Disaster Management

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Disaster Management






Throughout human history, lives have been cut short by disasters. This term refers to a broad range of events that vary in speed of onset, duration, magnitude, cause, and other characteristics. But always there is both human suffering and disruption of normal community functioning. Placement of the term management next to this category of extreme events implies a belief that some measure of control, maybe prevention, is possible. This is a relatively new idea that remains poorly understood and highly controversial. Understanding this concept requires exploration of four subtopics: (1) types of disasters, (2) social vulnerability trends, (3) social system consequences, and (4) planning and management policy.


In August 2005 many throughout the world watched on television as thousands of American citizens suffered for days following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. Despite evacuation orders from local and state officials, more than 1,300 people perished. Most deaths resulted from flooding in the New Orleans area after portions of the levee system failed. Not since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had the world witnessed such disaster-caused suffering within the United States. Elsewhere, of course, the scope of disasters has been far worse. Examples include the earthquakes in Indonesia on May 27, 2006, that killed over five thousand people and the massive tsunami on December 26, 2004, that struck coastal areas along the Indian Ocean in such far-apart places as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. The 2004 tsunami alone killed at least 280,000 people. These contrasts hint at the many types of disasters, commonly divided into three categories: (1) natural, (2) technological, and (3) conflict-related.

Natural Disasters Natural disasters include both a wide range of extreme weather-related events and those resulting from geophysical forces, such as earthquakes (Mileti 1999). Extreme weather events include hurricanes like Katrina, which are known as typhoons in the western North Pacific and cyclonic storms or tropical cyclones in other areas (World Meteorological Organization 2005, p. 1). The most deadly hurricane to hit the United States struck Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. Estimates of the death toll from this hurricane vary, but at least six thousand people died. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew caused property damage in Florida and Louisiana that totaled about $30 billion. Andrew held the record until Katrina, which had loss estimates as high as $200 billion (Select Bipartisan Committee 2006).

Tornadoes, another type of extreme weather event, occur throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest. The Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925 left 695 people dead in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana; it was the largest tornado-related death toll as of 2006. Although less deadly, flood disasters cause more property damage than any other type of weather-related event (Mileti 1999, pp. 7282). The deadliest flood within the United States occurred in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889 when over two thousand people died. Other weather-related disasters result from drought, extreme heat or cold, fog, hail, blizzards, avalanches, lightning, and wildfires.

Geophysical disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, have also occurred in the United States. For example, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco left 503 people dead. While only 61 people died in the Northridge quake that shook the Los Angeles area in 1994, a new record in earthquake-related property loss was reached: $30 billion. These losses pale, however, when compared to earthquake-related losses experienced worldwide in such places as China in 1927 (200,000 killed); Armenia in 1998 (25,000 killed); and India in 2001 (20,000 killed).

In 1868 Hilo, Hawaii, was devastated by massive ocean waves originating from earthquakes in Peru and Chile. Similarly, the 1964 Anchorage earthquake produced tsunamis that struck Valdez, Alaska, and Crescent City, California. Records of volcano-related deaths have been kept since the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in 79 CE, when approximately twenty thousand people died in Pompeii. In 1902, for example, on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, approximately forty thousand people died when the city of Saint Pierre was destroyed after Mount Pelée erupted. Less deadly volcano disasters have occurred with regularity, including the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington state, which killed sixty people.

Finally, epidemics of disease constitute a major risk. Although mass immunization programs have curtailed diseases such as diphtheria from which many died before the early twentieth century, a future pandemic could kill thousands, maybe millions. The 1918 influenza outbreak probably started in Haskill County, Kansas, and rapidly spread worldwide, in part because of troop movements during World War I (19141918). Approximately 100,000,000 people died from the flu during this pandemic, far more even than died from the infamous Black Death plague of the Middle Ages (Barry 2005).

Technological Disasters Technological disasters reflect a wide range of events stemming from transportation, building, and energy-production failures. For example, airplane and ship failures are illustrated by such disasters as the 1999 Egypt Air crash near Nantucket Island, Massachusetts (217 killed), and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (1,503 killed). Structural fires, like that which broke out in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903 (602 dead), and building collapses are another dimension of this category. Energy-production disasters include such events as the explosion and fire that occurred in Texas City, Texas, in 1947, which killed 516 people and injured more than three thousand. Such events pale, however, next to the thousands killed when a gas leak caused a massive explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, or the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986. Experts have estimated that the Chernobyl disaster caused some ten thousand cancer cases within nearby communities and approximately five thousand deaths (Segerståhl 1991).

