Natural Disasters

views updated May 11 2018

Natural Disasters

Sections within this essay:

Charting Disasters
Early Agencies
U.S. Geological Survey

First Responders
National Guard and Coast Guard
Department of Homeland Security
Additional Resources
American Red Cross
Federal Emergency Management Agencu (FEMA)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Salvation Army
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Geological Survey


Any disaster that arises from the physical phenomena—hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis—can be deemed a natural disaster. So-called "man-made" disasters are often the direct result of natural conditions. The floods that devastated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 were caused by levees that burst, but it was the hurricane's wind and rain that caused the excess of water. Likewise, fires destroyed large sections of San Francisco in April 1906, but they were caused by broken gas lines resulting from a major earthquake.

Natural disasters can strike anywhere, and they can destroy wealthy communities as easily as they destroy poorer ones. The poor usually suffer more than the rich, however, because they lack the resources to rebuild or to relocate. Government agencies can assist those who have lost their homes and possessions, but often that assistance covers only part of what is needed. Moreover, it is difficult for people to get protection such as homeowner's insurance in areas prone to damage from floods or hurricanes.

Nonetheless, there are numerous agencies (federal and state government as well as non-governmental) that provide help to those in need when disaster strikes. Anyone who is a victim of natural disaster needs to know which agencies can help and how to contact them.

Charting Disasters

The disaster considered the most deadly in American history is the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. Galveston, an affluent and rapidly growing island city on the Gulf of Mexico, was also a popular tourist community, and many residents and tourists ignored warnings by the U.S. Weather Bureau to seek higher ground. Instead, they chose to stay put and watch the huge waves. What they failed to realize was that Galveston was no match for those waves (up to fifteen feet high), accompanies by winds reaching 130 miles per hour. The hurricane slammed directly into Galveston and swept away more than half the structures. The storm claimed more than 8,000 lives.

The first federal legislation directed toward disaster relief was passed by Congress in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. That legislation provided assistance for a New Hampshire community that had been ravaged by fire. Although the federal government continued to provide disaster relief, (more than 100 times through the nineteenth centu-ry), that relief was primarily given on a case-by-case basis. There was no formal procedure for obtaining aid.

It was during the nineteenth century that the American Red Cross was established by Clara Barton, who served as a battlefield nurse during the American Civil War. Modeled after the International Red Cross, which provided battlefield aid during wartime, the American Red Cross visualized by Barton was created to provide disaster relief during peacetime. The American Red Cross was formally established in 1881. The Salvation Army, which had been established three years earlier, offers disaster relief assistance as well, both material and spiritual. Many Salvation Army members are ordaind clergy and can serve in chaplain roles at disaster sites.

Early Agencies

The nineteenth century also saw the advent of "physical science" agencies, which focused on studying the atmosphere and better understanding and using natural resources. The U.S. Coast Survey was established in 1807, the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1870, and the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1871. It was the U.S. Weather Bureau that developed the measurement and observation tools used to track changes in the weather, including severe events such as hurricanes and blizzards.

In the 1930s, the federal government began to take a more formal role in disaster relief. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was the first step; it made disaster loans for the reconstruction of public facilities damaged by earthquakes. The Bureau of Public Roads received the authority to provide money to repair highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters. Other laws such as the Flood Control Act authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create flood control projects.

Despite these advances, disaster relief was still a fairly disjointed activity, with some federal help, some help from state governments, and some help from organizations such as the American Red Cross. During the 1960s the United States was hit with several severe hurricanes including Carla in 1962, Betsy in 1965, and Camille in 1969. More legislation was passed, such as the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968 (which provided additional protection to homeowners hit by floods) and the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (which formalized the President's power to declare national emergencies. Even with these efforts to streamline procedures, however, there were still major obstacles. During the 1970s the government began implementing programs to deal with possible disasters involving hazardous waste and nuclear plants. By the end of the 1970s there were more than 100 federal agencies handling various aspects of disaster relief. These included the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the Federal Insurance Administration, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Defense department's Civil Preparedness Agency. In addition, each state and many municipalities had individual disaster relief programs.


In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order that merged the numerous disaster relief agencies into one central agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Its stated purpose is "responding to, planning for, recovering from, and mitigating against disasters." One of FEMA's first innovations was the creation of an Integrated Emergency Management System to provide not only direction and control of disasters but also warning systems.

