The disaster cycle or the disaster life cycle consists of the steps that emergency managers take in planning for and responding to disasters. Each step in the disaster cycle correlates to part of the ongoing cycle that is emergency management. This disaster cycle is used throughout the emergency management community, from the local to the national and international levels.
The first step of the disaster cycle is usually considered to be preparedness although one could start at any point in the cycle and return to that point before, during, or after a disaster. For the sake of understanding, we will start with preparedness. Prior to a disaster’s occurrence, emergency manager will plan for various disasters which could strike within the area of responsibility. For instance, a typical city located along a river would need to plan for not only flooding but also hazardous material accidents, large fires, extreme weather (perhaps tornadoes, hurricanes, and/or snowstorms), geologic hazards (perhaps earthquakes, tsunamis, and/or volcanoes), and other applicable hazards. The emergency manager learns about past disasters and current potential hazards and then begins to collaborate with other officials to write a disaster plan for the jurisdiction with appendices for specific hazards or special types of response scenarios. Part of the planning process is the identification of human and material resources needed during a specific disaster and obtaining information about how to access those resources, whether public or private. If specific material resources are needed to have on hand prior to a disaster, those items (such as generators, cots, decontamination equipment, etc.) are obtained and stockpiled in appropriate geographic locations based on the plan.
The second stage in the disaster cycle is response. Imminently prior to a disaster, warnings are issued and evacuations or sheltering in place occurs and necessary equipment is placed at the ready. Once a disaster occurs, first responders
immediately respond and take action and assess the situation. The emergency or disaster plan is activated and in many cases, an emergency operations center is opened in order to coordinate the response to the disaster by allocating human and material resources, planning evacuations, assigning leadership, and preventing further damage. The response part of the disaster cycle is focused on the immediate needs such as the protection of life and property and includes firefighting, emergency medical response, flood fighting, evacuation and transportation, decontamination, and the provision of food and shelter to victims. The initial damage assessment often takes place during the response phase to help better plan the next phase of the disaster cycle, recovery.
After the immediate response phase of the disaster cycle has been completed, the disaster turns toward recovery, focusing on the longer term response to the disaster. There is no specific time when the disaster transitions from response to recovery and the transition may occur at different times in different areas of the disaster. During the recovery phase of the disaster cycle, officials are interested in cleanup and rebuilding. Temporary housing (perhaps in temporary trailers) is established and utilities are restored. During the recovery phase, lessons learned are collected and shared within the emergency response community.
The mitigation phase of the disaster cycle is almost concurrent with the recovery phase. The goal of the mitigation phase is to prevent the same disaster-caused damages from occurring again. During mitigation, dams, levees, and flood walls are rebuilt and strengthened, buildings are rebuilt using better seismic safety and fire and life safety building codes. Hillsides are reseeded to prevent flooding and mudslides. Land use zoning
is modified to prevent hazards from occurring. Perhaps buildings are even not rebuilt in extremely hazardous areas. Community disaster education is offered to help residents learn how to better prepare
for the next disaster.
Starting the Disaster Cycle Again
Finally, using the lessons learned from the response, recovery, and mitigation phases of the disaster the emergency manager and government officials return to the preparedness phase and revise their plans and their understanding of the material and human resources needs for a particular disaster in their community.