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Spring 2001

The Life Cycle of a Disaster: A Field Guide for Journalists

by Art Botterell

Flood over roadway

Disasters involve people, and people are pretty much alike. Understanding what disasters have in common can help you tell where your disaster story is headed. Each disaster is different, of course, but in the end all disasters are pretty much alike.

Disasters are cyclical, and emergency managers describe their jobs in terms of four distinct phases. We'll look at a more useful model in a moment, but, just so you know, the official Four Phases of Emergency Management are:

  1. Mitigation: Identifying and reducing risks ahead of time (for example, limiting construction in flood zones).
  2. Preparation: Planning, training and equipping to respond when emergencies do happen (warning systems, response plans, stockpiles of supplies).
  3. Response: Taking planned (and improvised) actions when an emergency occurs.
  4. Recovery: Restoring victims and communities to normal or, more precisely, creating a "new normal."

Since mitigation most often starts during the recovery from an earlier disaster, while public attention and resources are still focused on the chance of a recurrence, the Four Phases form a cycle.

But we know more about disasters than that. Thirty years as a reporter, a responder and a disaster public-information specialist have persuaded me that every disaster goes through a progression of six phases. (Strictly speaking, that should read, "of up to six phases," because some disasters skip one or both of the first two. I'll explain that as we go along.)

Once you understand this sequence, you'll have a much easier time anticipating the course of your next disaster.

The Life Cycle of a Disaster

The predictable phases of any disaster, in order, are: (1) Preparation, (2) Alert, (3) Impact, (4) Heroic, (5) Disillusionment, and (6) Recovery. This sequence is reliable, with a few minor exceptions noted below. Sometimes individuals and groups move through these phases at different rates, so everyone may not be in the same phase at any particular moment. Still, you'll recognize these phases when you see them.

Phase 1: Preparation
Knowing that it faces some hazard - hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, industrial accidents or whatever - the community tries to get ready. This is a period of meetings, hearings, grant applications, budget requests, plans, drills and exercises. Their vigor depends on various factors, the most important being how much damage there was the last time and how long it's been since then.

This phase may be seasonal, as in hurricane-prone areas, or it may continuous (at least in theory), as in earthquake country. The hardest threats to prepare for are the infrequent ones; preparedness tapers off as memories of the last time fade. Still, occasional "could it happen here?" stories pop up when the local hazard strikes elsewhere.

Unforeseen disasters may skip this phase, at least until afterwards.

Phase 2: Alert
A specific, immediate warning triggers last-minute measures. Emergency meetings, hasty news briefings and urgent public information campaigns are typical in this phase. Citizens may rush to get supplies, which can result in shortages. Precautionary evacuations or other mass movements may begin and you may hear calls to conserve water, electricity, gasoline or other resources.

You might also hear a lively debate about the reality and magnitude of the threat, especially if it hasn't happened before or if there have been a lot of false alarms. The impact of official warnings depends on how consistent warning messages are in different media and from various sources. People usually don't act on the first warning unless they can see the threat for themselves. Instead, they seek confirmation from other sources.

The Alert phase may last for anywhere from a few minutes to several days depending on circumstances. An unpredictable event like an earthquake will skip this phase.

Phase 3: Impact
A brief stunned silence. Local media are sorting out their newsrooms and trying to find their staff. Outside media are calling for local contacts. Everyone wants official damage and casualty figures, but there aren't any yet or, if there are, they're incomplete and unreliable.

Being human, some officials have trouble saying, "I don't know." Many are afraid they'll be criticized for giving out information that changes later. As a result, some may get snappish if you press them for details during this phase. A soothing approach - "I know you're still checking, but is there anything you can tell us so far?" - may work best at this point.

The Impact phase usually lasts for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the type, intensity and scope of the event. A hurricane may take several hours to pass before evaluation can start. After a major earthquake, it can take as long as eight to twelve hours to fully assess the situation.

