The Changing Face of Disasters (Opinion)

There are fundamental social changes occurring rapidly everywhere — and disasters are changing too.

by / December 7, 2011
Photo courtesy of NOAA/NASA GOES Project NOAA/NASA GOES Project

To say we’re in a dynamic time in history is an understatement. There are fundamental social changes occurring rapidly everywhere — and disasters are changing too.

A warming climate may be causing drought in some areas and flooding in others, but only time will tell if we are on the brink of real change via sea level rise and an increase in damage to countries that border oceans. We can argue the cause all we want, but in the world of emergency management, our role is clear: prepare for these changes.

I attribute the greatest change in the impact of disasters to the increase in the world’s population and where people live, which is primarily in densely populated cities. Mega-cities are springing up everywhere, and our population is expected to have another burst of growth in cities. Urbanization is good when you’re trying to maximize urban transit systems, but packing people into urban areas increases a disaster’s impacts.

The existing infrastructure in our cities is aging quickly. Water, sewer, road and bridge systems don’t last forever, and we’ve long deferred the maintenance and replacement of these systems. We have a “fix on failure” mentality, which increases the financial impact of disasters.

The American mindset is one that’s very comfortable living with risk. We continue to flock to areas that are at high risk for disasters. The movement to our nation’s coasts puts people and property in the greatest danger from hurricanes and catastrophic earthquakes.

I’m also seeing America’s thinking evolve into what I call the “shake and bake” mentality of disaster response. We now have several generations of Americans who’ve grown up in the microwave world, and they expect immediate solutions tailored to their needs. Their patience for the time it takes for the logistics tail to catch up with no-notice events can be measured in hours, not days or weeks. One manifestation of this is that people expect to access government help via social media.

But there’s also the social media counterpoint. Extensive commercial media coverage of disasters means more information is on social media channels, and people want to be involved in response and recovery efforts. I attribute this directly to social media’s and citizens’ ability to self-organize into virtual and physical teams.

Governments have a tremendous opportunity to leverage this citizen knowledge and interest by directing people’s efforts and incorporating them into disaster response and recovery efforts. The question is, however, are emergency managers and first responders ready to accept the help and incorporate civilian volunteer efforts into disaster response?

Disasters are becoming more frequent and significant — several disasters that cost more than $1 billion occurred in 2011. Government resources are being reduced while people’s expectations are increasing, and there’s a mismatch between what citizens want and what government can reasonably deliver. More communication is needed about the extent of governmental capabilities, as is a new emphasis on mitigation and disaster preparedness that includes the American people in the equation. And social media must be part of the solution, not the problem.

Eric Holdeman is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. His blog is located at

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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