FEMA provides relief to disaster victims in the form of financial assistance, temporary shelter, and loans to business owners (provided through the Small Business Administration). It does not duplicate payments received from insurance companies that cover such things as damage to one's home. Grants from FEMA's Individual and Households Program do not have to be repaid.


Improved technology in measuring atmospheric changes also became a part of the disaster management equation. In 1970, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, Weather Bureau, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Environmental Data Service, and several related agencies were combined to form the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA's role is to provide research and information about the atmosphere, as well as to educate the public about the conditions that could prompt natural disasters to take place.

One way NOAA measured atmospheric conditions was through satellites. The first NOAA satellite was launched in 1975; a polar-orbiting satellite was launched four years later. At present, NOAA operates 16 meteorological satellites. These satellites measure cloud cover, storm activity, and heat indices as aids in predicting the weather across the United States.

Predicting storms is one of NOAA's most important jobs. Often, when storms hit, the deaths and injuries that result are caused by inadequate warning. A quick-moving hurricane or thunderstorm can wreak severe damage with little time for people to escape its path. In 1999 NOAA launched its StormReady program for cities across the United States. StormReady is a hazard preparedness program in which NOAA works with local governments to establish emergency operations centers that include local warning systems and a means of receiving up-to-date weather reports. In 2002 NOAA added TsunamiReady to the StormReady program. TsunamiReady measures ocean activity and helps increase preparedness of coastal cities that are in potential danger in case of tsunami activity. As of January 2006 nearly 1,000 communities had StormReady programs and 26 communities on both the East and West Coast were deemed TsunamiReady cities.

U.S. Geological Survey

Although earthquakes cannot be predicted, seismic activity can be monitored and particularly active regions can be measured. People think of major earthquakes such as those in California when they think of earthquakes, but in fact there is seismic activity across the nation. In fact, 500,000 earthquakes occur each year, with 100,000 strong enough to be felt.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), an arm of the the Department of the Interior, measures earthquakes and activity and provides information on earthquake-prone regions, as well as potential tsunami activity. USGS also provides the public with information about safety during and after an earthquake.

First Responders

When an emergency situation such as a natural disaster develops, the first people on the scene are usually police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, or emergency medical technicians (EMT). These are the first responders, and they are trained to react quickly in emergencies. The first responders' primary task is to make sure people are safe. This includes evacuation, rescue, crowd control, and medical attention. They also make sure that the area where the emergency is occurring has been secured. They redirect traffic and they keep onlookers away. In addition, they try to serve as a calming force, keeping panic and disorder to a minimum.

First responders have a unique perspective because they know their localities well; they are familiar with street plans and landmarks, and they also understand the local municipal structure. This can give them an advantage if the disaster that strikes does not devastate the community's infrastructure. An earthquake or hurricane that levels an entire community leaves little for first responders to work with. Yet they still form an integral component of the disaster relief framework.

National Guard and Coast Guard

The Army National Guard, the Air National Guard, and the U.S. Coast Guard can provide vital support during natural disasters. The Army National Guard was formed in 1636 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Currently it has 340,000 members. There are more than 1,800 National Guard units located in 2,700 communities across the United States. Members of the National Guard receive military training with the understanding that during wartime they can be mobilized. The Air National Guard was formed in 1947. The Coast Guard is made up of active duty, reserve, and civilian personnel and protects the coastal boundaries of the United States.

The National Guard is under the jurisdiction of the federal government during war time, but in peacetime the troops are under the jurisdiction of state governments. Each state maintains its own National Guard bureau that works with local authorities during emergency situations such as natural disasters. In its role as a state-run agency, the National Guard' role is to mobilize where a crisis has occurred and use its training to help local authorities deal with the crisis situation. National Guard troops help reinforce dams and dikes threatened by floods, help contain forest fires, and offer emergency aid after hurricanes and tornadoes. The Coast Guard assists with ocean disasters. Guard members can fly helicopters and drive trucks that transport supplies, injured and sick people, and emergency materials.

Department of Homeland Security

After the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration decided to streamline the disaster relief organizational structure within the federal government and give the many agencies that handle emergencies an opportunity to work together more effectively. In June 2002 President George W. Bush proposed a new agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and with widespread support the agency was launched in March 2003. The first Secretary of Homeland Security was former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

FEMA was one of the agencies that were placed under the umbrella of Homeland Security. The others were the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Office for Domestic Preparedness, the Environmental Measurements Laboratory, and the Nuclear Incident Research Team. The Secret Service and the U.S. Coast Guard were also located in the Department of Homeland Security, although remaining intact as independent agencies.