Conflict Disasters Conflict disasters include wars both among and within nations. The American Civil War (18611865), for example, resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 troops. American military casualties during World War II (19391945) are estimated at just over 400,000. And these numbers do not include civilian losses, or in the case of World War II, losses of both types from other countries.

Increasingly, however, violence by nonstate militants has become a concern. Using violence toward noncombatants as a political strategy, terrorists have precipitated increased efforts at civil protection. The use of commercial airliners as weapons on September 11, 2001, resulted in over three thousand deaths at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Increased attacks on soft targets such as subways, as occurred in London in July 2005, and hotels, as in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005, illustrate another form of increased vulnerability. Should weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs, become available to terrorist groups, the destructive potential increases greatly. Finally, civil disorder may erupt within a society when heightened feelings of deprivation and disenfranchisement are ignited by critical incidents, as occurred in Paris and London in 2006 when students and young workers protested new laws regulating employment termination.


Human populations are becoming more vulnerable to disasters, especially those of catastrophic scope, for many reasons. In past centuries, people believed disasters were caused by forces outside of human control. Floods, volcanoes, and other natural disasters were labeled acts of God and were interpreted as punishment or disfavor. Russell Dynes (2000) has proposed that a naturalistic or modern interpretation of disaster events first occurred in 1755 following a major earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal. This earthquake killed at least ten thousand people, although some estimates place the toll as high as seventy thousand. Civil authorities led efforts to rebuild the city and gradually increased their authority over the church in political matters. This shift led to alternative thinking about attribution for disasters. Although not universally accepted even today, naturalistic interpretations reflecting Enlightenment philosophy paved the way for new approaches to disaster management. Unfortunately, numerous trends are acting in concert to place more and more humans at risk despite accelerated efforts at management. Among these are population changes, increased reliance on technology, and climate change.

As the world population increases, there are more potential disaster victims. Beyond larger numbers, however, more people are moving into areas of high risk. For example, the coasts of Florida and Texas have witnessed explosive growth since the mid-1970s. In addition, increases in the numbers of elderly and poor, of homes led by single mothers, and of people living in mobile homes add a further dimension to Americas social vulnerability. Mobile homes, for example, provide affordable housing to millions, but offer minimal protection during violent storms, especially tornadoes. Not only are more people living in areas that are wind, flood, or avalanche prone, the structures within which many dwell offer inadequate protection. In poorer countries, the use of stone and tile building materials that collapse during earthquakes is a parallel problem.

Climate change, which has been documented in numerous ways, will be reflected in future disasters. For example, increased heat retention by miles of pavement and high-rise structures is related to new storm patterns, and residential and commercial construction is expanding into geographic areas already known to be flood or tornado prone. Moreover, while annual rainfall has remained stable, there is an increased frequency of intense downpours, which cause localized flooding and traffic accidents. Forecasts for a rising sea level and warmer ocean temperatures imply similar pattern change for hurricanes.

These vulnerability trends are exacerbated by shifts in social, economic, and political patterns, such as the globalization of the economy and an increase in feelings of deprivation that reflect long-standing patterns of inequality and social injustice. There is no single trend that contributes to increased vulnerability; rather, it is the cumulative effects of a series of both social and physical forces that result in higher risk levels. These risks are not distributed uniformly, but are skewed, with the poor, elderly, and ethnic minorities at higher risk.


Disasters have important consequences for social systems. Smaller systems, such as families, may experience short-term oscillations. For example, divorce rates and marriage rates generally drop in the first few months following a disaster (Cohn and Cole 2002). However, after a six-month spike downward and then upward, trend lines smooth out; that is, some put off marriage for a few months, and then join others who were planning to marry at a later datehence, a drop, then an increase, followed by a continuation of the prior trend line. Some studies have documented that there is a longer delay in the divorce pattern. Disasters appear to cause some to remain married, at least temporarily, and to drop their plans for divorce. Within these microsystems, however, some changes are permanent. For example, studies have documented that many disaster victims, especially those helped by kin during recovery, report closer kin ties years later. After a disaster, relatives may interact more frequently, and people maintain closer links to both kin and friendship groups, although participation in voluntary associations decreases somewhat. The sole exception is religious organizations, which show slight increases. Hence, after disasters, microsystems reflect tighter links to kin, friends, and religious organizations (Drabek 1986).

Macrosystems, such as communities and societies, experience disaster consequences of at least four types. First, there is an acceleration of preexisting trends. Following the 1964 Anchorage earthquake, for example, William Anderson (1970) documented that numerous changes planned within organizations prior to the earthquake were implemented more rapidly. In another case, social stratification was widening in the Miami area prior to Hurricane Andrew. After the hurricane, Walter Peacock and colleagues (1997) documented acceleration of this trend.

