6 Disaster Phases

A different take on the discipline of emergency management and disasters.

by Eric Holdeman / November 29, 2018

Neil Clement wrote me earlier today and shared this, "Back in 2010 I came across a listing of disaster phases by Art Botterell.  IMHO Art’s list was more in tune with reality than the more familiar phases.  His list is attached and when I was reading your blog, the quoted sentence [Yet, I think the perception of the general population is that FEMA shows up after a disaster and hands out checks, cash and ice.] reminded me of Art’s disillusionment phase."

Here is the article that Neil is referencing--shared here:

Subject: Tornadoes and other disasters

From: Art Botterell

Disasters, alas, are my thing... as a reporter in the 70s, a responder in the 80s and a response-agency PIO in the 90s.  For what it's worth, there's a fairly predictable life-cycle to most disasters, and knowing about it may help you find stories beyond mere reaction-mongering.

The usual phases are:

PREPARATION -- Knowing that a hazard exists, attempts to prepare are made.  The level of support for such efforts depends largely on how long it's been since the last big disaster of that type in that area.

ALERT -- When warning is available, there's a flurry of preparation.  There may also be debate as to the reality and magnitude of the threat.  (This phase can last for a few minutes to a few days, depending on circumstances.  Doesn't happen at all for earthquakes and other unanticipated impacts.)

IMPACT -- A brief stunned silence.  Local media are sorting out their newsrooms and finding their staff.  Outside media are scrambling for assessments of the impact, but there aren't any yet or if they are, they're incomplete.  (A few minutes to a few hours, depending on the intensity and scope of the event.)

HEROIC -- Mobilization, rescue and immediate relief.  Red lights and sirens.  Adrenaline and altruism. People helping people.  Media interest at its peak.  (A few hours up to a week or so for really big events.)

DISILLUSIONMENT -- After the immediate response is over, the cleanup starts and the sense of loss sets in.  Anger, depression and blame.  Some insurance and relief workers call this the "where's my check?" period.  (A few days to a couple of months, depending on magnitude.)

RECOVERY -- Reconstruction yields visible results.  Talk of "building back better."  Most victims establish a new normalcy.  Some see a "silver lining."  Some suffer lingering social, psychological or economic losses.  (Most noticeable at anniversaries, usually one month and one year, at which times victims and responders, including media, may experience emotional reverberations called "anniversary reactions.")

Running through all this is the issue of "hazard mitigation."  In the mid-90s federal emergency-management doctrine shifted its preparation-phase emphasis away from emergency response plans and resources and toward land-use planning, building codes and other attempts to reduce disaster losses.  FEMA's "Project Impact" was the most visible initiative, although the research community had been urging more emphasis on mitigation for decades.  As a practical matter, the definition of "mitigation" has been broadening lately to include more traditional preparation investments (alerting systems, fire trucks and such.)

State and local mitigation initiatives tend to get funded in the recovery phase, if at all... and since the responsible agencies have been busy with response, those initiatives tend to be ones that were already waiting in somebody's drawer for the window of opportunity to open.  (Try asking your local emergency manager -- after you break the ice a bit -- whether he has any proposals he plans to put on the table next time there's interest.)

Hope this helps!

- Art