Tuesday, 29 April 2008

A Substantial Pageant?

The cloud‑capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1

The power and the symbolism of technology. Benign, boundlessly optimistic, and there in front of us, dominating the view, boldly defying gravity. Suddenly, those unquestioned certitudes dissolve into a roiling ball of black and orange flames. Towering assumptions fall like houses of cards, values stacked upon each other like the floors of skyscrapers suddenly topple into the abyss of fear and uncertainty. The technology that gives us an incomparable view over cityscapes, that carries us neatly through the sky from place to place, suddenly rounds on us malevolently. "Come fly the friendly skies," wheedle the advertisements, but abruptly those same skies offer that greatest of nightmares: entrapment, with death looming up in front of our terrified eyes. It is Hollywood spectacle as self-fulfilling prophesy.

The British social scientist Tom Horlick-Jones has interpreted disaster as a form of betrayal of trust; trust that the responsible authorities--governments, airlines, experts and officials of all kinds--will deliver us from evil. The horror of September 11th, 2001, was that we were all potential victims, we all mentally projected ourselves into those endless moments of betrayal. We were all poised on the window ledge of the 105th floor of the World Trade Center north tower, watching the flames and smoke advance inexorably toward us, or sitting frozen with fear in our airline seats as the building loomed up in front of us. In disaster, "human interest" gains a new meaning. In an age of television and the instant image, willingly or reluctantly, we all participate.

On a calm, bright morning in September the news breaks that airliners full of passengers have been turned into deadly weapons and flown full-tilt into two of the most prominent icons of American military, economic and technological prowess. The first reaction is to discount the entire story as a hoax. Sociologists call this the "normalcy bias," the desire to believe news that is comforting and routine, not that which is desperately disquieting. And then as the realization seeps in that it is all true, and worse is to follow: the storm breaks.


Deep in rural Maryland, Route 140 passes through some pleasant but unexceptional countryside and enters the nondescript small town of Emmitsburg. It is Civil War country, America's historical heartland, the landscape of national symbolism. Here, at the main intersection, a side-road leads gently down into the shallow, green valley where lies the joint training center of the U.S. Fire Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two- and three-story brick buildings are arranged informally in a verdant campus landscape not unlike a small private university, though without the usual groups of undergraduates. At the centre of the complex is a mansion and a whitewashed chapel. Latin mottos are carved on the lintels of several doorways, for it was a catholic girls' school until 1970, when the U.S. government bought the property and converted it into an emergency training centre. The air is scented with the smell of new mown grass and a faint tang of smoke emanates from the back of the complex, where several buildings are periodically set on fire and extinguished by trainee firemen.

Television screens are everywhere. Those in the dormitory rooms show earnest discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder and videos of firemen cutting into crashed vehicles or wading through floodwaters. The great hall, where solid, institutional meals are served three times a day, is bedecked with the flags of the republic, the states, and the emergency services, the symbolism that reassures Americans and gives them a sense of belonging to a vast and individualistic country. On the walls of the corridors there are portraits of firemen in reflective overalls and federal administrators in grey business suits. Down in the basement, O'Rourke's Emporium sells Fire Service and FEMA tee-shirts, tote bags, furry mascots and bumper stickers. A different kind of symbolism prevails, but symbolism leaves as heavy an imprint on the culture of the emergency services as it does on every other aspect of national life.

Down a winding path an alcove has been fashioned in the campus greenery. Here is the National Fallen Firefighters= Monument. Each year a stone plaque is erected with the names of those who died on active service during the previous twelve months. Fire departments, with their heavy equipment, uniforms, discipline and camaraderie, are paramilitary organisations. The names carved in stone remind one of a long-drawn out war, for each year tens of firemen are killed on the job. This year the death toll is in the hundreds and the whole monument will have to be reorganised to find space for the list of names. It is a sombre place, deeply charged with meaning, but the symbolism is wrong: at the centre an eternal flame flickers in the wind, almost mocking in its puny emulation of the great conflagrations in which firemen routinely put their lives at risk. Fire fighters, as the New York Times observed, use humour as an oxygen supply. They constantly rib each other in order to reduce the tensions of the job, but they are not given to black humour.

When I arrived at the Emmitsburg training centre I was greeted by a sign informing me that, as there was a contamination emergency, I was not to drink water from the taps. I took it to heart and made for the campus pub. Afterwards, fortified by several glasses of Sam Adams's Boston Ale, I went looking for signs of the concealed underground bunker in which Albright met with Arafat. Perhaps it is under the cabin by the stream. The cheery log fire in the grate, lit no doubt to drive away the autumn dampness, had the aspect of an all too innocent diversion. In such a setting, the whole building seemed too casual to be real, the ornamental lake by its side too contrived. Disaster is on everyone's mind at the training centre: the place exists to prepare people for the worst.

Snow and ice storms, tornadoes, floods, and, of course, the water main contamination episode: like everywhere else in the country Emmitsburg has its share of risks. Pondering on this during a break from work, I found myself strolling along towards the small, central building labelled "Security." On impulse I went inside. Behind a counter a man was sitting at a desk flanked by a battery of close-circuit television screens and a board full of coloured switches.

"Excuse me," I said, "but I was wondering. Does this campus have an emergency plan?"

He looked up thoughtfully and a slowly broad smile spread across his face.

"It does," he replied softly, "but I couldn't tell you about it. I work for a subcontractor and we're not told about these things."

Meekly I thanked him and left, biting back the questions which would so easily seem like accusations: "But what would you do if an emergency happened? Are you really in charge of all these switches and buttons? What does security mean to your company if it doesn't teach you any of the procedures?" and so on. The worst kind of emergency planning is that which involves mystery.

To symbolism one can add public relations. In moments of national crisis four things matter: what is being done, what measures are being described to the listeners and viewers, what they perceive is being done, and what symbolic significance they attribute to such actions. Emergency preparedness obstinately remains a job for the community. It has resisted all attempts at privatisation (too much risk and too few guarantees of profit). Moreover, it cannot successfully be improvised or carried out alone by inspired individuals. In disaster true heroism comes exclusively out of following a predetermined plan.

All this sits very uneasily with the individualism that pervades so much of American life and is vaunted by so many citizens as a cardinal virtue (they perceive it as freedom). What is more, emergency preparedness has the unusual property that it may work very well at some levels of government while failing at others. For the ordinary citizen who fears betrayal by the authorities when they are supposed to guarantee a modicum of public safety, it is as well not to place too much reliance on official pronouncements until they are backed up by the observable facts.

Emergency preparedness, or civil protection as it is known in most of the rest of the world (including Canada and Latin America), is an odd sort of calling. It was born out of the desperate attempts to protect the civilian population during the air raids of the 1940s and subsequently in the shadowy and preposterous exercise of civil defence during the Cold War. As if anything could be done to stop a major nuclear exchange from wiping out the hapless civilian populations! In comparison, the subsequent birth of preparedness against floods, earthquakes and transportation crashes seemed like a return to sanity. Yet, after two decades of growth, civil protection is still not a fully-fledged profession with proper standards of training and procedures, even in America, with its boundless talent for organization.

So we should not take emergency management on trust. Yet we do take it on trust. A fireman colleague of mine once observed that people at risk of disaster demand the best possible assistance that money can buy, technology devise and organisation provide, just as the victims of ordinary road accidents expect well-equipped ambulances to arrive promptly and hospitals to provide efficient care with high professional standards. We accept nothing less, but we only make such demands on disaster response when a great emergency is already upon us. Rarely do we demand action beforehand, in what people who work in this field graphically refer to as "peace time."


A massive explosion shakes the World Trade Center north tower. The structure lurches, trembles and twists on its central axis of steel and concrete. Floors 93 to 105 of this 110-storey building catch fire and burn fiercely at temperatures of more than 800EC. Concrete is turned to dust and soot. Steel beams begin to buckle and eventually they melt. People hang out of windows and then tumble into the void beneath. Shouts and screams rent the air. Sirens begin to wail and carry on their mournful lament for days. Minutes later the south tower is hit. At 10.35, 105 minutes after the first impact, these great blocks of steel and glass are reduced to a 450,000-tonne pile of rubble no more than five stories high. An earthquake shock of magnitude 3.2 is recorded at the Palisades seismological station. In Washington, city of wedding-cake monuments and broad traffic-filled avenues, the Pentagon, the world's largest office block, labyrinthine symbol of solidity, bursts into flame and burns fiercely for more than a day.