The DHS provides an opportunity for businesses that want to donate goods or services toward emergency relief during and after disasters, the National Emergency Resource Registry. The private sector can play a vital role in emergency management, both during and after the emergency event. Businesses that specialize in transportation, ground transportation, for example, could provide trained volunteer drivers to assist in emergency management efforts. Interested business can register at the web site

The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, which struck the southern United States in August 2005, led many people to wonder whether putting FEMA under the stewardship of DHS was a wise decision. Residents of New Orleans, which was devastated by floods after several levees broke, complained that the emergency response system that should have provided basic items such as food and water for stranded citizens, had failed. Although FEMA was blamed in part for the bottleneck, local, state, and federal governments were also held responsible. The scope of the New Orleans devastation took everyone by surprise, but FEMA pledged to improve its response time and streamline any bureaucratic problems in the future.

Additional Resources

Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters, David E. Alexander, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Natural Hazards, Edward Bryant, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

American Red Cross

2025 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006 USA
Phone: (202) 303-4498
Primary Contact: Jack McGuire, Interim Director and CEO

Federal Emergency Management Agencu (FEMA)

500 C Street, SW
Washington, DC 20472 USA
Phone: (800) 621-3362
Primary Contact: R. David Paulison, Acting Director

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Fourteenth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230 USA
Phone: (202) 482-6090
Fax: (202) 482-3154
Primary Contact: Conrad C. Lauterbach, Director

Salvation Army

615 Slaters Lane
Alexandria, VA 22313 USA
Phone: (703) 684-5500
Fax: (703) 684-5538
Primary Contact: W. Todd Bassett, National Commander

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Washington, DC 20528 USA
Phone: (202) 282-8000
Primary Contact: Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security

U.S. Geological Survey

12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 905
Reston, VA 20192 USA
Phone: (888) 275-8747
Primary Contact: Pat Leahy, Acting Director

Natural Disasters

views updated Jun 11 2018

Natural Disasters


A natural hazard is an extreme natural phenomenon that threatens human lives, activities or property, or the environment of life. Natural disasters are the destructive consequence of extreme natural hazards, and globally there are more than 700 of them each year. Floods are the most common natural disaster. Together with earthquakes and cyclonic storms they are the most destructive of such manifestations.

Natural phenomena may be transformed into hazards either by excess or by dearth. For example, too great a discharge of water may give rise to flooding, whereas too little may cause a drought. A situation becomes hazardous when the physical forces or environmental stresses at work exceed the ability of human social, economic, cultural, or health systems to absorb, resist, or avoid the resulting negative impact. In this respect, natural hazards are defined not only by the natural forces that induce them, but also by the vulnerability of human systems. Vulnerability is defined here as the susceptibility of people or things to harm.

The threat of a natural hazard is either constantly present or is subject to fluctuations. Many hazards are cyclical; for example, earthquakes of a certain size will occur on a given fault when enough tectonic stress has been accumulated to overcome the frictional resistance of the rock mass to slipping, a process which will probably occur with a definable time interval because of the gradual build-up of strain on the fault. Other hazards, especially meteorological ones, may be seasonal.

Generally, the vast majority of hazards are subject to a rule of magnitude and frequency in which the higher the magnitude, the lower the frequency of occurrence. Some hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, may operate on a geological timescale that is much longer than the scale of human lives. In such cases it can be very difficult to justify the allocation of resources to prepare effectively for events that have a low probability of occurrence during a single human lifetime.

In other cases, the repetitiveness of a hazard may be a problem. For instance, the solvency of the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) depends as much on reducing the instance of repeated claims as it does on anticipating and reducing the impact of large, infrequent events. In a small number of cases, claims have been made for reimbursing damage to a single property up to five times in a decade. Such problems must be abated by reducing either the hazard or the vulnerability to it.

