11/08/2012 12:59 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Disaster's Long Tail

If Hurricane Sandy reminds us of one thing, it's the awesome power of communities to come together and tackle our greatest challenges. Individuals across the Eastern Seaboard and throughout the country have united in their mission to build a community stronger than before.

This weekend, many New Yorkers lined up near Stuyvesant Town to replace the clothing, shoes, winter coats and household items they lost in the storm. At gatherings like these across the East Coast, tables are piled high with donations thanks to the generosity and community-mindedness of people who have given money, clothing or volunteer hours to help fellow Americans get back on their feet.

This powerful relief effort exemplifies community spirit at its best; it illustrates our human interconnectedness; and, it can be witnessed in the days and weeks following countless disasters the likes of last year's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan or 2005's Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. People and communities affected by these disasters are still recovering years later. While relief efforts are a vital part of disaster response, so, too is long-term recovery.

After first responders leave, and after community awareness declines and gatherings like the one in Stuyvesant Town fade into memory, the recovery is not complete. It has just begun.

It's easy to forget that the effects of disaster are long-lasting, and long-term recovery takes the concerted effort and continued investment of the government, the community and the nonprofit sector. Hurricane Katrina caused more than one million people to move away from Gulf Coast communities and more than $100 billion in damage throughout the region. It destroyed towns, ravaged New Orleans and wiped out entire industries. The forestry industry in Mississippi, for example, lost more than 1.3 million acres of forest and $5 billion in revenue.

Following a disaster, there are real economic and community challenges well beyond immediate relief. A person may need assistance rebuilding her home in the short-term, but for a full recovery, she may also need training to pursue a new career or even mental health and other long-term, social-service assistance. While state and local governments may be able to reopen schools and restore critical infrastructure in the midst of a declining tax base, they will need help over the long-term to conduct community needs assessments that ensure everyone has the ability to access new opportunities.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan or the Colorado forest fires from this past summer may all seem like distant memories, but long-term recovery work is ongoing in every case, and more support and focus is needed. Long-term recovery takes place after the immediate crisis subsides, after permanent housing is restored and after an initial sense of normalcy returns to communities. Long-term recovery is about ensuring that each of us has access to success sustaining opportunities to lead a better life.

I'm proud to see Americans live united. We can't forget disaster's long tail, however, we must remember that while relief is immediate, recovery is long-term. It deserves the dedication, cooperation and awareness of all of us to ensure stronger, more vibrant communities.