Disaster risk reduction (DRR, or disaster reduction) is an umbrella term for processes of preparing for, responding to, recovering from, and managing the risk of disasters. It refers primarily to the acts of setting the policy and strategic agendas for these tasks. It reflects a long-standing need to reorientate priorities from merely responding to disasters once they have struck to reducing or avoiding their impacts. To be achieved, DRR requires a combination of physical and social measures, with full participation of affected populations and other stakeholders. Academically, disasters have been studied systematically for more than 100 years. During this period, the emphasis has changed from analyzing natural hazards as the primary drivers of disaster to a more pluralistic approach in which vulnerability and exposure to hazards and threats are viewed as playing vitally important roles. Disasters can have natural, technological, social, or intentional (i.e., terrorism-related) causes, but they are increasingly composite events that involve combinations of factors. Hence there is now much emphasis on “natech” events, in which natural hazards affect technological systems, and cascading disasters, in which escalation points caused by interacting sources of vulnerability may have the power to make the secondary effects more important than the primary trigger. Root causes and contexts have assumed a greater salience in the explanation of disaster, which tends to involve complex interactions among social, economic, political, and physical factors. Resilience has come to the fore as a positive concept for organizing processes of DRR. It is usually defined as a mixture of adaptation to hazards and threats and the ability to resist or overcome the negative effects of disaster. DRR concepts and strategies have been mainstreamed in modern society by international action under the auspices of the United Nations and the Sendai Framework for DRR, 2015–2030. The challenges of applying UN frameworks include uncertainty about whether the underlying concepts are durable, whether they can be applied rigorously, whether they have enough support among policy and decisionmakers, and whether they can acquire a sound practical basis. The future of DRR depends on humanity’s ability to implement solutions to conflict, migration, and environmental change, not merely the impact of disasters per se. In an era in which population is rising, wealth disparities and human mobility are increasing, and environmental change has begun to lead to major upheavals, DRR has gone from being a rather esoteric, specialized field to one that is central to the future of human existence.
Spontaneous, so-called emergent groups often arise in response to emergencies, disasters, and crises where citizens and relief workers find that pre-established norms of behavior, roles, and practices come into flux because of the severity and uncertainty of the situation. The scholarship on emergent groups dates to 1950s sociological theory on emergence and convergence, whereas contemporary research forms part of the wider disaster scholarship field. Emergent groups have been conceptualized and theorized from various angles, ranging from discussions around their effectiveness, to their possibilities as channels for the positive forces of citizen’s altruism, as well as to more skeptical accounts detailing the challenges emergent groups may pose for established emergency management organizations in relief situations. Scarce scholarly attention, however, is paid to the role of emergent groups when it comes to empowering marginalized and vulnerable communities. The few empirical studies that exist suggest linkages between active participation in emergent groups and empowerment of otherwise marginalized communities, as shown in an ethnographic study of the work of Occupy Sandy that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that struck New York City in 2012. Although more systematic research is warranted, such empirical examples show potential in terms of shifting emergency and disaster management toward more inclusionary, participatory, and empowering practices. As low-income communities, often of color, experience the increasingly harsh effects of climate change, important issues to ponder are inclusion, participation, and empowerment.
Louise K. Comfort
The management of critical infrastructures presents a specific set of challenges to crisis managers. Critical infrastructures include electrical power; communications; transportation; and water, wastewater, and gas line distribution systems. Designed for efficiency, these technical systems operate interdependently, thus making them vulnerable to the stress of extreme events. Changes in population, demographics, land use, and economic and social conditions of communities exposed to hazards have resulted in a significantly increased number of people dependent on critical infrastructures in regions at risk. Advances in science, technology, and engineering have introduced new possibilities for the redesign, maintenance, and retrofit of built infrastructure to withstand extreme events. However, most public and private agencies are not capable of anticipating the potential risk and making investments needed to upgrade infrastructures before damage occurs. Computational modeling facilitates the exploration of alternative approaches to managing risk. Sensors, telemetry, and graphic display of changing performance for critical infrastructure provide accurate information to reduce uncertainty in crisis events. These technologies enable crisis managers to track more accurately the impact of extreme events on the populations and infrastructures of communities at risk and to anticipate the likely consequences of future hazardous events. Crisis managers strive to create a continual learning process that enables residents to monitor their changing environment, use systematically collected data as the basis for analysis and change, and modify policies and practice based on valid evidence from actual environments at risk. For communities seeking to reduce risk, investment in information technologies to enable rapid, community-wide access to interactive communication constitutes a major step toward building capacity not only for managing risk to critical infrastructure but also in maintaining continuity of operations for the whole community in extreme events.