Disaster – the Word of a Thousand Definitions

What’s a DISASTER, anyway? I know, I know – we all know one when we see one. If you drop the food on the kitchen floor just before the boss arrives for dinner, you think “what a disaster”, and maybe say a bit more!  But 20,000 people killed in an earthquake is also a disaster. Should we use the same word for personal and global catastrophes? If we use a common emergency planning definition of disaster , it turns out that your ruined dinner truly qualifies (although admittedly a bit different in scope than an earthquake).

Disaster is a sudden event in which needs exceed immediately available resources. Putting it more simply, if you need to feed 8 people and dinner is being licked up by your Great Dane, it could be a personal disaster (providing replacement food isn’t just a microwave away). Compare this to a bad hair day, which is annoying, but  not a disaster. For the purpose of “real” disaster response, we add the caveat that a disaster “interferes severely with community functioning, creating human, material, or economic losses” (Basic Disaster Life Support Training). It’s a BIG DEAL.

Happily helping with disaster clean-up.

Disasters cause sudden problems with citizens being safe, fed, watered, and sheltered – ie. human needs exceed what the community can provide, at least until outside help arrives. Usually it’s natural disasters that cut power, water, and communications, damage structures, and cause injuries or deaths, but human disasters such as war, terrorism, or even human error can have the same consequences. (An interesting question is whether loss of smart phone service is part of a disaster or just an inconvenience – New Yorkers seem to have strong opinions on this.)

Surge – Not Just A Hurricane Effect

Disasters also occur if too many people suddenly need something essential, like an epidemic overwhelming healthcare, or an influx of refugees. This is called “SURGE”, and the ability to meet increased demand without running out of resources is called “surge capacity”. Think back to H1N1 (a whopping 3 years ago), with concerns for ventilators and then vaccination shortages. Luckily things calmed downed fairly quickly, but flu could be a major disaster.

Emergency – 70s  TV Show or What?

Now you’re an expert on defining disasters! Let’s continue with Emergency Response English 101. After all, common language is the key to communication. So what’s an “EMERGENCY”? How about a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action? The main difference from a disaster is that resources are adequate to meet the needs (thanks to our great firemen, police officers, and emergency rooms). They do emergencies every day, whereas disasters, thank goodness, are rare. With our dinner example, an emergency might be learning 3 more people are coming, but as long as you can increase what you cook, you will avoid disaster.

Mitigation – It Might Prevent Litigation

I love “MITIGATION“, because it is the most important word you can work on now. It means “any action taken to eliminate or minimize the impact of a disaster on people, property and environment”. If you have a second meal in the frig to quickly cook, you are mitigating against the loss of your dinner to the dog. When you make an emergency plan and gather emergency supplies, you are doing personal mitigation against disasters. Mitigation includes physical things such as earthquake proofing your house. From a governmental standpoint, retrofitting building and bridges, and updating seismic building codes are important (and expensive) examples of earthquake mitigation. As for my bad litigation rhyme, you had better believe that people sue if a building collapses because it was not built to code.

The Three R’s

And we have the three R’s (not readin, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic).“RESPONSE” is urgent actions taken after a disaster to minimize injury and loss. For an earthquake, examples of personal response include drop, cover, and hold, checking on family members, and turning off the gas. Hopefully your response also includes activating neighborhood plans to help each other. Higher level response doesn’t need much explanation. You see it daily on the news, because it’s exciting. In any case, the key to good response is advance planning and drilling, both as individuals and professionals.

“RECOVERY” is the long-term actions needed to return to full community function. Repeated apologies, kissing up, and possibly looking for a new job are the recovery actions for my overused dinner party example. Community recovery means rebuilding, return of businesses, and dealing with chronic mental health consequences of disaster survival. Unfortunately, recovery is not sexy, so the attention and help of the rest of the world strays long before the months and years it takes to carry out recovery.

And last, but not least, is “RESILIENCE” – how well a community withstands and rapidly recovers from a disaster. How well do people know each other, and how willing are they to help each other? The stronger the sense of “community” before a disaster, the better citizens will recover. Resilience includes issues like sustainability – the community helps provide food and resources to themselves, tying in nicely to the “eat local” and community garden concept. Since disasters will continue, and response will never be ideal (after all, that is the point of the disaster definition), everyone is hanging their hat on resilience as the best long-term solution.

I agree with the resilience concept most of all.  Living in a resilient community where we all know and help each other would be pretty cool, even if a disaster never occurs. Don’t you agree?

Stay safe,

No MREs for this disaster worker.


  1. Lisa says:

    Love your definitions…however, at MY house an “emergency” means “blood spurting, bone showing or flames”! My kids were raised with this definition of “emergency” so that they knew when I was on the phone, that the youngest brother swiping their toy was NOT an “emergency”! lol

    • disasterdoc says:

      Your house (and mine) are actually great examples of “emergency”. A serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action – blood spurting definitely counts!

      I’ve noticed an interesting thing. People often use the word “disaster” to refer to their personal life (hair, tests, bad social experiences, etc), but “emergency” is rarely used the same way. From society’s point of view, a disaster is so much worse than an emergency, so why do we use it so freely? Perhaps our moms hammered the concept of “emergency” into us so well as children that we are still afraid to use the word as adults unless the house is on fire!

  2. Doc, there’s a discussion in one of my Linkedin groups right now about the semantics of the Emergency/Disaster/Crisis/Catastrophe + Management/Preparedness/Relief/Recovery career field. We’ve come to the conclusion that Webster’s definition and cultural paradigms aren’t always in sync. Emergency is something you call 911 about. A disaster is a single event that happens to you. The words aren’t synonymous, but sometimes they DO overlap.

    • disasterdoc says:

      I agree about word confusion. The words are used interchangeably, even by people in the field. I understand the public having multiple overlapping meanings – after all, these words have been around a lot longer than the Emergency Management Field. I just wish those of us in a more official role could agree and use them consistently (I know it won’t happen, but I can dream). My personal choices are still: “disaster = needs exceed immediately available resources” and “emergency = serious unexpected situation requiring immediate action but with adequate resources”. Those concepts work well with healthcare response planning, and from a public education perspective, I like putting the focus on resources. So is this a Preparedness or Management perspective? I have no idea!

  3. […] home fire is an emergency more than a disaster, based on my definitions (What’s A Disaster? – And Other Important Words), but since fires are common and preventable, they still are a good scary fact for this time of […]

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