In Washington eight hours after the start of the crisis, Mayor Anthony Williams issued a statement that read, "The District government took immediate steps to manage the situation here in the city and to take reasonable precautions to safeguard residents and visitors." In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani moved to ground zero in downtown Manhattan and stayed there. But the situation was by no means as reassuring as these efforts would suggest. In the Big Apple the emergency operations room, the nerve centre of disaster management, was supposed to be in the World Trade Center, where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had offices on the 2nd, 14th and 19th floors of the north tower, the first to collapse. It had been set up there after the 1993 bombing as an act of defiance. In the nation's capital some days later, a Washington Post editorial concluded that "A review of last Tuesday's events suggests that the District [of Columbia] was unprepared for the emergency and therefore unable to react and assist the public in a timely and effective fashion."

Reports from the front line in Washington were not encouraging. The D.C. police appear to have had no emergency plan (improvisation is the nemesis of good emergency management). The emergency broadcast system, with its sinister bleeps and silences that intrude into radio programs every time it is tested, was not activated. Health officials found they had no radio capable of communicating with hospitals and ambulances. Senators and Congressman wandered around the houses of government unsure of what to do (the evacuation plans were untested and out of date). E-mail messages were sent to D.C. government workers telling them to evacuate, and four minutes later countermanding the order. Satellite telephones remained locked in a cupboard while the regular phone services ground to a halt under the duress of impossible numbers of calls. The streets filled with vehicles as commuters made for home, and gridlock trapped the incoming emergency vehicles.

But the most serious problems occurred in New York. Some 343 firemen and 78 policemen went in to rescue victims of the World Trade Center fires and died there when the buildings collapsed. They were crushed with their emergency vehicles under a compact 450,000-tonne mass of debris. It was the greatest tactical error in the history of U.S. emergency management.

Hours later structural engineers were stating in interviews that as soon as they saw the size of the fires they realised that the towers must inevitably collapse. But hindsight is a terrible thing in emergencies, a scourge of conscience, a handy weapon for accusers, a distorter of truths. Moreover, the events of 11 September 2001 were unprecedented in scale, daring and degree of coordination. Yet no single element of the disasters was entirely without precedent. Hence, concealed deep within the fallout of this event, some essential truth lies waiting to be rescued and pieced back together again. It is this: in cities full of skyscrapers, knowledge of the behaviour of tall buildings under extreme duress should be an essential prerequisite for emergency planning. Emergency plans should be based on plausible and well thought out scenarios. A long time before the terrorist attacks of September 2001 voices were being raised down at Emmitsburg suggesting that emergency planners were taking too limited a view of disaster and that it was time to "think the unthinkable" and plan for truly horrifying events. Quite right: the last emergency exercise in Washington was based on the release of toxic gas at a hot-dog stand outside the Smithsonian Museum. In retrospect it seems almost laughable.

In a world dominated by the lust of big business for overweening symbolism, designers have surely underestimated the risks associated with tall buildings. At the World Trade Center, evacuees crowded the narrow stairwells and escalators to such an extent that it took many of those who survived more than an hour to get to ground level. They had to make way for firemen with their bulky equipment who struggled up the stairs, and in some cases they had to crawl over dead bodies in darkness and smoke and slosh through the water of failed sprinkler systems. Outside, in the black atmosphere of soot and dust, pieces of building the size of articulated lorries fell into the street with thundering impacts. People emerged so coated with dust that they looked like ghosts, an impression that tended to be confirmed by their horrified expressions.
No fireman=s ladder will reach further than the ninth floor of any building, but for many people entrapment is their worst nightmare. Now that it is all over, the fireman in reflective overalls with his tense expression and grubby yellow oxygen tanks and the couples who joined hands and launched themselves into the void are united in death. They both represent a failure to foresee and protect. Hindsight will send its insidious messages reverberating through the risk management community: maybe we could have done more it will whisper to us. Disaster is a sobering phenomenon, with its excruciating lessons, its awful process of learning.


In Washington, D.C., the metro trains continued to run, swishing through those airy coffered concrete tunnels even as the firemen struggled with the flames at the Pentagon. Arlington County activated its emergency plan with commendable celerity. The world-renowned urban search-and-rescue team of Fairfax County, Virginia, leapt into action, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency shot trouble wherever it encountered it. In Manhattan, the supposed insularity of New Yorkers--psychological rather than physical, that is--dissolved in what sociologists, who have a penchant for jargon, call the "post-disaster therapeutic community." And some of the lessons of the tragedy were reassuring: panic, for example, rarely infected people, even among many of those who had to run for their lives. Looting did not happen. It confirmed the views of the disaster sociologists who have for years been relaying such a message to the deaf ears of a public conditioned by the mass media, eternal custodians of the myths and fables of social breakdown.


In the Indian state of Gujarat the earthquake of 26 January 2001 killed 19,737 people, injured 166,836 and left more than a million homeless. In many other parts of the world, catastrophe is a persistent fact of daily life: Chechnya, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Mozambique, the list is a long one and it shows no tendency to get shorter. We live in the age of the 'complex emergency', a deadly amalgam of social, economic and military breakdown interlaced with the natural disasters of flood, drought or earthquake. But often the world community remains largely indifferent, for no measure of human suffering is ever used to determine the severity of one event relative to another. Perhaps there is no objective measure of such a thing. Perhaps 'donor fatigue' has overwhelmed us.

An earthquake can be a very frightening thing. It comes out of the ground with little or no warning and cannot be confronted face to face, for it is invisible until it strikes. But it is nevertheless an unambiguous threat, one that tends to break down barriers between enemies and rival factions. In contrast, terrorism is deeply ambiguous. It reveals the contradictions in human society. It uses human inventiveness--the same inventiveness that is the source of our optimism as a species--to strike at our own weak spots. It furthers causes that some people believe in and others abhor. It is ruthlessly partial, and finally it can convert apparently benign forms of technology into lethal weaponry. Hence it injects a new measure of suffering into the balance of events.

In 1755 the western world was convulsed when the gloriously florid commercial and imperial city of Lisbon was summarily razed by earthquake, fire and tsunami. The tremors struck one Sunday morning while the inhabitants were at prayer in the city's churches. As these buildings collapsed, the alter candles set light to draperies and the wreckage caught fire and blazed furiously. Citizens who escaped such horrors fled to the waterfront and were promptly overwhelmed as enormous seismic sea waves flooded up the Tagus estuary. There seemed to be no more graphic example of divine retribution for human wickedness. Even the superb rationalism of the Enlightenment was thrown into reverse gear as one by one the leading philosophers of the time began to take a more gloomy view of the future.

Something of that mentality seems to be developing in the wake of the American terrorism outrages. In this context, the parallels with the mid-eighteenth century are disturbing, not least for what they say about progress--or the lack of it. But wickedness is no retribution for other wickedness. All that is clear amid the betrayal, the dust, smoke and fear of New York and Washington is that the road back to reason looks set to be a long and arduous one.

On Disasters and Democracy

In his book Disasters and Democracy, Rutherford Platt (1999) did a superb job of analyzing the democratic imperatives and shortcomings of the American system of emergency preparedness and disaster mitigation. However, I believe the issue is much wider than his scope would suggest.

To begin with let us distinguish between participatory and representative democracy. The phenomenon was invented in Ancient Greece as the former and has since undergone the transition to the latter, while retaining forms of direct participation at the grass roots level. The transition has brought problems of isolation of the represented from their representatives, together with depoliticisation of the former and corruption of the latter.

Perhaps the contemporary problems of democracy deserve to be listed more fully before they are considered specifically in the light of disasters. [1] One aspect is globalization, or the loss of sovereignty by governments and its gradual accretion to multi-national corporations, that represent only their own interests, usually the making of profit. Given the present-day dominance of capital over labor, governments are held hostage to the private sector, owing to the political imperative to protect jobs. On the other hand, the excesses of globalization have at least resulted in spontaneous forms of participatory democracy (recently in Seattle, Prague and London, for example) by way of reaction.