On the other hand, slow-onset disasters (slowly rising floods, for example) may move smoothly from alert into response with hardly any visible impact phase. Even then, most individuals will have their own psychological moments of impact, when their experience moves from threat to reality.

Phase 4: Heroic
This is the dramatic red-light-and-siren phase of response, rescue and immediate relief. When we think about "disaster," this is usually what we have in mind. Adrenaline and altruism rule. Cooperation and self-sacrifice are seen in responders and victims alike. Sound bites are everywhere. Outside media interest is at its peak and local media go wall-to-wall.

Toward the end of the Heroic phase, you may see physical and emotional exhaustion set in. Tempers may fray among victims, responders and journalists. In some cases, the sense that the Heroic period is winding down may itself be a factor here; some people have described the emotional rush they felt in this phase as "addictive" and reported a sense of loss and emptiness when it ended.

The Heroic phase may last from a few hours to as much as week or so for really big disasters.

Phase 5: Disillusionment
The rescues are over and so, for the most part, is the intense media and official attention. The full extent of their losses strikes home with victims, as they face the long, hard and thankless tasks of cleanup. Anger, depression and blame may surface in some victims, fueled by a sense of powerlessness and an acute fear of being abandoned by their new support systems. (This is sometimes called the "where's my check?" period by weary insurance and relief workers.)

During this phase, official PR waxes as media attention wanes. It's easy to dismiss this as spin, but it's also an attempt to calm victims' abandonment fears. You'll get lots of quotes of the "[agency] will be here for as long as it takes" variety, along with how-to-do-it information designed to let victims re-mobilize their energies. Local service organizations and churches expand their roles as outside response agencies withdraw.

This phase may last for anything from a few days to a few months, depending mainly on the size of the disaster.

Phase 6: Recovery
Reconstruction starts to show results. Most victims regain a sense of control in their lives. Some of them organize politically. You hear talk of "silver linings" and "building back better." Officials focus on long-term mitigation and preparedness for future disasters.

At the same time, some victims suffer long-term psychological, social or economic losses. Some pack up and move away. Some businesses (frequently small ones) abandon their attempts to reopen. This is a quiet, continuous process that generally escapes the attention of non-victims and reporters except at anniversaries. Responders, reporters, victims and others frequently have emotional "anniversary reactions," especially at the one-month and one-year marks.

Some emergency managers describe this period as the window of opportunity for getting their projects funded before the spotlight returns to more routine priorities. (Most experienced emergency managers have a couple of proposals waiting in their desk drawers for the next spurt of public and political interest.)

Recovery can take anything from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the severity of the disaster and of individual victim's losses. It's not unusual for another disaster to hit a community while it's still recovering from an earlier one. That can complicate both physical and psychological recovery.

Your Disaster Story
This model is a synthesis of my own experience with the wisdom of more colleagues and experts than I could possibly credit here. Only the errors are entirely my own.

And it isn't my intention to encourage formulaic disaster coverage; you face enough pressures in that direction as it is. I do hope this simple roadmap will help you to get out a little bit ahead of your next disaster story. Maybe it will even suggest a way to put that story in a bigger context.

Most communities seem to have at least one memorable disaster in their histories. San Francisco had a great earthquake and put the rising Phoenix on its city seal afterwards. "Virtual Communities" author Howard Rhinegold suggests that even online communities may not really gel until they've shared a tragedy.

Personally, I think disasters are what drive people to form communities in the first place. Maybe that helps explain the compulsive way we watch disasters on TV; some primal, primate need to renew our membership in the human community by being there in its times of trouble. But that's just speculation.

Anyway, best of luck on your next disaster.


Art Botterell by Andrea Booher
photo by Andrea Booher
Art Botterell is an emergency information consultant based near San Francisco. He's served on the staff of the California Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and consulted with agencies from the local to the international. He's also produced award-winning Internet advertising for Microsoft and other major clients. He started as a radio reporter in Ohio. You can e-mail him at acb@incident.com.

Copyright 2001 Art Botterell

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