In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, record-breaking winds from Hurricane Laura punished Louisiana in August 2020. Less than two months later, Hurricane Delta swept in. The disasters posed formidable challenges demanding immediate responses and long-term planning to rebuild communities across the state.
Today, climate change has brought about a critical need for experts trained in disaster response and recovery. Lives and livelihoods depend on disaster management leaders’ ability to assess emergencies and coordinate resources to manage them. For professionals entering the field, a disaster management degree can prove to be personally rewarding and can prepare graduates to engage in meaningful work that protects people and the planet.
Disaster management plays an integral role in keeping communities safe. It involves coordinating the resources, such as pollution control systems, and responsibilities, such as following best practice policies, needed to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.
Examples of these emergencies include:
- Natural disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and wildfires
- Accidents, such as explosions, chemical spills, and structural collapses
- Intentional violence, such as terrorist attacks and mass shootings
Each part of disaster management has its own strategic approach and set of activities for protecting people, property, and environments from all types of emergencies.
Anyone aspiring to become a professional in the field can develop a solid base of knowledge about disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery by completing a disaster management degree program.
Curriculums for the degree cover topics such as:
- Planning and implementation of disaster response programs
- Factors that affect human health and the environment
- Models for responding to hazards and disasters, natural and human-made
- Effects of toxins on the body and environment
- Psychological and sociological impacts of disasters
Courses also address disaster communication and teach students methods for tackling the environmental and public health issues that disaster-affected communities often confront. These issues can include disease outbreaks, contaminated water supplies, and the release of chemicals or radioactive materials into the air, ground, or water. Additionally, students learn to craft policies that anticipate and respond to the long-term effects disasters have on communities and the environment.
With a foundation in the tools and theories of disaster management, graduates can explore a field with numerous benefits.
The world will likely experience more natural disasters in growing severity in the future due to global climate change. The current rise in infectious disease outbreaks also suggests the world should anticipate more pandemics such as the COVID-19 crisis.
The Institute for Economics and Peace’s “Ecological Threat Register 2020” report offers stark projections. For example, it suggests approximately 1.2 billion people around the world are at risk of displacement by 2050 because of ecological threats such as water scarcity, floods, and other natural disasters.
The report also found that the world experienced more than 10 times as many disasters in 2019 as it did in 1960. A 2021 United Nations report from a group of the world’s top scientists warns that climate change linked to greenhouse gas emissions will bring increasing numbers of extreme heat waves, severe cyclones, and intense flooding in the coming years.
These weather events will threaten people’s lives, disrupt communities, and destroy property. To what extent? It is hard to know, but with careful planning, disaster management professionals can help communities implement measures that lessen the damage these natural disasters will inevitably cause.
The world has already seen examples of dramatic weather patterns in recent years:
- In June 2021, the U.S. broke 1,200 temperature records, making it the hottest June on record.
- The 2020 hurricane season topped the charts as the most active in recorded history.
- California experienced its biggest single wildfire ever recorded in the summer of 2021.
- Record-breaking floods overwhelmed cities and towns across Western Europe in July 2021.
The Institute of Economics and Peace reports that the U.S. is one of 141 countries at significant risk for ecological threats. Additionally, between 1990 and 2019, 704 natural disasters struck the U.S, more than in any other country.
Despite the disturbing news, disaster management experts have the ability to both lead life-saving response and recovery efforts for future possible catastrophes and limit and eliminate factors that make communities vulnerable to disasters, resulting in less suffering and loss.
For example, to strengthen their response capacity, disaster management experts use innovative methods, such as community-based disaster management. This people-centered approach recognizes that community members often understand their vulnerabilities best because they can most readily identify local problems and people in the community who require extra support.
The approach focuses on more actively involving residents in devising ways to maximize local resources and identify hazards.
Disaster management degree-holders can qualify for a wealth of job options. Organizations in various sectors consider hiring them for a range of positions in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors.
Government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state and municipal emergency management departments, and local authorities need disaster management professionals. In these organizations, disaster management professionals tackle everything from containing infectious diseases to managing search and rescue missions.
Nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations also play an active role in disaster management. These institutions provide critical support during crises both inside and outside the U.S., expanding the opportunities for professionals in the field to perform humanitarian work across the globe.
For instance, the International Red Cross, the largest disaster response network, serves approximately 100 million disaster affected victims. Their disaster management experts help bring relief to Mongolians enduring extreme cold, Middle Eastern migrants in crisis, and Gulf Coast hurricane victims seeking shelter
Doctors Without Borders coordinates emergency medical relief to the world’s most vulnerable communities. This may involve sending emergency surgical teams to Haiti following an earthquake or medical relief to Rohingya refugees escaping violence in Myanmar.
Businesses need trained professionals to help them plan for and respond to emergencies and incidents that:
- Affect employee safety. Implementing appropriate safety procedures helps employees understand what steps to take in an emergency. Clear information that outlines details such as when to evacuate or shelter in place can ensure employees stay safe.
- Interfere with operations. Communication barriers, employee availability, and transportation issues can all hamper operations in emergencies. Businesses need plans that provide alternate methods to keep essential operations going during and after emergencies.
- Compromise product supplies. Disasters often interrupt supply chains due to blocked roads, power outages, and similar issues. Businesses need strategies for limiting these disruptions.
- Damage property. Disasters can damage buildings, land, and equipment. To limit this damage, organizations must put in place measures that protect their property.
The emergencies and incidents businesses prepare for can include natural disasters, industrial accidents, and active shooters. Additionally, disaster management professionals help private businesses develop systems that identify potential hazards, and assess and manage risks related to:
- Public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that businesses must strategize ways to address public health within their enterprises. This can involve everything from implementing measures to protect workers from the transmission of infectious diseases to monitoring how business operations affect employee health.
- Security event. Businesses can find themselves embroiled in violent situations due to terrorist attacks or lone attackers. Well-planned security measures, workplace violence training, and a proper reporting system can lower the risk for security events or lessen their impact.
Inclement weather. Ice storms, heat waves, torrential rains, and other inclement weather can threaten employees’ safety and interrupt business operations. Comprehensive plans that outline policies and operating procedures during bad weather can prevent unnecessary risks to employee safety and company property.
- Environmental disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, and other environmental disasters can pose a serious threat to company employees and property. Businesses need comprehensive emergency plans that lay out strategies for safeguarding workers, securing records and data, and operating from remote locations.
Beyond protecting their own interests, many businesses have joined the public and nonprofit sector in community disaster management efforts. This gives disaster management professionals yet another employment option. Private businesses may participate in logistics, volunteer coordination, food distribution, capacity building, and cleanup, among other disaster response and recovery activities.
As an example, Walmart collaborated with the Salvation Army and Feeding America in disaster management efforts during the 2020 hurricane season. They shipped essential items to staging areas in coastal areas weeks ahead of time to speed up response times.
Disaster management degree-holders have the opportunity to make salaries well above the mean annual wage of $56,310 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to BLS data, emergency management leaders had a mean annual salary of $84,310 in May 2020.
Salaries can vary according to industry. For example, following are some mean salaries of emergency management leaders by industry:
- Local government, mean annual salary of $76,150
- Hospitals, mean annual salary of $95,760
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools, mean annual salary of $97,350
- Private businesses, mean annual salary of $121,170
In addition to the personal benefits a disaster management degree offers, it also gives those in the field a chance to engage in work that can make a lasting impact in the world.
As described earlier, scientists anticipate that climate change will bring environmental threats in growing numbers and severity in the coming years. As temperatures increase, more ice will melt. Sea levels will rise, and more extreme weather will spread across the planet. This will have dramatic effects on health, food security, and the environment.
For example, severe weather created by climate change can increase people’s exposure to waterborne bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which can result in widespread illness. Temperature shifts can increase the growth of algae that produce toxins that make people sick.
Additionally, storm surges resulting from climate change’s effects can overwhelm water infrastructures. This may contaminate water sources and lead to gastrointestinal illnesses in people or harm to their nervous and respiratory systems. Overwhelmed water infrastructures may also result in runoff from industrial sites that pollutes soil and waterways with chemicals.
Disaster management professionals have a huge role to play when it comes to mitigating climate change. In this context, mitigation means developing policies, practices, and strategies that limit the harm of environmental threats.
Mitigating climate change involves implementing both structural and nonstructural measures that can lessen the damage of:
- Natural disasters
- Technological hazards, including toxic waste, industrial pollution, and nuclear radiation
- Environment degradation, including polluted air, water, and soil, and ozone depletion
Structural measures are constructions, engineering, or technology that help limit the effects of hazards. They can make buildings or systems more resistant or resilient to hazards. Examples include:
- Ocean wave barriers
- Evacuation shelters
- Flood levees
- Earthquake-resistant buildings
Nonstructural measures refer to policies that build public awareness about practices that reduce disaster risks. They involve using knowledge about disaster risk reduction to educate and train communities, as well as implement laws that help people protect themselves against hazards.
Disaster management degree-holders learn how to implement resilience strategies that make communities less vulnerable to environmental hazards. Resilience strategies increase a community’s capacity to withstand and recover from disasters. For example, to protect hospitals and other key facilities from earthquakes, a community may invest in retrofitting buildings with reinforcements that make them more resistant to ground motion.
To start the work of mitigating climate change, disaster management professionals assess the risks potential hazards pose. This requires considering how risks may change over time. As an example, the risk of wind damage and flooding from hurricanes will likely increase over time, given the current predictions. So communities need help preparing for those potential increases. That might involve more aggressive planning to cut down dead trees that wind gusts could topple, fix roofs or doors in need of repair, or install sump pumps that can remove excess water out of buildings.
People cannot simply use past experiences to inform their planning, however. Disaster management professionals also evaluate the underlying causes of a community’s vulnerabilities. Poor urban planning, crumbling infrastructure, and population density can all increase a community’s vulnerability to any number of disasters and exacerbate the risks they pose. By understanding these causes, disaster management professionals can better determine how to reduce vulnerabilities.
Knowledge of disaster risks and vulnerabilities underpins any effort to create a disaster resilient community. It provides the foundation for mitigating climate change impacts and guides how communities can prepare for and recover from them.
Disaster management degree programs train individuals to build sustainable communities. Sustainability refers to community development that meets a community’s present social, economic, and environmental needs without compromising the needs of the future. It involves conserving natural resources, such as forests, avoiding overconsumption, such as overfishing, and using local resources efficiently.
Sustainable communities minimize their waste and limit pollution. They develop in ways that prevent harm to key ecosystems, such as coral reefs and wetlands, and invest in renewable energy, such as solar power, to tread lightly on the environment.
Experts in disaster management use their knowledge of both environmental health and policy as well as disaster risks and vulnerabilities to help in both sustainable community planning and rebuilding efforts after disasters.
In collaboration with environmental managers, they advise on responsible land use that can limit the probability of hazards affecting communities. They also provide guidance regarding the risks that issues such as rising sea levels and flooding can pose to physical structures.
By considering lessons learned from previous disasters and factoring in climate science projections, disaster management professionals can help communities rebuild with sustainability in mind. This means managing resources in ways that allow communities to meet their current and future needs.
For example, disaster management professionals can help communities make development choices that will reduce rather than increase disaster risks. This may involve not building near riverbanks with overflow potential. They can also help communities develop plans to limit potential losses linked to unavoidable risks. This may involve adopting agricultural practices more resilient to drought. Disaster management professionals can ensure communities do not re-create avoidable risks as well. This may mean avoiding construction in flood-prone areas.
Together, these approaches allow for sustainable recovery, not just recovery in the short term.
Capacity building in disaster management offers another opportunity to build sustainable communities. Capacity building refers to the process of equipping communities with the resources they need to optimally respond to disasters, including a trained workforce and technologies such as early warning systems.
Capacity building often involves disaster management coordination across organizations. Cross-organizational coordination allows for valuable information sharing. It also pools knowledge and resources. Together this integration can increase a community’s capacity for disaster resilience.
Well-prepared communities can better prevent the environmental degradation associated with disasters. Environmental degradation can occur through the depletion of natural resources, the reduction of biodiversity, or the compromising of water, air, and soil quality.
In addition to fortifying organizations’ disaster response abilities, capacity building also includes educating the public. Community members need information about how to assess their risks and potential fixes for those risks to reduce their exposure to hazards.
Disaster management professionals create initiatives that help people understand how to mitigate risks in their homes and businesses. They aim to improve the public’s ability to make appropriate disaster management decisions that help them protect their assets in the present and future.
For example, rising sea levels could be causing land erosion and flooding in a coastal town. Disaster management professionals might conduct a study of the local environment to assess details of those risks in the present and in the years to come. They then might survey the community to determine their awareness of these risks and how to protect themselves from them.
After these steps, the disaster management experts can offer sustainability recommendations regarding:
- Future planning and development
- Immediate projects to address current hazards
- Long-term risk mitigation plans
- Strategies for educating residents about the situation
After disasters strike, both human-made and natural disasters, communities not only deal with destroyed property and personal losses. They also confront long-term environmental impacts that affect the air, water, and soil.
Hurricanes, for instance, may flood industrial sites, leading to hazardous chemicals seeping into groundwater and watersheds. Storm debris can get inside reservoirs. Fires and tornadoes can strip trees of their leaves.
However, the environment itself can serve as a protection barrier against many weather events. For example, forests can soak up excess rainwater, preventing devastating floods in surrounding communities. Mangroves can absorb storm surges protecting coastlines from erosion. Wetlands, too, can act like sponges that reduce runoff that might otherwise overwhelm sewer systems and cause untreated sewage to pollute rivers and land.
In collaboration with experts in environmental management, disaster management professionals engage in mitigation efforts that use natural elements as a first line of defense. This helps safeguard communities and preserve the environment simultaneously.
Disaster management professionals help incorporate disaster mitigation and environmental preservation goals into community planning. To that end, they work to identify:
- Development options that preserve those environmental resources and habitats that can lessen a disaster’s impact
- Conservation activities, such as mangrove planting to absorb storm surges, that serve as long-term disaster-mitigation solutions
- Development practices that locate high-environmental-threat facilities in areas with low-disaster-vulnerability levels
Disaster management degree-holders have numerous opportunities to pursue personally gratifying careers that help build sustainable communities, mitigate climate change, and preserve the environment. By learning the profession’s strategies and principles, graduates equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to promote disaster-resilient communities.
Discover how Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health in Disaster Management prepares leaders to tackle the challenges of disaster preparation, response, and recovery.