Secondly, there has been phenomenal growth in the size and clout of underground economies. These are thought to represent about 20 per cent of world trade and drugs alone may account for 12-13 per cent. By and large, underground economies exploit people and create situations of harm, danger and illegality. They remove people from the protection of the law, and in fact usually pit them against the law. Revenues are not taxed, but the recycling of profits makes illegal economies thoroughly intertwined with legal ones. The "black" and "grey" (partially legal) economies are in no sense democratic.

Thirdly, at least in the Western countries and Japan, we are seeing the gradual isolation of populations from democratic processes. Clear mandates to govern are obtained on the basis of minority support. Factions are played off against one another, while political debates become too schematic or superficial to mean very much.

Fourthly, politicians spend much time trying to convince their electorates that they can pay fewer taxes and have more services. In this impossible equation, tax reduction wins, with the inevitable consequence of fiscal stringency. Services have declined as they have become more expensive and taxation has failed to cover them.

These issues are perhaps self evident, but I have listed them as a basis for discussion in the context of disaster. Fundamentally, one can ask whether catastrophes boost the process of disempowering people. Do they form part (perhaps fortuitously for the victors) of a subterfuge to consolidate the power of the rich over the poor? Here are some reflections.

With respect to globalization, labor has not internationalized as fast or as successfully as capital and, despite any impressions to the contrary, neither has disaster relief. Although the end of the Cold War led to a temporary boom in international aid, by 1995 this was already winding down. International disaster relief is strongly tied to development aid, which has not only failed to reach the target (0.8 per cent of the GNP of donor countries) set at Rio in 1992, but has been cut repeatedly as part of fiscal stringency. On the other hand, one cannot look to the private sector for solutions: the globalization of capital and production does nothing to reduce basic vulnerability to disaster. Western companies hold their manufacturers rigorously to prices and production targets so that there is no opportunity to develop responsibility for social progress, including resistance to or recovery from disaster.

Some economists view disaster as a form of accelerated consumption of goods. Others regard it as a "zero-sum game" in which there are no net losses. Be that as it may, there are obviously net losers and people who are forced by the brute circumstance of catastrophe to "consume" what they cannot afford to replace. The two ideas, however, are interconnected. Disaster stimulates the production-consumption function of society, which thus compensates for losses. The strong distinction between winners and losers in this process tends to reinforce globalization. In the usual pyramid, capital and profit are further concentrated in the hands of the producers--the few--and the losers are the consumers, the many. The only mechanism that counteracts this is government intervention in market forces. But governments are now caught up in a nineteenth century-style free-trade binge, with economic, if not geopolitical, excesses comparable to those of the heyday of colonialism. As governments weaken in the face of trade imperatives, they become less and less able to guarantee the sort of welfare functions that people demand in the wake of disaster.

Turning to the second aspect, the relationship between disaster and underground economies is largely unknown and unresearched. There have been attempts, some of them successful, by criminal organizations to take over post-disaster recovery and reconstruction or to pervert it. Disaster commonly fosters a black market in certain goods, such as foodstuffs, roofing materials, and cement. Clearly, the boom that ensues after disaster with full-scale reconstruction is ripe for intervention by criminal organizations and their "alternative economies." In other cases, stagnation results from the intertwining of disaster impacts (usually repetitive ones) with perversions of the local economy caused by elicit economic activity. In either case, the underground economy is an undemocratic force in disaster.

For Afghanistan, Clausewitz's famous dictum has been altered to state that warfare is economics (rather than politics) carried on by other means (Cliffe and Luckham 2000). In this extreme case of the isolation of a population from its democratic rights, democracy is suspended or abolished (if it ever existed in the afflicted area), it become subsumed by ideologies fuelled for convenience sake by illicit economic interests. More generally, the complex emergency, characterized by breakdown in politics, economics, society, environment and security is one of few models of how warfare and disaster interact. The principal victims are women and children and the only antidote is stability. But stability on its own does not usher in democracy, mitigate natural catastrophe or ensure democratic forms of recovery from disaster. Everything depends on the ability to build institutions, on how they are built and on what forces, internal and external to the society in question, act upon them.

With respect to disaster, in societies classified as stable democracies, the question of peoples' relationships with democratic processes (our third issue) is strongly related to the fourth question, that of taxation and fiscal stringency. Disaster prevention, mitigation and relief cannot easily be privatized, as they usually offer either no expectation of adequate profits or a long and uncertain gap between investing and reaping the returns. In point of fact, catastrophes represent a counter-tendency, an occasion for fiscal profligacy in order to satisfy the electorate. Governments that refuse to grant aid to those of their citizens who fall victim to disaster become unpopular and this induces many administrations periodically to break their own rules on fiscal stringency. For example, the number of US federal disaster declarations has virtually doubled in two decades, not necessarily because there are more disasters, but because such declarations are one way to obtain influence over the electorates of affected counties. If this is so, there is little incentive to involve the electorate in an open debate on the ethics, morals or efficacy of heaping aid on victims.

These observations are somewhat bleak, but one can also be more optimistic. Disasters are, or ought to be, opportunities to involve people in new or reinvigorated forms of participatory democracy. Even in the most individualistic places, emergencies are dealt with by socializing them. Disaster cultures and subcultures, forms of therapeutic community, and emergent groups are all forms of grass-roots democracy in action. We need to learn to build on them and turn transient responses into healthy forms of permanent participation.

Further thoughts can be read in my recent book (Alexander 2000).


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe. Terra, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York, 280 pp.

Cliffe, L. and R. Luckham 2000. What happens to the state in conflict? Political analysis as a tool for planning humanitarian assistance. Disasters 24(4): 291-313.

Platt, R.H. 1999. Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events. Island Press, Washington, D.C., 320 pp.


[1] The setting of modern democracy includes the following four paradoxes of modernity

(a) Ninety per cent of international money transfers are speculative, 80 per cent with return time of less than 1 week. Collectively, 358 billionaires are richer than 45 per cent of the world's population. 'Income redistribution' is thus a very relative term.

(b) Income differentials more than doubled in the second half of the 20th century and in the final decades 89 countries experienced decline in national wealth. 'Equity' is thus a very relative term.

(c) Since 1945, between 25 and 50 million people have died in about 300 conflicts. In recent wars about 84 per cent of casualties have been non-combatants, especially women and children. In all of this period there have been only 126 days of global peace. 'Security' is thus a very relative term.

(d) Half of the people in the world have never used a telephone and more than 90 per cent are not Internet users. 'Information technology revolution' is thus a very relative term.

What Makes an Extreme Natural Event a Catastrophe?


This paper reviews a varied set of definitions and measures of disaster. These include the mathematical concept of abrupt hysteresis and bifurcation, the earth science concept of accelerated and widespread change in environmental conditions, the social science concept of radical, if transient, mutation of organizations, the engineering concept of major technological system failure, and the medical concept of mass casualty situations. In each of these schools of thought, the terms 'hazard' and 'vulnerability' are fundamental components of disaster but cannot adequately be defined independently of one another.

Apart from disciplinary orientations, there are other reasons why it has proved very difficult to obtain a consensus on the meaning of the terms 'disaster' and 'catastrophe'. Some scholars regard them as synonymous, while others consider them as descriptive of different levels of impact. Attempts to impose a numerical threshold on disaster have not proved particularly successful. Likewise, geographical extent and other measures of size have not led to a better functional definition. This paper uses examples of differences in the sizes of various important earthquakes and landslides selected from recent history to show how the magnitude and frequency of natural hazards are poorly correlated with their disaster potential. Instead, in most situations of risk, vulnerability--coupled with its opposite, resilience--tends to be a better predictor of damage, destruction and casualties.

The significance of disaster is measured in terms of both its effects and its potential for destruction. In this respect, the catastrophe potential of very large, very infrequent events is the subject of much theoretical, as well as practical, uncertainty. This paper explores some of the dilemmas associated with assigning values of low potential to risks that are extremely infrequent but potentially very damaging, such as asteroid impacts or some of the largest Quaternary volcanic eruptions.

The paper ends by considering trends and predictions for global disaster potential in the forthcoming decades. Some of these are contradictory and most present a bleak picture that may, nevertheless, underestimate human ingenuity in the face of adversity.