In everyday situations the product of hazard and vulnerability is risk, which can be defined as the probability or likelihood that an event of a given kind and size will occur in a given interval of time and with an anticipated set of negative consequences. Engineers tend to define risk by calculating numerical values of the probability, while social scientists may be more interested in how risk is perceived and how some of the intangible features of human behavior affect it. In any event, paradoxically, risk is a hypothetical quantity (though no less important for that). It materializes as impact, which should lead to an emergency response that reduces the harm done as much as possible. Hence:

Hazard × Vulnerability [× Exposure] = Risk Impact Emergency Response

Exposure to natural hazards becomes an issue when an item (such as a person, a community, a building, or an economic activity) is not constantly at risk. Despite temporal variations in strain upon Earths crust, to all intents and purposes we may consider earthquake risk to be fairly constant, especially as it cannot accurately be predicted in the short term. However, predictable hazards such as hurricanes, which can be monitored and tracked before they make landfall (i.e., arrive at a coast), may allow a forecast to be turned into a warning that stimulates an organized response on the part of the threatened community. Generally, where it is feasible, evacuation is the most effective means of reducing the exposure of people to death or injury in high magnitude events.

The question of exactly what phenomena should be classified as natural hazards has long been debated by students of the field. The core phenomena consist of geophysical events from the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere (the lithosphere), and to a lesser extent from the biosphere. Earthquakes, landslides, and subsidence of the ground are geospheric hazards of the first order; tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes and typhoons), tornadoes, and windstorms are the leading examples of meteorological hazards; and drought and floods are the principal threats from the hydrosphere, with subdivision of the latter into riverine, rain-fed, coastal, and glacial outburst forms.

By convention, though not necessarily on the basis of any very robust theoretical reasoning, disease outbreaks in humans, animals, and plants (i.e., epidemics, epizootics, and epiphytotics) are not usually classified as natural hazards. However, locust infestations are often included.

A further definitional problem occurs when disasters have mixed natural and human-induced (anthropogenic) causes. For example, destructive floods can result from dam bursts, which can in turn result from excessive river flows, earthquakes, or rapid landslides or snow avalanches that cause water waves in the reservoir, if not from failure of the materials or design of the dam itself. In point of fact, natural hazard and natural disaster are convenience terms. Whatever ones religious convictions, responsibility for damage and destruction cannot be shrugged off by referring to unpredictable acts of God, as they stem from failure to mitigate forms of human and environmental vulnerability that are well known and understood.

In conceptual terms, serious study of natural hazards began in the 1920s with the development of the human ecology field. From 1945 onward the Chicago school founded by Harlan Barrows (18771960) and taken forward by Gilbert Fowler White (19112006) gradually revealed the human perceptual and social processes of adjusting to hazards. White and his students found a rich source of study in the struggles of U.S. Great Plains farmers to adapt to varying patterns of drought and flood. By and large, research in many other parts of the world has confirmed the findings of the U.S. human ecologists and geographers, despite some variations due to cultural differences. Thus, the hazardousness of place is tempered by the choice of adjustments that people who inhabit zones of hazard are able to employ.

The Chicago school was motivated to explain why structural responses had not solved the problem of natural hazards. For example, a century of canalization and levee building by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River ended in 1993 with the worst and most prolonged flood on record. Clearly residents, developers, and planners on the floodplain had made some false assumptions about the infallibility of structural flood defenses.

With some success White and his colleagues advocated an approach based on a mixture of structural and nonstructural protection. It may still be necessary to build barriers to stop flooding, or to strengthen buildings so that they resist earthquakes, but it is equally necessary to tackle such hazards with organizational methods. Hence the nonstructural solutions include evacuation (where feasible), emergency planning, land-use control, and public awareness campaigns.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of mitigation specialists, the world has not become less susceptible to hazards over the last half-century. For example, Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, killed 1,848 people, seriously damaged or destroyed 78,000 homes, and left more than half of the population of New Orleans without shelter. As Hurricane Ivan had narrowly missed crossing the city a year previously, the scenario for a major storm impact was well known. Despite this, the heights and state of maintenance of levees were insufficient, as were evacuation and recovery plans. Failures of coordination between local, state, and federal levels of government led to a relief debacle. Rebuilding will probably take eight to eleven years and, due to the phenomenon of geographical inertia (the reluctance of long-term residents to relocate their homes and businesses), will necessarily require considerable investment in major yet fallible structural defenses.

The relentless rise in global population, polarization of wealth between rich and poor, marginalization of vulnerable communities, and the prevalence of about twenty-five complex humanitarian emergencies have all contributed to the increasing toll of natural disasters. So has the increasing complexity and interdependence of modern society, and so, no doubt, will global warming and climate change, as more extreme, if not more frequent, meteorological phenomena are likely to occur.

