What About Debris In Disaster Recovery?

In any disaster that involves some kind of destruction (and are there any disasters that don’t?), there’s going to be some kind of debris. Complete disaster recovery means dealing effectively with that debris. The FEMA (American Federal Emergency Management Agency) 325 Debris Management Guide published in 2007 indicates the potential size of the problem: over a five year period, debris was on average about one quarter of the total cost of a disaster. The FEMA guide refers to physical natural and man-made materials generated by a disaster, but debris can go further than this.

Physical forms of debris include “Any material, including trees, branches, personal property and building material on public or private property that is directly deposited by the disaster”, to cite the FEMA definition. Methods of disposal of debris have to be adapted to the situation. In different disaster recovery situations, “vegetative” debris (anything from shrubs and broken branches to uprooted trees) won’t necessarily be handled like “Construction and Demolition Debris” (glass, metal, roofing, pipe, concrete, asphalt and so on).


Yet debris management is often scanty or simply missing in disaster recovery plans. The problem is compounded when disasters happen, because estimates of debris removal efforts required are often solely based on what is immediately visible. Underestimating the quantity of debris can retard disaster recovery. Yet even the simple definition of debris disposal areas linked to a prioritised list of zones to be cleared, can be a major improvement in many DR plans.

Concentrating on what you can physically pick up and clear away (depending on what sort of disaster you’re having) is a first step. Disaster recovery planners would also be well-advised to think about the other kinds of “debris” that can exist also in a figurative sense. IT disasters may lead to data or applications that cannot be made whole again. After crisis management, unfavourable criticism may circulate about an organisation. While mass data deletion or censoring probably aren’t options, it’s still all debris that needs to be correctly dealt with.