A natural disaster can be defined as some rapid, instantaneous or profound impact of an extreme environmental phenomenon upon the human socio-economic system (Alexander 1993a, p. 4). Such a definition is, of course, as vague as it is broad, and beneath it is concealed a terminological minefield (Quarantelli 1998). In disaster studies, failure to agree on the meaning of terms stems from uncertainty about the significance of phenomena and the relationships between them. This paper will review what is known and unknown about the underlying causal relationships that result in natural disasters. Special attention will be paid to the question of how to characterise low-probability, high-consequence (i.e. very infrequent) geophysical events in terms of their possible impacts as disasters, not merely their rĂ´les as extreme manifestations of Nature's power.

The basis of hazard, vulnerability and risk

According to a widely used general model,

H x V ( x E ) = R --> D (1)

a geophysical hazard, H, acts upon a situation, V, in which people or environments are vulnerable to damage and loss (conditioned by varied degrees of exposure to the hazard, E) to produce a state of risk, R (UNDRO 1982). Rather like friction, risk is a theoretical concept until it is mobilised, at which time it is transformed into the impact of the event (disaster, D) in terms of some combination of death, injury, destruction, damage, disruption or other form of loss. In an another formulation,

R = fcn { H, V, E, B, Rr, Dr, ... } (2)

risk is a function of hazard (H), vulnerability (V), exposure of vulnerable elements to the hazard (E), background levels of the hazard (B), the release rate of the hazard (Rr), the dose rate of those elements or people that absorb its impact (Dr), and sundry other qualifiers (Alexander 2000, pp. 14-16).

Most of the secondary factors in the relationship described above relate to hazard, rather than vulnerability--i.e., to the causal agent, not the population at risk. However, the latter requires qualification as well, to account for its dynamism over time:

Vt = fcn { Ra - Rm +/- Rp } (3)

where Vt is total vulnerability, which is affected by risk amplification measures, Ra (i.e. risk-taking), mollified by risk mitigation measures, Rm, both of which can be affected either positively or negatively depending on how risks are perceived by the various actors in the scenario, Rp (Alexander 2000, p. 15.

In synthesis, disaster is the outcome of risk, which is a product of physical hazard and human or environmental vulnerability. Whether or not these are truisms, it is essential to remember that in the risk relationship hazards are not hazardous unless they threaten something and people or places are not vulnerable unless they are threatened by something. Thus the concepts of hazard and vulnerability cannot be defined independently of one another.

Several other definitional questions deserve to be considered. First, the term 'natural disaster' has geological roots and stems from analysis of extreme geophysical events. Yet the crucial role of vulnerability signifies that 'natural' is very much a convenience term. According to an emerging consensus, disaster is defined rather more by its effects than by its causes (Hewitt 1997, Ch. 1). Vulnerability is seen as the key to understanding and forecasting impacts, and there is intense interest in examining the complex global, regional and local mechanisms that prevent vulnerability from being reduced sufficiently (Wisner 2001a). Thus the rather bald statistics listed in Table 1 demonstrate, not merely the difficulty of characterising earthquakes as disasters using any single measure such as magnitude, but also the highly varied nature of the impacts of large earthquakes regardless of the inherent physical energy for which magnitude is a surrogate index. [1]

Table 1. The impact of selected earthquakes in the magnitude range 7.1-7.8.

Earthquake Magnitude Hypocentral depth (km) Deaths Cost of damage (million US$)

California 17.10.1989 7.1 19 62 12,000
Romania 4.3.1977 7.2 94 1,500 800
Chile 3.3.1985 7.8 33 200 1,200
Japan 26.5.1983 7.7 33 104 600
Turkey 17.8.1999 7.4 15 15,637 20,000
El Salvador 13.1.2001 7.6 39 1,159 1,255
Bhuj, India 26.1.2001 7.7 45 19,739 800

Secondly, the semantic difference between 'disaster' and 'catastrophe' deserves attention. Some authors (Scanlon 1993) regard a catastrophe as a particularly large and notable disaster; others, including myself, consider the two terms to be synonymous. In any case, the threshold of seriousness at which an event becomes a disaster is not fixed and there is no abrupt change in any variable used to define disaster at which a higher order of effect, or catastrophe, naturally emerges. Attempts to characterise disaster empirically (Foster 1976, Keller et al. 1992, Keown-McMullan 1997) have generally not been widely accepted by the community of disaster researchers.

Magnitude and frequency

On 27 March 1964 the Great Alaska earthquake provoked a landslide of 29 million cubic metres of rock, which slid at an estimated 180 km/hr into the Sherman Valley in the centre of the state. No one was injured, no houses were destroyed and the event remained a geological curiosity, discovered by chance during an aerial photography overflight (Shreve 1966). On 21 October 1966 a landslide 193 times smaller in volume, travelling at a speed 25-30 times lower overwhelmed two schools and a residential district in the South Welsh town of Aberfan (Aberfan Tribunal 1967). Some 144 people, including 116 small children, were killed, in a disaster that is still widely remembered and commemorated. These two rather extreme examples illustrate how physical magnitude alone can be a poor predictor of disaster potential.

However, there are exceptions to this rule and to understand them one needs to consider the magnitude-frequency rule. Originally derived for physical, not human, relationships, this empirical regularity draws a balance between the cumulative effects of many small events and the occasional impacts of uncommon, large ones (Wolman and Miller 1960). Students of natural disaster have tended to discount the combined effects of small emergencies and seek to define a threshold beyond which a single event becomes large enough to have significant effects in its own right. However, not only is the threshold infinitely variable, but also the cumulative effect of smaller events is apt to be misestimated (Alexander 2000, pp. 231-234).

The characteristic magnitude-frequency curve that applies to almost all recurrent natural phenomena is in all probability discontinuous in its upper parts (i.e. very high magnitudes and very low frequencies). No measure of central tendency can be gained from the currently available data, which are incomplete in their upper ranges. Moreover, most estimates of the human impact of huge events are highly speculative and based on questionable assumptions. Thus the prediction that a major earthquake in Tokyo, of the maximum expected physical dimensions, would cost not merely hundreds of thousands of lives but also half of Japanese GNP for the year of occurrence (Shah 1995) has been criticised as wide of the mark (Wiggins 1996). It is certainly open to question: in another context, terrorism scenarios for anthrax infection in the United States predicted up to 1.5 million casualties and when it happened the number of deaths was eight (Ali 2000). [2] There will be more discussion of the magnitude-frequency relationship later in this paper.

Other definitions of disaster

A new vogue is beginning to develop for holistic approaches to disaster (McEntire 2001). It stems from the realisation that human well-being depends, not only on geophysical forecasting and engineering structural mitigation, but also on intangible factors of social and cultural origin (Oliver-Smith 1986, Alexander 2000). The applied dimension of holistic recovery strategies is not yet underpinned by sufficient fusion among the disciplinary approaches to basic disaster studies. These have tended to follow seven different paths and their protagonists have not infrequently been at loggerheads with one another (Alexander 1993a, pp. 12-14):-

(a) Catastrophe theory refers to the mathematics of hysteresis and bifurcation in the trajectories of differentially-derived variables through dimensional spaces (Thom 1975). In reality, only the most elementary of Thom=s theorems can be applied to direct causal relationships in real physical environments, and in many cases only be analogy (Kennedy 1980). Higher order >catastrophes= are nothing of the sort: they are abrupt changes in controlling parameters and cannot be used to describe the losses and disruption caused by disaster.

(b) The earth science definition of disaster largely refers to accelerated and widespread change in environmental conditions (Bell 1999). There is a tendency among earth scientists to refer to hazard independently of what the supposedly hazardous phenomenon threatens. This is inadvisable, as it ignores the crucial roles in creating disaster of vulnerability and feedback. Thus the classic model of causality

H --> V --> D (4)

in which hazard acts upon vulnerability to produce disaster, ignores the role of human action in modifying exposure to the hazard, if not the hazard itself (Hewitt 1983).