The average annual death toll in natural disasters is about 140,000, but there is very considerable variation from one year to another. In fact, after five years in which the death toll averaged about 58,000, the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, took at least 230,000 lives. Despite the irregularities, there are discernible upward trends in the number of people directly affected by natural disasters (at least 250 million a year) and the cost of disasters (well in excess of US$100 billion a year), although improved protection has had some effect in stemming the rise in mortality.

Despite much debate and many good intentions, global vulnerability to natural hazards remains unacceptably high. Critical facilitiesschools, hospitals, essential lifelinesremain heavily at risk in many countries (for example, in the Kashmir earthquake of October 5, 2005, schools frequented by 48,000 children collapsed). More money continues to be spent on responding to disasters than on reducing the risks of future ones. Although vulnerability and poverty are not precisely synonymous, in both rich and poor countries they are very closely linked. Hence natural disaster impacts involve serious questions of equity. Natural hazard impacts need to be mitigated by a mixture of prevention, avoidance, and sustainable development: In short, sustainable disaster reduction is required.

SEE ALSO Disaster Management; Shocks


Abbott, Patrick L. 2004 Natural Disasters. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Alexander, David E. 1993. Natural Disasters. London and New York: Routledge.

Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White. 1993. The Environment as Hazard. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.

Perry, Ronald W., and Enrico L. Quarantelli, eds. 2005. What Is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions. Philadelphia: Xlibris.

David Alexander

Natural Disasters

views updated May 11 2018


A number of major natural disasters struck during the late colonial and early national periods. The various impacts of these calamities reflected both the nature of the event and the particular social circumstances in which they occurred. Americans interpreted disasters as "acts of God," but the meaning attached to that idea shifted as educated elites increasingly argued that calamities arose from natural, rather than supernatural, processes. Sporadically, disaster victims received various forms of relief to ease suffering or mitigate losses.

earthquakes, hurricanes

Earthquakes and hurricanes constituted the most terrifying disasters Americans experienced. Numerous earthquakes rattled the continent during this period, but the most significant occurred in 1755 and 1811–1812. On 18 November 1755 an earthquake shook residents from New England through the Chesapeake. Hundreds of chimneys in Boston collapsed, but there were no deaths and overall damage was minimal, especially compared to the great earthquake that had devastated Lisbon seventeen days earlier. Some viewed the different levels of destruction as a signal of God's favor for Protestant New England over Catholic Portugal, but others highlighted more mundane social factors: Boston's numerous flexible wooden buildings withstood the shocks better than the more rigid brick and stone structures common in Lisbon. A far stronger series of earthquakes struck in the winter of 1811 and 1812. Among the most powerful in American history, the New Madrid earthquakes (named for the nearby Mississippi River town) began in December 1811 and continued through March of the next year. Over 1,800 tremors shook an area of 956,250 square miles, ranging from Detroit to New Orleans to Charleston. Most were only minor, but three tremors, all likely measuring above 8.0 on the modern Richter scale, hit on 16 December 1811, 23 January 1812, and 7 February 1812. The earthquakes destroyed the town of New Madrid and plunged more than 150,000 acres of forest into the Mississippi River. The force of the 7 February shock elevated the riverbed below New Madrid and temporarily reversed the river's current. At least eleven people died from the earthquakes; the total number of casualties is unknown and likely much higher. Although powerful, the tremors struck a sparsely settled region, limiting damage and losses.

Hurricanes struck more often and with greater impact. Dozens of hurricanes and tropical storms pounded the Atlantic coast during this period. Hurricanes were a distinctly American phenomenon—the word itself is derived from the Native American word hurakan. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the storms had become an accepted part of life, especially in the Lower South where they struck most frequently. South Carolina planters anticipated hurricanes each year; Henry Laurens warned business correspondents that "there is no depending upon our produce before the Hurricane Season and Harvest are fairly over" (Hamer, The Papers of Henry Laurens, p. 511). Storms routinely destroyed buildings, sank ships, and ruined cotton, tobacco, and rice crops, resulting in significant economic losses. Because of the complex infrastructure involved in production and their low-country locations, rice plantations were especially vulnerable to the storms. In addition to economic damage, it was common for hundreds of individuals to perish in major storms, including many African American slaves. Seventy slaves drowned on one sea-island estate during a storm in September 1804. More than three hundred died in South Carolina during a hurricane on 27 and 28 September 1822. In the wake of the disaster, many planters in the Santee Delta constructed hurricane towers (short circular buildings) to provide shelter for slaves on their coastal plantations. The storms also occasionally wrought havoc farther north. A major hurricane pummeled Long Island and New England on 23 September 1815, the worst storm in the region's history until the 1938 tempest. Another storm struck states from North Carolina through Massachusetts in early September 1821, flooding parts of New York City and blowing down church steeples throughout New England.

