What is a Disaster? – Review

During my PhD thesis about information system support for coordinating activities between different response organizations in a disaster, I faced the issue of defining what a disaster exactly is and the coordination challenges related to a disaster response. This also involved discussions how it differs from emergencies or catastrophes. I came up with the following definitions based on existing work in social sciences on disaster management [1,2]:

  • An emergency can be seen as part of the day-to-day work of public safety organizations. There are usually not a lot of organizations involved in an emergency response. Each organization involved has clear goals and tasks with only minor deviation from the routine. Examples for emergencies can be small traffic accidents or fighting a manageable fire in a house.
  • A disaster is significantly different from an emergency. During a disaster, the day-to-day social processes of the community are affected. For example, going to work, going to school or simply going shopping is impossible. Many organizations are involved in a disaster response. These organizations face new and unforeseen challenges. Tasks of day-to- day routines may become less important than activities to respond to a disaster. Goals of the organizations may shift depending on the development of the response. For instance, there can be a goal to protect a chemistry plant from a flood, but this may fail and now a residential area needs to be protected or evacuated. Plans are important, but may require arbitrary adaption or cannot be followed. Inter-dependencies exist between activities of different organizations. For example, a dam cannot be built without filling and transporting sandbags. This involves also challenges to get an accurate situation overview on the response activities, because priorities may change due to shifting goals of the organizations. In addition to public safety organizations, other organizations are on the scene, such as commercial, non-commercial and humanitarian aid organizations. Furthermore, new organizations may emerge. For instance, victims who help each other or more formal coordination bodies by different organizations. During the disaster response, different organizations need to coordinate their efforts, but it cannot be anticipated with whom it needs to be coordinated. Furthermore, the different organizations are limited on what they can exchange with other organizations. I do not explicitly distinguish a disaster from a crisis and use them synonymously. A disaster is not limited to the aftermath of natural hazards, such as an earthquake or a flood, but may also be applicable to human-made, such as a terrorist attack or a mass-panic. Typical examples for a disaster can be found in Hurricane Katrina (in a later stage), the floods in Germany in 2002 or the September 9/11 attacks.
  • A catastrophe is characterized by its heavy impact on the community and particularly the infrastructure. For instance, response forces may be killed or seriously affected, communication infrastructure and community infrastructure is completely broken down. One example is the Haiti earthquake in the first days after the event, where people of the government as well as of humanitarian aid organizations (e.g. United Nations Stabilizations Mission in Haiti) were seriously affected or killed. It is very difficult to support the response in a catastrophe with any information or communication technology. However, to some extent there can still be support from a large distance, i.e. from countries where the communication infrastructure is not affected and where response capabilities still exist.

Of course, the boundaries between these definitions are somehow blurry. A catastrophe can be reduced in severity to a disaster when a response can be coordinated via a communication network. An emergency can turn into a disaster, e.g. when a routine fire becomes unmanageable (cf. the Mann Gulch Disaster). All of these situations involve coordination and may lead to coordination problems, such as double efforts (e.g. searching an area several times), no efforts (e.g. rescuing people, but not taking care of them afterwards) or conflicting efforts.

Sometimes, people asked me about other crises, such as the financial crisis. I did not discuss them in my thesis, but will use this blog to provide you my thoughts on them. Please note that I am not an expert in these crises.

The financial crisis shows some similarities with the definition of a disaster above. The daily social processes have been affected by many people in different countries, because they got, for example, unemployed or could not finance their education anymore. Similarly, goals of the responding organizations shift. However, these organizations are not public safety organizations, but governments, banks, rating agencies or other financial institutions. In my view, these types of organizations have traditionally more goal conflicts with each other. Furthermore, they are – at the moment – all not clear about what goals they have. This is clearer in a disaster response and there the problem is the communication of the own goals. Thus, they cannot progress or change direction without any coordination effort – They cannot even discover contradictory efforts, since the goal of these efforts is not clear. Finally, they are not collaborating properly to change this. This can also happen in a disaster response to, for example, a natural disaster. However, it would be considered as a bad response (cf. for example the response to Hurricane Katrina). From my opinion, this is usually the case when there are no clear, not accepted, imbalanced or outdated governance processes and structures. Governance is basically responsible for defining who articulates goals and how goals are established, implemented and monitored. The first step would be to define governance processes as well as structures and then respond to the crisis itself. However, this is also the most difficult step. Nevertheless, we are lucky that the financial crisis is not a catastrophe.

There are many different facets of a crisis [3]. In order to respond to it, one needs to understand its structures, dynamics and stakeholders. Then, new structures and processes need to be defined that are accepted by all stakeholders as “return to normal”. Sometimes, several iterations of establishing new structures and processes are needed to deal with coordination problems, but also failed agreement between the actors on what is “return to normal” as in the financial crisis.

What does this imply for innovation (the supposed theme of this blog)? Well, every now and then an organization within its ecosystem (e.g. government, organizational network or employees) needs to review its governance structures and processes to enable new innovational products and services. I think it is beneficial if an organization does this consciously – keeping in mind that innovation is just one goal of a firm 🙂


[1] E.L. Quarantelli. Catastrophes are Different from Disasters : Some Implications for Crisis Planning and Managing Drawn from Katrina. Technical report, Disaster Research Center (DRC), University of Delaware, 2005.

[2] Jörn Franke: Coordination of Distributed Activities in Dynamic Situations. The Case of Inter-organizational Crisis Management, PhD Thesis (Computer Science), English, LORIA-INRIA-CNRS, Université de Lorraine/Université Henri Poincaré, France, 2011.

[3] Ronald W. Perry and E.L. Quarantelli (eds.): What Is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions, Xlibris, Corp, 2005.

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