(c) The engineering approach to disaster concentrates on major technological system failures. Horlick-Jones (1995) has very rightly conceptualised this as a form of perceived betrayal of society by its leaders, planners and providers. Others have looked with suspicion at the technocratic approach to disaster in terms of its perceived use as a tool of domination (Hewitt 1983, Miller 1985). The principal problems with some engineering views of disaster are firstly the lack of appreciation of the social, economic, cultural and strategic constraints that drive vulnerability up rather than down and secondly the common lack of consideration of the wide variance in human impacts associated with engineering failures (see Zebrowski 1997).

(d) Sociologists and social psychologists have created a taxonomy of disaster based on interpersonal and organisational dynamics (Drabek 1986). They have given much attention to the radical, if transient, mutation of organisations, peer groups, family behaviour and so on during periods of crisis. Work has emphasised the resilience of human societies under stress and their ability to recover and regain stability (Nigg 1995). However, social science studies of disaster tend to be vague about the physical and technological underpinnings of events.

(e) Medical approaches to disaster have concentrated on mass casualty situations, though the definition of 'mass casualty' has not always been easy (Keown-McMullan 1997). They have also developed a sophisticated epidemiology of disaster, though relatively few exponents of this have delved deeply into the social, technological and physical causes of mortality and morbidity (those who have include Noji 1997 and Auf Der Heide 1989).

(f) Students of humanitarian aid have developed a portrait of the modern complex emergency, a phenomenon characterised by a mixture of military, social, economic, political and environmental instability aggravated by recurrent natural disasters and underpinned by regional or global political strategies (Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 1995). Proponents of the idea argue that the complex emergency is the fruit of globalisation, the shifting global power balance, decolonisation and the world arms trade (Copat 1981, Duffield 1996). Opponents argue that all disasters are more or less complex and the roots of the so-called 'complex emergency' are a matter of sustainable development and political stability. However, neither group would dispute the fact that people caught up in complex emergencies evolve patterns of coping and survival, sometimes spontaneously (Kirkby et al. 1997).

(g) Over the last 80 years geographers and anthropologists have developed the human ecology approach to disaster with emphasis on the adaptation of people and communities to natural environmental extremes (Burton et al. 1993, Oliver-Smith 1998). This has been very effective in influencing hazard management policy towards the adoption of a wider range of non-structural solutions to the disaster problem, but many of the characterisations of culture and its role in perceiving hazards have been crude and mechanistic (Palm 1998).

This brief review of schools of thought should be concluded with the observation that there are many more opportunities for interdisciplinary research than there are examples of it. In a previous work, I delved into the causes and effects of 'academic tribalism' and how it has hindered the development of a holistic approach to disasters (Alexander 2000, 30-36). The solution is first to base studies on an impartial assessment of what the most pressing issues are and what sort of solution they demand and secondly to look for the themes that might successfully link up the sectoral approaches. Two of the most important of these are the contextual and cultural underpinnings of disaster.

Context and culture

Disaster has several forms of significance for human communities. First of all, it is--obviously--a source of death, injury, destruction, damage and disruption. Ideas on what is a significant level of these vary considerably, often in relation to mass media 'constructions', or choice of elements to emphasize, of what is significant (Goltz 1984, Ploughman 1995). Secondly, disaster is a marker point in history and a milestone in the lives of survivors (Lifton 1980). Thirdly, it is an indicator of future catastrophe potential.

The four fundamental dimensions of disaster are magnitude (of the causal phenomena), intensity (of the effects of these phenomena), time (duration and frequency) and space (territorial extent and geographical variations in intensity). As most disasters are recurrent, the pattern of magnitudes and intensities distributed in space and time is cumulative (though one must allow for the lapse of individual events with the passage of time--see Alexander 1995). For example, the centralised bureaucracies of China registered some 1092 floods over a period of 2155 years and, despite the vastness of the lands in which these events occurred, natural disaster is undeniably a part of the history and culture of China (Jones 1987). Thus, as cumulative impacts and markers in people=s lives, disasters are absorbed into the stream of history which is transformed into human culture (Alexander 1991).

Culture is a phenomenon, or really a process, that conjoins ancient cultural survivals with modern cultural metamorphosis. Among other things, it interprets the technological developments, which form the impetus for so much modern change, in terms of standards established centuries before and progressively modified ever since. Technology is therefore both an integral aspect of modern culture (Meyer-Abich 1997) and an instrument of its change. The relentless evolution of technology provides sources of both vulnerability and its mitigation: it is a double-edged sword (Alexander 1995).

These considerations lead one to conclude that theories of disaster developed in the 1960s and 1980s are no longer adequate to describe the phenomenon and its dynamics in the 2000s. The >linear model= used by most students of catastrophe treats hazard as the cause and prime mover of risk and impact, through its action upon vulnerability (Burton et al. 1993). The first attempt to introduce feedback into the situation merely reversed the order of importance so that vulnerability took preference over hazard (Hewitt 1983). New models (Mitchell et al. 1989, Alexander 2000, Wisner 2001b) offer a more complex view of feedback relationships based upon the interactions of culture, context and the physical and social aspects of disaster (Figure 3).

One interesting aspect of this is that over history there has been remarkably little 'Darwinism' in the evolution of strategies to combat the risk of disaster. Comparatively rarely has there been a 'survival of the fittest' building, community, infrastructure, administration or emergency service: on the contrary, there has been an endless recreation of vulnerability, matched by geographical inertia in the use of hazardous locations (Alexander 1993, p. 12). One might surmise that over the span of recorded history disaster has done relatively little to put human ingenuity to the test. But could it all be changed by a Holocene-scale major event? The next two sections will examine the possible significance of the largest possible disasters.

What event to plan for: large, medium or small?

Mount Vesuvius in Southern Italy last erupted in 1943-4. It remains active and some vulcanologists believe that the longer the interval of time before it erupts again, the stronger will be the eruption that occurs (Dobran et al. 1994). Vesuvius is a complex volcano. In historical times it has given forth a wide variety of eruption styles, from the Plinian column of A.D. 79 to the pyroclastic flows of 1632 and the outpourings of a'a lava during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A large eruption could produce large volumes of poisonous gases, deep ashfalls, rapid lahars and intense pyroclastic flows. The population of the 17 circum-Vesuvian municipalities exceeds 550,000 and somewhere between 300,000 and three million more people would be affected by a major eruption. Ash falls alone could cause the roofs of some 16,000 buildings to collapse (Barberi et al. 1990). In 1631, some 4000 people died when a pyroclastic flow ran through Portici: the current urban density of this town exceeds 18,000 people per square kilometre and is one of the highest in Europe (Alexander 2000, pp. 116-128).

As Vesuvius is one of the most widely-studied and intensively-monitored volcanoes in the world, there will be warning of an impending eruption and evacuation plans will be put into effect. People will be evacuated by road, rail and sea to all 20 of Italy's regions, and some probably abroad. But the situation is far from comforting: the problems of managing it are legion and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. The magnitude of the ensuing catastrophe will be determined by an exact conjunction between what happens volcanically and what is done to mitigate the worst consequences (Alexander 1999).

The size of the next eruption of Vesuvius is open to speculation, but it should be remembered that what is popularly supposed to be large is not necessarily that: the eruption of Mount St Helens in May 1980 emitted some 0.25 km; of magma equivalent, that of Santorini in 1600 BC emitted 11 km; and Krakatau in 1883 17 km;. But the prehistoric eruption of Taupo in New Zealand may have emitted more than 100 km; of magma equivalent (Sigurdsson 1991). Bearing in mind that the Vesuvian case represents just about the maximum event that could successfully be coped with (and that with a fair degree of muddling through) the large event is a thorn in the flesh for the emergency planner. By judicious application of modern technology and means of organisation it might be possible to push up the threshold of coping, but not by much. At any rate, it seems that we cannot begin to prepare for very large events until we have adequately coped with the more run-of-the-mill smaller ones, and in this respect there remains much to do.

What is the significance of the very large event in terms of catastrophe?

