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What is a disaster?

Kristine Joy Osillos-Cortes

• ”a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts
the functioning of a community or society and causes
human, material, and economic or environmental
losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability
to cope using its own resources.”
• A disaster occurs when a hazard impacts on vulnerable people.
• The combination of hazards, vulnerability and inability to reduce the
potential negative consequences of risk results in disaster.
Types of disasters:
• Natural hazards - Naturally occurring physical phenomena
caused either by rapid or slow onset events which can be:
• Geophysical
• Hydrological
• Climatological
• Meteorological
• biological
• Technological or man-made hazards- events that are caused
by humans and occur in or close to human settlements. This
can include environmental degradation, pollution and
• Earthquakes
• Landslides
• Tsunamis
• Volcanic
• Avalanches
• Floods
• Extreme temperatures
• Drought
• Wildfires
• Cyclones
• Storms and wave surges
• Disease epidemics
• Insect/animal plagues
• Man made
• Complex Emergencies
• Famine
• Displaced population

• Technological
• Industrial accidents
• Transport accidents
• There are a range of challenges, such as:
• climate change
• unplanned-urbanization
• under-development/poverty
• pandemics
that will shape humanitarian assistance in the future.
These aggravating factors will result in increased frequency,
complexity and severity of disasters.
Disaster Risk
• Disaster risk is expressed as the likelihood of loss of life,
injury or destruction and damage from a disaster in a given
period of time.
• Disaster risk is widely recognized as the consequence of the
interaction between a hazard and the characteristics that
make people and places vulnerable and exposed.