Other calamities at times threatened individuals and their livelihoods. An infestation of the Hessian fly and market forces that encouraged shipments out of the region combined to limit wheat supplies in 1788 while an unusually cold winter and spring (linked to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Japan in 1783) delayed spring planting the next year. Panic set in, exacerbated by eastern merchants who hoarded supplies hoping to profit from the increased demand. As a result, during the spring and summer of 1789 residents of several northern states, the St. Lawrence River Valley in Canada, and Native American villages faced shortages of provisions and hunger. Concern about food shortages also emerged in 1816, the "year without a summer." Frosts struck as far south as Virginia three times during June, July, and August. The unusually cold weather (again linked to earlier volcanic eruptions) and reoccurring periods of drought threatened crops from Vermont through South Carolina and dramatically drove up the price of flour and other provisions.


As they had done throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Americans spoke of natural disasters in providential language, as "acts of God," and local officials routinely called for days of fasting or thanksgiving in the wake of calamities to encourage reflection on sin and judgment. Providential interpretations of disasters remained common, especially among Evangelicals energized by the mid-century series of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening, who maintained the belief that disasters signaled divine displeasure. The fear generated by large-scale calamities pushed many terrified victims into churches during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Methodist churches in the western territories hardest struck by the New Madrid earthquakes experienced a 50 percent increase in membership between 1811 and 1812, compared to just a 1 percent increase among Methodist congregations in eastern states during the same period. Some Native Americans interpreted the earthquakes as a sign to join a pan-Indian alliance, led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, attempting to resist further white expansion into the West. The severe cold and drought of 1816 also brought forth proclamations to set aside days for fasting.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, arguments based on new scientific understandings of the universe and reflecting unease with the "enthusiasm" associated with the revivals challenged traditional providential interpretations. Although God remained the primary cause of all events and disasters continued to elicit calls for recognition of divine power, many educated elites, including some ministers, increasingly rejected the idea that disasters were supernatural events and argued instead that most arose from natural, or "secondary" causes. Hurricanes in particular lent themselves to such interpretations. The frequency and seasonality of hurricanes and the common belief that various natural signs preceded them all suggested that the storms were part of the natural order rather than terrifying deviations from it. A sense of awe at the majesty of God's creation, rather than fear of his wrath, constituted the proper response to calamities. Indeed, some Americans argued optimistically that despite the devastation that accompanied them, hurricanes and earthquakes actually served the larger good. Harvard professor John Winthrop wrote in 1755 that more people benefited from earthquakes than suffered from them, although he offered few specifics. The southern naturalist Lionel Chalmers suggested in 1776 that hurricanes increased rainfall and purified the air, and that a lack of storms over an extended period was a "great misfortune" to residents (Chalmers, An Account of the Weather and Diseases of South Carolina, p. 11).

Despite such confident assertions of natural causation, the actual mechanisms at work in hurricanes and earthquakes remained a mystery. Some theories about earthquakes posited that underground fires or volcanoes were responsible for the tremors. Others suggested that electrical fluid was the prime cause. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century did the modern science of seismology emerge. The causes of hurricanes, likewise, remained elusive, but by the late 1820s some understanding of the mechanics of the storms had developed. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin had ascertained that the movement of storms differed from the direction of their winds. In 1804 a Mississippi planter, William Dunbar, speculated that hurricanes were circular storms that revolved around a central vortex. Credit for this scientific advancement, however, usually goes to William Redfield, who provided evidence to support the theory by noting the different directions in which trees fell in various parts of Connecticut during a hurricane in 1821.


Some disaster relief existed to aid victims of calamities. Private and public efforts to raise money or supplies were most common in the wake of fires, but victims of other disasters also occasionally received assistance. The State of New York donated food to Native American tribes during the 1789 shortages. New York also purchased food to distribute among hungry settlers, although officials expected reimbursement and the amount of assistance paled compared to that offered by the British government to Canadian settlers. In 1815 the federal government granted new land to victims of the New Madrid earthquakes whose property was destroyed in the disaster. Many, however, lost their claims to speculators. Congress earlier had appropriated $50,000 to aid victims of an earthquake in Venezuela in 1812, but they did not appropriate any financial assistance for New Madrid victims. Direct financial assistance from the federal government remained minimal during the nineteenth century.