According to one set of considerations (IFRCRCS 2001), on average each year 220 natural disasters, 70 technological disasters and three new armed conflicts occur. The second half of the 20th century saw increases of 250 per cent in the number of disasters recorded, 1500 per cent in their economic impact and 500 per cent in both the number of people affected and the number of mass-casualty disasters (Munich Re Group 1999). Even allowing for the probable inflation of estimates in recent years, if the curve of these trends were extrapolated much beyond the year 2020 it would become almost vertical. Hence, something must give. Human adaptability will be challenged and stimulated into action by the cumulative weight of small, medium and large disaster impacts. There is no indication, however, that the balance must necessarily shift in favour of the world=s poorer countries, which currently suffer about 80 per cent of disasters and 90-95 per cent of deaths in disaster (Wisner 2001a).

The unknown factor is the very large, very low frequency and low probability event--the disaster with a Holocene-scale recurrence interval. Asteroid impacts and some of the largest prehistoric volcanic eruptions are potentially the main natural sources of such events. [3] Few guidelines exist as to the amount of attention that emergency planners should give such hazards. In another sphere, the events of 11 September 2001 in the United States have demonstrated that disaster planning has been based too exclusively on the run-of-the-mill event without developing an adequate capacity to plan for truly exceptional scenarios (Alexander 2002a).

Yet on the other hand some very real unmet needs are associated with mitigating the consequences of rather banal, small-scale events. Never has the gap between scientific knowledge and implementation been greater. It is a well-known principle that resources cannot be tied up in waiting for events that have only a tiny probability of occurring in any human lifetime (Alexander 2002b). But does this mean that they should be ignored on an operational level?

Few very large, individual extreme events have left their imprint on community consciousness or the progress of human history. No real evidence exists that disasters have ever 'destroyed civilisation' (cf. Antonopoulos 1992, Alexander 1993b). However, in the event of a major asteroid strike, or equivalent impact, we have no means of predicting casualty patterns, losses or capacity to respond. We have no prior knowledge of the social mutations that might possibly occur. Emergency planning relies on a mixture of theory and experience and both are in short supply regarding gigantic disasters. Despite the many experiences of smaller events, it is doubtful whether one could 'gear up' plans to cope with much larger scenarios. Moreover, there is little evidence either way that the 'disaster movie' situation would prevail and society would break down under the strain. Nevertheless, giant events would require draconian measures, and the current drift of disaster management is--quite rightly--to democratise the whole process of civil protection in order to make individual citizens more responsible for their own safety (Alexander 2002b).

Perhaps it is the millennium that drives thinkers into the arms of the neocatastrophists, but the future role of any very large geophysical event as a catastrophe is not sufficiently understood for speculation to be avoided, and speculation tends to invite catastrophism (Dury 1980). [4] It is quite possible that such an event could override most of the current provisions and mores for coping with disaster. It is equally likely that additional preparation is neither feasible nor desirable, given the probable cost and the low likelihood that it will be utilised during the next century or so. Terrorism scenario-building and strategic warfare modelling have given some basis for estimating the impact of huge events, and no doubt future years will see much refinement of the ability to predict major natural events scientifically. But none of this adds up to a blueprint for action.

In conclusion, the presence of a statistically small risk of cataclysm should not cause us to change our focus on preparing for the impact of smaller events, but perhaps it should induce us to widen our horizon with regard to the dynamics and implications of future natural catastrophes.


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1. In reality, bracketed duration and maximum acceleration are also essential determinants of seismic impact (Gutenberg and Richter 1942, Tiv 2000).

2. On the other hand, of 5000 people who sought treatment in the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro, 4000 were suffering from psychosomatic ailments or the so-called multiple idiopathic physical symptoms (MIPS) (Olson 1999).

3. At the time of writing the discovery of the Silverpit crater in the North Sea basin has given a fillip to neocatastrophism, but it should be remembered that it was created at least 60 million years ago and there might not be any recurrence during the next 60 million years. The average lifespan of a disaster plan is less than ten years.

4. A catastrophist viewpoint translates the magnitude-frequency rule into a curve of increasing energy or impact level and thus apportions more weight to high-magnitude, low-frequency events than to the combined effect of events of moderate magnitude and comparatively high frequency (Alexander 2000, p. 230).

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Planning and Management of Complex Emergencies

Introduction: the complex emergency

In the 1990s, particular strategic and physical circumstances led to the definition of the "complex emergency" in developing countries affected by the lethal combination of warfare, socio-economic breakdown and natural disasters.[1] A good example is the current situation in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, where large-scale population displacements, insurgency, drought and the injuries caused by landmines combine to make each day a disaster for local people.[2]

However, in the debate over such events it has been pointed out that all emergencies are complex to a greater or lesser degree.[3] Therefore, emergency planning and management are first and foremost about making sense of complexity. In industrialized countries, disasters have not merely become more common and more destructive, but also more complex. For instance, it has been suggested that despite measures to protect Florence against floods, and manage such events effectively, a repeat of the 1966 event would lead to worse effects than those experienced 35 years ago. The relentless accumulation of physical capital and the presence of 10,000 vehicles in the city centre would significantly complicate emergency operations.[4]

The hard part of the planning process is no longer the estimation of physical forces and their distribution--the where, when and how much of floods or earthquakes, for example--but the prediction of consequences for the socio-economic system: complex patterns of damage, lost production, medical costs, compensation and liability issues, etc.[5]

Fortunately, powerful new tools have been developed to reduce complexity in disaster to manageable levels. But are they sufficiently well understood to be used effectively? Do we have enough consensus, training, funding, expertise and experience to benefit from the tools, or do they merely complicate emergency preparedness and distract attention from the real problems of bringing aid to stricken populations? This essay will consider ten of the most salient issues in planning for and managing contemporary emergencies.

1. From the paper planning syndrome to the digital planning syndrome

Lack of real commitment to emergency preparedness can lead to the formulation of plans that are treated as static documents and deposited in archives without the necessary adaptation, testing and updating that would render them functional and efficient. This was long ago identified as the "paper planning syndrome", in which only the letter, and not the spirit, of civil protection regulations is honoured.[6] In theory, the application of digital computing technology to emergency planning should make the syndrome a thing of the past, as computers offer a vastly greater degree of flexibility in how plans are devised, stored, displayed, communicated and utilized, as well as making it very easy to amend and update them.[7] But has the digital revolution merely substituted one syndrome for another?

To begin with there is no absolute obligation to use computerized planning procedures any more effectively than their typewritten antecedents. Secondly, the use of computers and the Internet involves questions of balance. Possibly, products with superior marketing strategies are likely to accumulate the most followers regardless of their degree of usefulness. Moreover, the most vocal people and companies can flood the market with their views. Hence, digital technology can become a vehicle for diffusing, not only valuable advances in methodology, but also inaccurate information.

It has also been suggested that, by reducing the degree of personal interaction, computer use diminishes opportunities for non-verbal communication and introduces a sense of artificiality into emergency management, akin to that which prevails in modern aerial warfare, where screen-watching and button-pushing replace more direct action.[8]

Unfortunately, most emergency preparedness courses do not include guidelines on how to make the best use of computerized technology and how to guard against problems such as artificiality and misuse of information. Indeed, as far as I know, no widely accepted guidelines exist: they should be formulated as a matter of urgency.

The interim solution is to use computer technology with a large dose of self-awareness and self-evaluation. No procedures should be implemented without considering their eventual effectiveness. No expenditures should be made without some form of cost-benefit analysis, and without specification of the criteria for identifying and judging benefits (which are often less easy to quantify than are costs).

Computers and associated communications technology have enormous potential for reducing the complexity of disasters to levels that are intelligible and manageable.[9] However, at the same time they introduce a new level of complexity--and vulnerability--into emergency preparedness. Systems therefore need to be robust, complemented by adequate redundancy and back-ups, and above all user-friendly. Both designers and users should contribute to the process of achieving such goals.

2. The role of the scenario in emergency planning

There is often a tendency to write emergency plans backwards, and thus to try to match the problem to be tackled to the resources available to tackle it, rather than the other way around. Such plans tend to be very vague about the nature of the emergency situations that they will be applied to. Many emergency plans either have no base scenario or make an uncritical, untested assumption that the last great event in the area covered by planning is exactly diagnostic of what to expect next time. In contrast, a well-constructed plan should be based on a thorough analysis of the kinds of event that it will eventually have to tackle. This requires the full-scale use of scenario modelling.[10]

A predictive scenario is an exploration of what is likely to happen under a particular set of circumstances. It asks the question "what if...?", but this should be backed up by scientific forecasting of hazards and strict logical investigation of the chains of consequences that may occur when a hazard strikes.[11] The aim is to draw out the most likely train of events, and reactions to them, in order to form a secure basis for planning. As the principal objectives of emergency planning are to reduce the gap between the resources that are needed and those that are available, and to apply the latter as effectively as possible to the urgent problems caused by disaster, it follows that the planner will need an accurate and detailed assessment of what is likely to happen.

