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IAEM Bulletin — Disaster Zone Column for May

“The Phases of a Disaster.”

This is my May 2023 Disaster Zone column for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). There might be something there that you have missed in the past, or as I note at the end, pass this along to others with tips of your own for the phases of a disaster. One thing I love about our profession is the willingness to share information with others.

IAEM Disaster Zone Column
May 2023
The Phases of a Disaster

Every disaster has some distinct phases to it. The timing of the phases may vary, but there are elements that remain constant. Let’s review what some of those phases are and you can see if you agree or disagree.

Getting Ready: For those disasters that are weather related, we are fortunate here in the United States to have the National Weather Service (NWS) as a partner. They have become increasingly better at predicting severe weather events. Hurricanes can be seen brewing in the Atlantic or Caribbean and sometimes they might even have a “two week” pay attention period.

Tornadoes are another story, but again, the NWS is much better today than in even the fairly recent past in determining that all the conditions are there for severe weather, to include the formation of tornadoes—a day in advance in some cases.

These warnings allow us to prepare facilities, staff and residents to become better prepared and also ready to respond.

I would note that in earthquake country, these are “come as you are” disasters. There is no official warning period—we are in it now.

Alert and Warning: Again, depending on the circumstances, an actual warning can be issued when a threat is imminent. For example, a tornado is sighted. Using all the tools that are available, we work in partnership with the NWS to be sure the warning is propagated to the right people. When it is not weather related, such as a wildfire or hazardous materials incident, emergency management alone, or in partnership with first responder agencies will issue a warning.

If there is any one phase of a disaster that is problematic for emergency managers it is this one. When to issue, for what areas to issue, what methods to use to issue the warning can be a challenge. Given that we don’t issue warnings on a regular basis the practice to maintain proficiency by all appropriate staff can also be challenging. I always told my staff that they should contact me before issuing a warning unless time was of the essence and then--they should act alone and expeditiously to get the warning out.

Emergency managers can be fearful of when and how to issue a warning. I always told myself, that if “I’m going to be hung” for doing the wrong thing, it will be because I did something, and not because I hesitated or did not act.”

Disaster Response: When people think about the profession of emergency management, this is what they think we do—all the time. COVID 19 being an anomaly, our time “responding” can be somewhat limited. I know there are states that can have almost a continuous activation during wildfire season, but for many an emergency manager, the percentage of time “responding” to a disaster is a small fraction of the total 2,080 hours in a typical work year.

The response phase is critical, and the success of the response can vary on many different factors. A big one is, HOW BIG IS THE DISASTER? Even with doing your utmost to become prepared, it is possible for a disaster to completely overwhelm the capabilities that you have tried to develop. Yet, for most disaster responses, we can be successful if we have spent our time wisely in planning for, training and conducting disaster exercises to prepare people, facilities, and processes to respond appropriately.

Disaster Recovery: As the disaster response is trending down, the disaster recovery is ramping up. You should not wait for the response to be completed before assigning people and other resources to the function of disaster recovery. Getting ahead of the curve comes by not thinking about response and recovery as sequential, but overlapping. If/when you do have that big disaster, don’t think of the recovery period in terms of weeks or months. Always consider incorporating mitigation efforts to prevent or protect against future disasters as you recover and rebuild. Think years, and sometimes even decades! Keep good records—since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Inspector General (IG) may visit you and you will have to have all the documentation—years later!

Summary: In one short article, I have only brushed on the phases I’ve outlined above. What I suggest is that you think about what I missed that you think is important and pass those thoughts on to others to add your wisdom and experience to sharing good ideas with others who do not have your knowledge.
by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management magazine
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.