See alsoEnvironment, Environmental History, and Nature; Nature, Attitudes Toward .


Chalmers, Lionel. An Account of the Weather and Diseases of South Carolina. London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1776.

Clarke, Charles. "Science, Reason, and an Angry God: The Literature of an Earthquake." New England Quarterly 38 (1965): 340–362.

Errington, Sara. "Wonders and the Creation of Evangelical Culture in New England, 1720–1820." Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 2000.

Hamer, Philip, ed. The Papers of Henry Laurens: Vol. 3, 1759–1763. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.

Landis, Michele. "'Let Me Next Time Be Tried by Fire': Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State 1789–1874." Northwestern University Law Review 92 (1998): 967–1034.

Ludlum, David. Early American Hurricanes, 1492–1870. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1963.

Murphy, Kathleen. "Prodigies and Portents: Providentialism in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake." Maryland Historical Magazine 97 (2002): 397–421.

Penick, James L., Jr. The New Madrid Earthquakes. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Skeen, C. Edward. "'The Year without a Summer': A Historical View." Journal of the Early Republic 1 (1981): 51–67.

Taylor, Alan. "'The Hungry Year': 1789 on the Northern Border of Revolutionary America." In American Disasters. Edited by Steven Biel. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Winthrop, John. A Lecture on Earthquakes. Boston: Edes and Gill, 1755.

Matthew Mulcahy

Natural Disasters

views updated Jun 11 2018


Natural disasters occur when forces of nature damage the environment and manmade structures. If people live in the area, natural disasters can cause a great deal of human suffering. As a result of disasters, people may be injured or killed, or may lose their homes and possessions. The impact is so great that the affected community often must depend on outside help in order to cope with the results (Noji, Gunn and William). Examples of natural forces that can cause widespread human suffering include earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, wilderness fires, and extreme hot or cold temperatures. Between 1975 and 1996, natural disasters worldwide cost 3 million lives and affected at least 800 million others (Noji). In the United States, damage caused by natural hazards costs close to one billion dollars per week.


The physical force of a disaster can directly cause injury and death to the population, and each type of disaster can result in its own combination of physical injuries. In earthquakes, buildings and the objects inside them can fall, injuring those who live or work there. Floods can result in drowning, and wildfires can cause burns and illness from smoke inhalation. In addition to the direct injury and death caused by the disaster's force, there can be other serious adverse effects on the well being of those living in the area.

The large numbers of people who are suddenly ill or injured can exceed the capacity of the local health care system to care for them. In addition to the burden of increased numbers of patients, the system itself can become a victim of the disaster. Hospitals may be damaged, roads blocked, and personnel may be unable to perform their duties. The loss of these resources occurs at a time when they are most critically needed.

The disaster also can hamper the ability to provide routine, non-emergency health services. Many people may be unable to obtain care and medications for their ongoing health problems. The disruption of these routine services can result in an increase in illness and death in segments of the population that might not have been directly affected by the disaster.

Much has been written about the mental health aspects of natural disasters. The popular images of a community paralyzed by the shock of the disaster, panicking or looting, are unfounded. Actually, people tend to come together following a natural disaster. Survivors offer immediate assistance to those who are injured or trapped in earthquake damaged buildings, help with sandbagging efforts in floods, offer shelter and assistance to those made homeless, and volunteer goods or money to those in need. However, living in a disaster area can be highly stressful. Staying in damaged buildings, relocating to shelters, dealing with the death or injuries of loved ones, as well as the prolonged time and energy involved in recovering from the affects of the disaster can result in feelings of anxiety and depression. While these might be normal responses to stress and unpleasant events, the degree to which a disaster can disrupt daily living may contribute to an increase in these feelings.


Certain disasters can interfere with the functioning of water and sewage systems as well as the provision of gas and electricity. The loss of these everyday services can increase the risk for sickness even in uninjured people. For example, drinking unclean water or eating inadequately stored or prepared food can cause serious intestinal illness.

The most serious consequences of natural disasters are related to mass population displacements. Many people cannot stay in their homes because the buildings are so badly damaged that they are structurally unsafe. Others refuse to stay in otherwise stable buildings because they fear that they might collapse. While this often occurs following violent storms, it is particularly the case after earthquakes, when potentially damaging aftershocks commonly occur. In many cases, those displaced by disasters find shelter in the homes of people they know, while others must go to shelters staffed by disaster relief authorities such as Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies and government agencies.

Placing large numbers of people in crowded shelters poses a risk for additional health problems. It can be difficult to provide so many people with clean drinking water, sufficient waste disposal, and safe, nutritious food. This temporary living situation can also increase the chances for outbreaks of certain diseases. It is important to remember that only those diseases that are found in the affected community during predisaster times pose a danger to displaced populations after a disaster occurs. For example, it would be unlikely for those living in a shelter following a flood in the upper Midwest portion of the United States to experience an outbreak of malaria (as malaria does not exist in that part of the world), but poor sanitary services could contribute to an outbreak of conditions such as infectious diarrhea or some forms of respiratory illness. In addition, an occasional outbreak of more serious illnesses that might occasionally appear in the community during nondisaster times, such as meningitis or measles, would be a more significant health risk in shelters.

When large numbers of people gather in unsheltered settings, such as parks or open fields, there is an even greater risk of illness. This is because these areas often do not have enough sanitary services. Clean drinking water may have to be trucked into the area, and prompt attention must be directed to providing facilities to handle human waste. The ability to receive, safely store, and prepare food is also a concern for the health of the displaced population. Flies, mosquitoes, and rodents that might be carrying diseases that can cause illness in humans add to the risk of living in an unsheltered setting.


The impact of a disaster on the public's health poses special problems for public health professionals. They must monitor the health needs of the disaster-affected population and work to ensure that emergency managers take actions to meet those needs. They also need to maintain the everyday public health programs that were in place before the disaster occurred. These challenges can be addressed in several ways.

Rapid assessment surveys can be conducted of those living in areas most impacted by the disaster. Often, aerial views of the disaster area can indicate damage to key facilities (hospitals, utility stations, major roads), residential structures, and the assembly of large numbers of people in unsheltered settings. Teams of public health, engineering, social service, and medical personnel can then go to those areas that appear most damaged and begin a survey of the people living there. The affected area is divided into smaller areas, called clusters. The teams interview a representative sample of seven people from each of thirty different clusters in the high-impact disaster area. Using a standard set of questions, they gather information about the number of injuries, deaths, houses without running water, functioning toilets, electricity, heat, and those with ongoing medical conditions (Malilay). With the information gathered from the assessment surveys, disaster health managers can draw conclusions about which segments of the affected community are at greatest need for emergency efforts. Once the decision is made to direct resources to the most seriously affected areas, another rapid assessment may be performed to determine the effectiveness of those efforts.

Other information about the number and types of injured may be obtained from medical facilities. It is important to distinguish between patients who were injured or made ill as a result of the disaster from those who happened to seek medical attention for conditions not related to the disaster. This requires a working knowledge of the injury and illness patterns that are associated with different natural disasters. Definitions of which types of conditions will be attributed directly to the disaster or its consequences also are needed.

Computer models are being developed that can combine views of buildings, transportation ways (highways, railroads, airports, and harbors), utilities, and medical facilities with local hazards of varying severity. These models, currently being tested for earthquakes, allow emergency managers and health planners to predict the extent of damage and injuries if a hazard occurs in their community. Once these models are refined and validated, they may prove valuable to emergency response and public health planners.

As the global population continues to grow and more people live in hazard-prone areas, there will be an increase in the number and severity of mass population emergencies. Public health personnel have a key role in natural disaster preparation and response. Before a disaster occurs, they need to have systems in place to identify and track diseases. They must also understand the basic health issues of water and food safety, sanitation, and environmental hazards.

Public health practitioners routinely provide comprehensive programs of health education and preventive care that put them in close contact with those living in the community. They can use their professional skills to develop and evaluate programs for community disaster preparedness before a disaster strikes. After the disaster, they have the ability to help assess its affects on the local population. By adapting their knowledge and skills to these large-scale emergencies, public health professionals can have a significant impact on reducing the negative health affects of disasters.

Steven J. Rottman

Kimberley Shoaf

(see also: Famine; Refugee Communities; War )


Gunn, S., and William, A. (1990). Multilingual Dictionary of Disaster Medicine and International Relief. London: Kluwer Academic.

Malilay, J.; Flanders, W. D.; and Brogan, D. (1996). "A Modified Cluster-Sampling Method for Post-Disaster Rapid Assessment of Needs." Bulletin of the World Health Organization 74(4):399405.

Noji, Eric K. (1997). The Public Health Consequences of Disasters. New York: Oxford University Press.

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