The base scenario, or scenarios, used in emergency planning should be subject to logical evaluation. As they are a predictive tool, they will have to make a considerable number of assumptions about what is likely to happen under certain sets of conditions. This should not be an impossible task, nor necessarily a daunting one if sufficient background research has been conducted. Such work should be based on the fundamental relationship[12]

hazard × vulnerability [× exposure] = risk --> impact

Hence, successive stages in the formulation of the scenario involve collecting information on the spatial and temporal distribution of hazards, assessing the vulnerability of populations and structures to these, deriving patterns of risk and considering how the risks are likely to materialize as impacts. As the best modern planning is generic (all hazards)[13] rather than restricted to single hazards or risks, this process should be carried out with a sufficient level of generalization and flexibility that it is unlikely to break down in the face of unexpected developments.

3. The relationship between emergency planning and urban and regional planning

One of the most remarkable aspects of emergency planning in the modern world is its lack of relationship with urban and regional planning. Disaster preparedness is not usually taught to students of planning, and trainee disaster managers are not usually given a grounding in land-use planning. Yet the links between the two disciplines ought to be self evident: they lie in the concept of the "hazardousness of place".[14]

One of the principal and most successful means of reducing the risks to life and property posed by natural and technological hazards is to restrict land uses in the most threatened places. In 1986 a petroleum tank explosion and fire claimed several lives and rendered 2600 people homeless in central Naples. In 1998 150 died in the towns of Sarno and Quindici in predictable mudflow disasters. Both of these represent cases in which an identifiable hazard did not simulate vulnerability reduction measures. The simplest, and often the cheapest of these, is to separate incompatible land uses. At the very least, this requires a strong dialogue between emergency planners, who can formulate scenarios for future events, and municipal planners, who can institute measures to restrict development in hazardous areas.

A second aspect refers to the possible role of urban planning in improving conditions for emergency management. Roads may need to be straightened, widened and cleared of obstructions to ensure either that evacuees can get away quickly or that emergency vehicles can arrive in minimum time. Emergency scenarios should identify critical nodes, points in the urban system that are vitally important to operations in disaster. These include hospitals, fire stations, emergency operations centres, assembly points, and also places where disaster may strike, such as floodable areas, unstable slopes or warehouses stocking hazardous materials. Urban design can do much to facilitate emergency management if this is explicitly incorporated into it.

The solution is to integrate emergency plans with urban plans as much as possible. It requires dialogue and cooperation between both sorts of planner, who must appreciate each other's terms of reference and problems to be solved.[15]

4. The vertical and horizontal integration of emergency plans

Another common fault of emergency plans is that they are often written in isolation from one another. In Italy the prevailing legislation is vague about the relationship between plans at the municipal, provincial, regional and national levels. Provinces and regions have coordinating roles, but these are poorly specified. At the same time, there is no guarantee that municipal emergency plans will mesh with plans for factories, hospitals, airports, and so on. As disaster planning becomes more common, this problem is set to grow. The result is a vast area of potential conflict between the objectives and procedures of overlapping plans. This could lead to duplication of effort, or failures of communication between organizations, or other forms of inefficiency. In Italy, a municipality that is the seat of a COM during a national disaster may have as many as 37 desks for 9-14 different support functions, if one takes into account national, prefectural and municipal operations centres. The more such desks there are, and the more duplication of functions occurs, the more opportunities there are for failures of coordination and communication.

Municipal emergency planners should act as catalysts to stimulate disaster planning in other organizations, such as hospitals and factories. But there needs to be a high degree of compatibility and interaction between the planners and their plans. This will enable tasks to be delegated and will ensure that communication is effective between the organizations during emergency situations.[16]

5. The achievement and recognition of adequate professional standards

The current consensus is that emergency preparedness is not quite a profession.[17] Typically, those who practice it also have other jobs, or come from unconnected fields, to which they may well be asked to return. No adequate professional standards exist and no widely accepted protocols govern the content of training courses. Few academic institutions offer courses or degrees in emergency planning and management[18] and there is, in any case, little agreement about exactly what an emergency responder ought to know. Furthermore, what training courses exist offer an exceedingly heterogeneous mixture of information and usually impose no control on the quality of instruction. The first result of this is that the knowledge levels and capabilities of emergency managers vary enormously, and the second is that both interchange and ability to learn from others are hampered by lack of compatibility and an agreed body of common knowledge.[19]

It is time to devise better standards and norms for emergency training and eventual certification. These should specify a minimum number of hours of instruction and define the content of courses. They should also specify the appropriate balance between of learning between theory and accumulating practical experience.

The increasing complexity of disasters requires that emergency responders be acquainted with many different aspects of the problem. Some 30 different academic and applied disciplines are involved, as well as many practical skills.[20] In the absence of adequate guidelines about what to study and how to go about it, the best strategy is to supplement one's knowledge by reading widely among the materials that are internationally available. Several World Wide Web sites offer guided reading, for example, the U.S Emergency Management Institute site http://www.fema.gov/emi/.

Theory should not be treated as inferior to practical experience, as it is, in the words of one expert in the field,[21] the "road map" that orientates the disaster manager in times of confusion and uncertainty. Successful learning is marked by the realization that theory and experience qualify one another and render one another intelligible. This aspect will be explored further in the next section.

6. The gap between research and practice: the need for dialogue

Few disaster managers are regular readers of academic literature and few academics write up their research with disaster managers in mind as their primary audience. Academic writing is often abstract and laced with jargon, which legitimizes it to the peer groups who are its main readership but makes it unreadable by others. In any case, much of it is hidden away in publications that are not easily accessible to disaster managers. As a result, many useful applied research results have failed to come to the notice of the very practitioners who could benefit from them.

At the world level, several institutions are actively trying to combat this state of affairs. Paramount among them is the Natural Hazards Centre at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA. This institution offers a well-furnished web site (http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/), three periodicals in printed form and one in e-mail format. Likewise, the Emergency Preparedness Information Exchange at Simon Fraser University in Canada (http://hoshi.cic.sfu.ca/epix/) is an important academic resource for emergency responders. So is Emergency Management Australia (http://www.ema.gov.au) and the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (http://www.ccep.ca/).

Dialogue requires that both sides demonstrate willingness to interact. Disaster managers must make their research needs known and identify gaps in their knowledge. Researchers must learn to communicate, without lowering the tone of their discourse, in ways that non-specialists can understand and benefit from. Both groups need their horizons widening and both must learn to listen more effectively.

7. Information management in an age of superabundant data

The paradox of information technology is that it vastly increases the quantity of information available but does not necessarily improve its quality. Thus we all need to evolve a survival strategy in order to cope with information management. This means:

  • avoiding dependence on sources of vital information that could fail at critical moments

  • ensuring that essential information does not become archived or destroyed and thus lost through failure to recognize its importance

  • ensuring that "perishable" information is collected when it is available (usually during the early phase of disaster)

  • learning to discriminate rapidly between valid and invalid information, useful and useless data, appropriate and inappropriate material

  • learning to cope with information overload

  • avoiding overdependence on computer technology and situations in which the available hardware and software determine the solution, rather than letting it be governed by the nature of the problem itself

  • developing a critical ability to recognize what is useful

  • learning to interpret data in human and operational terms[22]

Recent major disasters have spawned as many as 20 web sites each,[23] but this has not guaranteed that the free availability of information over the Internet actually improved their management, especially as no control was exercised over the quality, accuracy and usefulness of the information posted.