A second consequence of disasters for macrosystems is that disaster preparedness and prevention efforts are increased. Newer, enhanced warning systems may be implemented, as are flood protection measures, for example. Unfortunately, as noted above, these actions rarely take into account the forces that are placing more people at risk, so the net gain may be minimal.

Third, various scholars, including Pitirim Sorokin (18891968) and Karl Marx (18181883), have proposed that some disasters deflect social, economic, and political developments. For example, the conflicts that developed between business interests, government programs, and upper-class elites during the reconstruction following the 1972 earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, may have led to the collapse of the Somoza regime in 1979. Other scholars, including Jared Diamond (2005), reject such single-factor explanations and include disasters within a multifactor framework that more convincingly accounts for such changes as total societal collapse. Such collapses occurred on Easter Island around the mid-1800s and among the Anasazi in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico about 1300 (Diamond 2005, pp. 112, 154).

The fourth consequence of disasters for macrosystems is policy change. Consistent with Andersons findings, however, these often reflect policy initiatives that were in process prior to the event. For example, T. Joseph Scanlon and John Handmer (2001) documented the impact on gun-law reform in Australia of a 1996 massacre in Port Arthur in which a lone gunman killed thirty-five people. Reform proposals had been advanced in Australia earlier, but had never been adopted. One year after the massacre, however, reform legislation was implemented. Similarly, in the United States in the years before 2001, several commissions had recommended the establishment of a department of homeland security and other terrorist prevention policy changes. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of these proposals were adopted. Despite serious failures in the official response to the attacks, including a lack of multiagency communication, additional reform proposals remained controversial years later (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks 2004).


Following numerous large-scale disasters during the 1960s, state and local governments exerted pressure on the U.S. Congress for reorganization. As various types of disaster events occurred, different federal agencies created event-specific programs for recovery and mitigation in response to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other disasters. These programs evolved over time and paralleled the coterminous development of programs designed to protect civilian populations in the event of an enemy attack. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This agency was to provide a single point of federal contact for state and local governments and other entities, including nongovernmental agencies like the American Red Cross. FEMA also was to be the lead agency within the federal bureaucracy for coordination of all disaster activities, regardless of the type. This all-hazard agency was to be operative across the entire life cycle of all disaster events, with responsibility for coordinating mitigation and preventive actions (e.g., flood-zone mapping), preparedness, response, and recovery. The first line of response remained with local and state governments, but when events created demands that overran their resources, they could request FEMA assistance. A regularized process, as opposed to the ad hoc arrangements of the past, was established through a presidential declaration when conditions warranted (Drabek and Hoetmer 1991).

During the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was severely criticized for FEMAs slow and inadequate response. His successor, President Bill Clinton, placed a priority on strengthening FEMA, and eventually elevated the agency directorship to cabinet-level status. Recruitment and training promoted professionalism within FEMA and within state and local emergency management agencies. FEMA staff facilitated these enhanced state and local capabilities by emphasizing researched-based principles, including the view that disaster planning is a process, not a product, and that disaster plans must be prepared by representatives from the agencies that will implement them. In addition, colleges across the United States established new degree programs in emergency management (Drabek 2004).

Following the 9/11 attacks, FEMA was transferred into the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Despite continuity in name, many FEMA programs experienced reduced funding as terrorist-related program priorities were implemented. During and following the response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was criticized severely. While various congressional investigations pointed out failures within state and local government agencies, FEMA was hit hardest, especially in the public perception, and numerous difficult policy issues were raised by the post-Katrina reviews. Among these was whether or not FEMA should be abolished and its functions reassigned within various units of the Department of Homeland Security. Others proposed that FEMA should be upgraded and made into a stand-alone agency independent of the Department of Homeland Security. Many who testified before congressional committees voiced concerns about intergovernmental partnerships, specifically the degree of autonomy and flexibility of state and local emergency management agencies. The degree to which the emergency management function should be conceptualized within a common standardized system became the operative policy question. Many expressed concern that terrorism preparedness had been pushed into high priority, while focus diminished on other types of disasters. Finally, the role of the military in disaster response was revisited.

Consideration of all of these policy matters will be deflected by future disaster events, whatever they may be. When they occur, policymakers will be pressed to demonstrate why they did not do more to prepare. Thus, disaster policy will continue to evolve and reflect both specific events and public perception of the threats believed to be the most harmful.

SEE ALSO Natural Disasters; September 11, 2001; Shocks


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Thomas E. Drabek