• Disasters are sometimes considered external shocks, but disaster risk
results from the complex interaction between development processes
that generate conditions of exposure, vulnerability and hazard.
• Disaster risk is therefore considered as the combination of the
severity and frequency of a hazard, the numbers of people and assets
exposed to the hazard, and their vulnerability to damage (UNISDR,
• Intensive risk is disaster risk associated with low-probability, high-
impact events, whereas extensive risk is associated with high-
probability, low-impact events.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster, but
disasters often follow natural hazards.
• The losses and impacts that characterise disasters usually
have much to do with the exposure and vulnerability of
people and places as they do with the severity of the hazard
event (UNISDR, 2013).
Disaster risk has many characteristics. In order to
understand disaster risk, it is essential to understand
that it is:
• Forward looking: the likelihood of loss of life, destruction and damage in a
given period of time
• Dynamic: it can increase or decrease according to our ability to reduce
• Invisible: it is comprised of not only the threat of high-impact events, but also
the frequent, low-impact events that are often hidden
• Unevenly distributed around the earth: hazards affect different areas, but
the pattern of disaster risk reflects the social construction of exposure and
vulnerability in different countries
• Emergent and complex: many processes, including climate change and
globalized economic development, are creating new, interconnected risks
Disasters threaten development, just as development
creates disaster risk.
• The key to understanding disaster risk is by recognizing that disasters are an
indicator of development failures, meaning that disaster risk is a measure of the
sustainability of development.
• Hazard, vulnerability and exposure are influenced by a number of risk drivers,
including poverty and inequality, badly planned and managed urban and regional
development, climate change and environmental degradation (UNISDR, 2009a,
2011, 2013 and 2015a).
• Understanding disaster risk requires us to not only consider the hazard, our
exposure and vulnerability but also society's capacity to protect itself from
• The ability of communities, societies and systems to resist, absorb, accommodate,
recover from disasters, whilst at the same time improve wellbeing, is known as
Negative Effects of Natural Disasters
• Humanitarian Crises
• Public Health Issues
• Environmental Problems
• Infrastructural Damage
Humanitarian Crises
• Climate change and accompanying natural disasters have
created a large migrant population, called climate refugees
or environmental migrants.
• These people can be been forced out of their homes by an
abrupt natural disaster, like a tsunami, or a slower-moving
natural disaster, like a relentless drought.
• In any case, the area where they formerly lived is no longer
habitable for one reason or another, or the standard of living
has dropped so drastically that the uncertain future of
migration looks more promising.
Public Health Issues
• Health issues are one of the most pressing problems after any natural disaster.
• It is often the case that facilities for water and toilet hygiene are damaged or
inoperable: meaning that the safe disposal of human waste quickly becomes a
public health hazard. Further, without running water, hand washing and food
hygiene rapidly deteriorate.
• During and after events like hurricanes and floods, standing water can be a
breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria and disease vectors like mosquitoes. In
cases where transportation capabilities and infrastructure are damaged,
survivors of natural disasters can be cut off from life-saving medications for
both acute and chronic conditions, and be isolated from rescue and emergency
healthcare services.
• After a natural disaster event, survivors can experience mental health
consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Environmental Problems
• Natural disasters, from tsunamis to wildfires, can
cause wide-ranging and long-term consequences for
ecosystems: releasing pollution and waste, or simply
demolishing habitats.
Infrastructural Damage
• One of the most immediate and economically devastating
concerns with natural disasters is the damage to both public
and private infrastructure. These events can cause billions of
dollars in damages, and not all governments are equipped to
fund the process of post-disaster cleanup and rebuilding.
• Further, many private homeowners do not have property
insurance, and certain natural disasters fall outside of the
scope of insurance coverage; this means that in the wake of
a disaster, people can end up losing all of their assets with no
opportunity for restitution.
Infrastructural Damage
• Natural disasters can have long-term negative
consequences beyond the immediate loss of life and
demolition of infrastructure. Often, an area impacted
by a natural disaster will show scars of the event for
years to come.
Risk Factors
• Severity of exposure
• Gender and family
• Age
• Developing countries
•Other factors specific to the survivor
• Were not functioning well before the disaster.
• Have had no experience dealing with disasters.
• Must deal with other stressors after the
• Have poor self-esteem.
• Think you are uncared for by others.
• Think you have little control over what
happens to you.
• Lack the capacity to manage stress.
•Other factors have also been found to predict
worse outcomes:
• Bereavement (death of someone close)
• Injury to self or another family member
• Life threat
• Panic, horror, or feelings like that during the disaster
• Being separated from family (especially among youth)
• Great loss of property
• Displacement (being forced to leave home)\
Resilience factors
• Human resilience dictates that a large number of survivors
will naturally recover from disasters over time. They will
move on without having severe, long-lasting mental health
issues. Certain factors increase resilience after disasters:
• Social support
• Coping confidence
• Hope
Social Support
• Social support is one of the keys to recovery after any trauma,
including disaster. Social support increases well-being and limits
distress after mass trauma. Being connected to others makes it
easier to obtain knowledge needed for disaster recovery.
Through social support, you can also find:
• Practical help solving problems.
• A sense of being understood and accepted.
• Sharing of trauma experiences.
• Some comfort that what you went through and how you responded is
not "abnormal."
• Shared tips about coping.
Coping Confidence
• Over and over, research has found that coping self-
efficacy - "believing that you can do it" - is related to
better mental health outcomes for disaster survivors.
When you think that you can cope no matter what
happens to you, you tend to do better after a disaster. It
is not so much feeling like you can handle things in
general. Rather, it is believing you can cope with the
results of a disaster that has been found to help
survivors to recover.
• Better outcomes after disasters or mass trauma are likely if you
have one or more of the following:
• Belief in God
• Optimism (because you can hope for the future)
• Expecting the positive
• Confidence that you can predict your life and yourself
• Belief that it is very likely that things will work out as well as can
reasonably be expected
• Belief that outside sources, such as the government, are acting on your
behalf with your welfare at heart
• Positive superstitious belief, such as "I'm always lucky."
• Practical resources, including housing, job, money
Summing it up
• Disasters can cause both mental and physical reactions. Being
closer to the disaster and having weak social support can lead
to worse recovery.
• On the other hand, being connected to others and being
confident that you can handle the results of the disaster make
mental health problems less likely.
• Overall, human beings are resilient, and most survivors will
recover from the disaster.
• For those with higher risk factors, self-care and seeking
help are recommended.