Nevertheless, information has become a very valuable commodity and much of commerce, banking and industry is now dependent on its diffusion by electronic means. Emergency planning must thus be extended to ensuring that information is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Communications breakdown can lead to huge losses if money cannot be transferred electronically, orders cannot be fulfilled and customers informed about what they need to know in order to purchase goods and services. Information loss is therefore not just a risk for emergency management but also a significant and growing part of general disaster losses to be mitigated by taking precautions before disaster strikes.[24]

8. Political acumen of the disaster manager

Modern courses usually involve teaching aspects of management science and psychology to trainee disaster managers. However, it is clear that such people will not only have to direct people under their control but also hold their own in the political arena. The disaster manager is, above all, a facilitator, whose job is to obtain the consensus that is necessary in order to innovate in the field of emergency planning and management. This requires knowledge of the legal, social and political consequences of decisions taken in times of quiescence and during emergencies, and to communicate effectively so that political hierarchies are convinced of the need for better civil protection systems.

However, both during emergencies and in the intervening times, the disaster manager should have a perception of the prevailing situation that does not exceed his or her command of the available resources.[25] Obviously, realism is the key ingredient. In addition, command structures need to be free of equivocality.

9. The challenge of involving the public in disaster mitigation and creating a culture of risk mitigation

Recent trends in emergency preparedness have demonstrated the importance of democratizing the field. People will not relate to disaster prevention if efforts are not made to involve them in it. Conversely, they need to be empowered and given some responsibility for their own safety. The assumption that civil protection is a matter exclusively for experts is both widespread and dangerous.

Successful schemes for involving the public require first a certain selectivity about which groups to work with and secondly the collection of information on the effectiveness of projects--i.e. feedback from the users. Publicity needs to be designed carefully and its impact evaluated in terms of the results it produces and knowledge it diffuses. Awareness of results is critically important: in the past, schemes to increase the level of public awareness of hazards have sometimes led to the diffusion of misassumptions.[26] At the very least, public indifference is indicative of a failed publicity program.[27]

In the past public information programs have failed for the following reasons:

  • warnings that have not resulted in disaster

  • information about what is likely to happen, but not what steps to take when it does

  • vagueness about hazards and warning signs

  • conflicting orders and information

  • failure to involve the public in decision making, so that decisions are resented by those people who feel they have had no say in them

  • failure to observe local cultural norms, patterns of activity and ways of communicating.[28]

All of these pitfalls can be avoided by adequate attention to the local context of public education programs and careful monitoring of their impacts.

10. The mass media: friend or foe?

The news media are critically important to awareness campaigns both during disaster and at other times. Research has given split results about the role of the media in disasters. The balance probably leans towards regarding them as irresponsible and unreliable[29] though some researchers have shown how the media can be a vital part of emergency management if journalists are properly engaged.[30] In either case, disaster managers ignore or mistreat representatives of the news media at their peril: they cannot stop reports being published or broadcast.

Mass media cannot be coopted in disaster. The best that can be hoped for is that they can be engaged constructively and induced to collaborate in the diffusion of correct information and the discounting of incorrect news. Treated as responsible they will usually rise to the challenge and behave responsibly. They must, however, be given adequate representation and facilities in emergency operations. Attempts to drive them away will only lead to negative reporting about the quality of emergency operations, and possibly the diffusion of misassumptions. This can lead to reductions in the degree of public cooperation with emergency authorities. Hence, many of the best emergency plans include chapters on managing the news media and treat this aspect as vitally important, which indeed it is. A useful primer on news media liaison during emergencies can be found at the U.S. FEMA website http://www.fema.gov/media/.


In summary, a good emergency plan is:

  • generic (all hazards) rather than restricted to single hazards

  • written on the basis of carefully compiled scenarios of hazard, vulnerability, risk and impact

  • integrated with plans made by other organizations and levels of government

  • a process and not an end in itself--i.e. constantly updated, revised and tested

  • linked to urban planning with the objective of reducing the "hazardousness of place" by land use control processes.

A good emergency planner is

  • well versed in the applied hazards literature

  • well versed in the political and legal implications of his or her work

  • a person who facilitates rather than commands

  • able to appreciate the connections between different disciplines and methodologies

  • able to work effectively with the public and news media representatives.


1. A classic paper on this topic is Duffield, M. 1996. The symphony of the damned: racial discourse, complex political emergencies and humanitarian aid. Disasters 20(3): 173-193. A more didactic one is Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 1995. Complex, humanitarian emergencies: I. Concept and participants. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 10: 36-42.

2. See the situation reports of Action by Churches Together (ACT) available at the Volunteers in Technical Assistance web site http://www.vita.org/.

3. Kirkby, J., P. O’Keefe, I. Convery and D. Howell 1997. On the emergence of complex disasters. Disasters 21(2): 177-180.

4. See Alexander, D. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York: 99-101.

5. Ellson, R.W., J.W. Milliman and R.B. Roberts 1984. Measuring the regional economic effects of earthquakes and earthquake predictions. Journal of Regional Science 24: 559-579.

6. See discussion in Auf der Heide, E. 1989. Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Co-ordination. Mosby-Yearbook, St Louis, Missouri, 363 pp. This book can be downloaded for free from the Internet at the following address: http://coe-dmha.org/dr

7. Gruntfest, E. and M. Weber 1998. Internet and emergency management: prospects for the future. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 16(1): 55-72.

8. Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/ communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

9. Tobin, R. and R. Tobin 1997. Emergency Planning on the Internet. Government Institutes, Inc., Rockville, MD, 230 pp.

10. Alexander, D. 2002. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK (http://www.terrapublishing.net), and Oxford University Press, New York (http://www.oup-ny.com/).

11. Alexander, D. 2000. Scenario methodology for teaching principles of emergency management. Disaster Prevention and Management 9(2): 89-97.

12. After UNDRO 1982. Natural Disasters and Vulnerability Analysis. Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO), Geneva, and Burton, I., R.W. Kates and G.F. White 1993. The Environment as Hazard (2nd edn). Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.

13. Quarantelli, E.L. 1992. The case for a generic rather than agent specific agent approach to disasters. Disaster Management 2: 191-196.

14. Hewitt, K. and I. Burton 1971. The Hazardousness of Place. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

15. Britton, N.R. and J. Lindsay 1995. Demonstrating the need to integrate city planning and emergency preparedness: two case studies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(2): 161-178.

16. McLoughlin, D. 1985. A framework for integrated emergency management. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 165-172.

17. Drabek, T.E. 1988. The Local Emergency Manager: The Emerging Professional (Part 1). National Emergency Training Center, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Association, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

18. About 3.5 per cent of U.S. colleges and universities (70 institutions) offer courses in emergency preparedness. Even fewer courses are available in other countries.

19. Neal, D.M. 2000. Developing degree programs in disaster management: some reflections and observations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(3): 417-438.

20. Alexander, D. 1993. Natural Disasters. UCL Press, London, and Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 632 pp.

21. Professor Thomas E. Drabek, in one of the FEMA outline courses cited above.

22. Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/ communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

23. For example, the Hanshin-Kobe earthquake in Japan (1995) and Hurricane Mitch in central America (1998), both of which spawned up to 20 websites.

24. U.S. National Research Council 1996. Computing and Communications in the Extreme: Research for Crisis Management and Other Applications. Computing Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 174 pp. This and similar publications can be obtained from http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/.

25. Alexander, D.E. 1999. How are emergency plans written, tested and revised? In P. Fontanari, S. Pittino, D. Alexander and S. Boncinelli (eds) La Protezione Civile verso gli Anni 2000. CISPRO, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Florence, Italy: 151-177.

26. Alexander, D. 1993. Natural Disasters. UCL Press, London, and Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp 16-20.

27. In one notorious case (the River Thames flood warning exercise of 1981 in the city of London) a costly and extensive publicity campaign came to nothing: social surveys after the event revealed that 50 per cent of respondents did not hear the warning, and of those who did, 30 per cent did not understand what it meant and 60 per cent did not know what to do (IDI 1981. The Physical and Social Consequences of a Major Thames Flood. International Disaster Institute, London, p. 44).

28. Southern, R.L. 1995. Warnings that failed, warnings that worked. Stop Disasters 25: 9-10.

29. Goltz, J.D. 1984. Are the news media responsible for the disaster myths? A content analysis of emergency response imagery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 2(3): 345-368.

30. Scanlon, J., S. Alldred, A. Farrell and A. Prawzick 1985. Coping with the media in disasters: some predictable problems. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 123-133.