: "Since I was at the epicentre of planning when the terrorists struck in 2001, I was again involved in city and regional recovery efforts."

He came to Australia more than a decade ago to work on a regional plan for the Sydney metropolitan area and was professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Sydney when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

He was invited back to the United States to coordinate recovery efforts.

He returned here in 2009 and has since worked with Australian, New Zealand and Japanese governments, the World Bank and the OECD on post-disaster rebuilding.

Last year he organised a study tour for mayors and staff of six Australian municipalities to visit the US to learn how it is creating resilient, sustainable communities in the face of climate change, extreme weather and other threats.

He said the US had dealt with more disasters in the past four years than any period in nearly a century, and "we should not think of them as accidents but plan for them".

Courses for architects, planners and civil engineers should cover ways to create safer communities. People moving into disaster management roles should be prepared for criticism from vested interests as well as from people whose expectations of recovery efforts are unrealistic.

"The hardest aspect is knowing that people's lives have been ruined and property destroyed, but the smartest thing you can do is make a long-range program so it won't happen again," Blakely says.

"This is not an entry-level field. You need to have experience in planning or engineering, or both. I think going to work for a major engineering or urban planning firm that has an international practice is the best place to start.

"Many international firms are looking for people now, because they need them on staff to deploy post-disaster, on contract let by governments for disaster resilience, or for post-disaster rebuilding.

"Field work is hard, so do it when you are under 60. But advising can be life-long, as I am finding out."


This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald