What Is Disaster Management? Understanding Emergencies From Prevention to Mitigation

People load sandbags onto pallets.

The 2021 Surfside condo collapse in Florida destroyed homes and lives. In the same year, unprecedented deluges flooded Germany and China, with tragic results. We cannot entirely avoid disasters, but we can prepare for and address them.

Prevention efforts and coordinated responses to disasters save lives and lessen their impact on communities. Professionals in disaster management play a crucial role in preventing suffering, protecting people’s livelihoods, and helping communities recover. What is disaster management? To answer the question, you should examine how these professionals deal with disaster — before, during, and after it strikes.

Defining Disaster Management

Disasters take many shapes. Human-made disasters result from human errors and include industrial explosions or structure failures. Natural disasters result from physical phenomena and include earthquakes and droughts. Disasters classified as complex can include epidemics or armed conflicts.

In whatever form, disasters disrupt communities and can take a serious toll on people, property, economies, and the environment. They often stretch a community’s capacity to cope.

Disaster management is a process of effectively preparing for and responding to disasters. It involves strategically organizing resources to lessen the harm that disasters cause. It also involves a systematic approach to managing the responsibilities of disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Understanding Risks in Disaster Management

Often, issues such as a poorly maintained levee system or other negligence can worsen the outcome of a disaster. Such was the case when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans’ levees in 2005.

By addressing deferred infrastructure maintenance and other causal factors, governments and organizations can often prevent, or at least reduce, the fallout of disasters.

Disaster management involves examining and managing causal factors. It requires assessing the extent to which a community can withstand a disaster. Some communities are more vulnerable than others. For example, poorer communities have fewer resources to prepare themselves for a storm or bounce back from flood damage.

Disaster management also involves analyzing exposure to loss. For example, homes built below sea level may face greater exposure to flooding if a hurricane hits them.

The Scope of Disaster Management

Disaster management has a broad scope. To understand what disaster management is, it is useful to study prevention, preparedness, and response and recovery.

Prevention

Mitigation and prevention efforts aim to reduce the potential damage and suffering that disasters can cause. While disaster management cannot prevent disasters, it can prevent them from becoming compounded as a result of neglecting causal factors and manageable risks. Mitigation specifically refers to actions taken that can lessen the severity of a disaster’s impact. Investing in measures that limit hazards can greatly reduce the burden of disasters.

Strategies that disaster management professionals implement to protect vulnerable communities and limit hazards include the following:

  • Raising awareness about potential hazards and how to address them
  • Educating the public about how to properly prepare for different types of disaster
  • Installing and strengthening prediction and warning systems

Managing hazards and risks means planning to minimize a community’s vulnerability to disasters. This can involve:

  • Encouraging community members to buy appropriate insurance to protect their properties and belongings
  • Educating families and businesses on how to create effective disaster plans
  • Promoting the use of fire-retardant materials in construction
  • Advocating for capital works initiatives, such as the construction and maintenance of levees
  • Building partnerships between sectors and agencies at the federal, state, and local levels to collaborate on mitigation projects

Disaster management professionals working on mitigation efforts also focus on the following:

Land Use and Building Codes

Building schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods in flood-prone areas increases their exposure to disasters. Disaster management spotlights these risks and presents ideas to use land in safer ways.

For example, rather than constructing homes in floodplains, community planners can designate those areas as places for outdoor recreation, wildlife attractions, or hiking trails. They can also urge people to avoid these areas during flood season. These measures make residents and their homes less vulnerable to harm.

Additionally, mitigation efforts can do the following:

  • Address ways to engineer bridges to sustain earthquakes
  • Enforce building codes that safeguard buildings during hurricanes

Critical Infrastructure

Protecting critical infrastructure during a disaster can mean the difference between life and death. Critical infrastructure, which comprises the systems and assets vital to a community’s economy, security, and public health, deserves special attention as regards disaster management mitigation.

Setting up protective measures that limit damage to water and wastewater systems or nuclear plants, for example, can prevent serious repercussions.

As an example, Japan experienced devastating physical and psychological consequences after a 2011 earthquake triggered a tsunami. The inundation of water cut off the power supply to the cooling system for Fukushima Daiichi reactors, leading to a massive nuclear accident.

Preparedness

Well-coordinated responses to disasters require prior planning. This helps ensure fast, effective response efforts and limits duplicated efforts.

Disaster preparedness plans:

  • Identify organizational resources
  • Designate roles and responsibilities
  • Create procedures and policies
  • Organize activities that improve disaster readiness

Anticipating the needs of communities that disasters affect improves the quality of the response efforts. Building the capacities of volunteers, personnel, and disaster management teams to respond to disasters also makes the response efforts more effective.

Plans may include the following:

  • Emergency shelter sites
  • Evacuation routes
  • Emergency energy and water sources

They may also address:

  • Chains of command
  • Training programs
  • Communication procedures
  • Emergency supply distribution
  • Stockpile needs

Contingency Planning

Disaster readiness calls for contingency planning, advance decisions about managing human and monetary resources, coordinating procedures between different agencies, and organizing logistics.

Contingency plans answer three basic questions:

  • What will happen?
  • What will the response be?
  • What will be done ahead of time to prepare?

Response and Recovery

During and immediately after an emergency, disaster management focuses on delivering help and interventions that can save lives, safeguard health, and protect buildings, animals, and community property. Following an initial response, efforts shift toward supporting communities as they rebuild emotionally, economically, and physically.

Disaster Relief

Disaster relief addresses the immediate and short-term needs of disaster-affected communities. It can include evacuations, search and rescue missions, and emergency medical assistance.

Examples of disaster relief are:

  • Setting up temporary shelters that provide a safe place to sleep, food, and emotional support from trained personnel
  • Delivering meals and water
  • Distributing emergency supplies and necessities, such as toiletries for hygiene and tarps, shovels, trash bags for cleanup efforts
  • Providing emergency health services, such as first aid for injuries and prescription medication replacements

Rebuilding

Emergency management helps communities rebuild their lives after trauma. This involves longer-term efforts to restore:

  • Housing
  • Economies
  • Infrastructure systems
  • Individual and community health

Federal agencies and supporting organizations help communities with problem-solving and finding resources as they redevelop and revitalize.

Recovery assistance may include the following:

  • Unemployment assistance
  • Housing assistance
  • Legal services
  • Mental health counseling
  • Disaster case management

Protect Communities by Launching a Career in Disaster Management

What is disaster management? It is a comprehensive approach to preventing, preparing for, responding to, and aiding in emergency recovery efforts. Whether spearheading emergency management for human-made or natural disasters, professionals in the field play invaluable roles in saving lives and reducing suffering.

Explore what it takes to become an expert in disaster management by learning more about Tulane University’s Master of Public Health in Disaster Management.

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Sources

AkitaBox, “4 Phases of Disaster Management Explained (The Easy Way)”

American Red Cross, Disaster Relief

Center for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Management Overview & Definitions

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Natural Disasters and Severe Weather

City of New Bedford, Disaster Mitigation

Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Incident Management System

IFRC, Contingency Planning

IFRC, Disaster Preparedness

Physiopedia, Disaster Management

Queensland Government, Disaster Management

Queensland Government, Preparedness Arrangements

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Emergency Management Directors

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Response and Recovery

U.S. Department of the Interior, Natural Disaster Response and Recovery

World Vision, What Is Disaster Management?