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date: 07 March 2021


  • David F. GillespieDavid F. GillespieWashington University in St. Louis


Disasters are a form of collective stress posing an unavoidable threat to people around the world. Disaster losses result from interactions among the natural, social, and built environments, which are becoming increasingly complex. The risk of disaster and people's susceptibility to damage or harm from disasters is represented with the concept of vulnerability. Data from the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and genocide in Darfur, Sudan, show poor people suffer disproportionately from disasters. Disaster social work intervenes in the social and built environments to reduce vulnerability and prevent or reduce long-term social, health, and mental health problems from disasters.

People have experienced natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, for as long as can be remembered. Disasters from nuclear power stations, toxic chemicals, and other potentially dangerous technologies have been added to the calculation of societal risks since the industrial age. The risk equation has been further complicated in recent years by the threat of terrorism, for which the variety of agents and targets areas cannot always be identified before the event. The increasingly interdependent nature of our world means that localized natural or human-made disasters affect people around the globe.

The concept of vulnerability offers a useful way to organize knowledge, plan effective responses, and guide ongoing efforts to reduce the negative consequences of disasters. Oliver-Smith and Button (2005) define vulnerability as a ratio of risk to susceptibility. The idea of vulnerability is grounded in distributive justice (Soliman & Rogge, 2002). The vulnerability concept was first introduced in the 1970s (O'Keefe, Westgate, & Wisner, 1976) but has recently resurfaced as an encompassing idea that is flexible and capable of integrating the wide spectrum of issues and challenges involved in reducing the casualties and damage from disasters (Cutter, 2006; McEntire, 2005; Villagran De Leon, 2006).

Disaster Definitions, Types, and Effects

There are many definitions of disaster. Frequently cited definitions view disasters as the prevention of essential functions (Fritz, 1961), the need to respond with exceptional measures (Carter, 1992), collective stress (Barton, 1969), and crisis situations (Quarantelli, 1998). According to Britton (1987), disasters differ from emergencies and accidents in two ways: disasters affect many people at the same time, while the degree of involvement and disruption is great. Disasters involve significant hardships and losses. Barton's explanation of disasters as collective stress is the most general, and thus the most useful, definition for guiding social work theory and practice. Stress theory classifies consequences according to disaster type, demands on the system and duration (Dodds & Nuehring, 1996). These properties fit with Barton's (1969) typology of collective stress situations and subsume all types of disaster, including conflict situations.

Disasters are classified as natural, technological, and synergistic. Natural disasters are defined by disruptions of physical agents. Examples of natural disaster include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tornados (Wijkman & Timberlake, 1984; Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2003). Technological disasters are defined by harm to people or damage to property from human-made materials or conditions. Technological disasters include hazardous material releases, transportation accidents, civil unrest or riots, and war (Cutter, 1991; Collier & Sambanis, 2003; Peek & Sutton, 2003; Perrow, 1984). Synergistic disasters are defined as two or more agents that together produce harm or damage not possible by any one of the agents independently. Synergistic disasters include drought, desertification, and famine (Middleton & Thomas, 1997; Walker, 2005). Particular disasters can involve a mix of these types, referred to as “complex disasters,” which occur most often in developing parts of the world (Aptekar, 1994).

In collaboration with the U.S. Office of Disaster Assistance and the Belgium government, the World Health Organization's Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters tracks 15 types of disasters with about 50 subtypes, reporting the time and location of disasters; number of people killed, injured, and displaced; the estimated cost of damage and reconstruction; and the amount of aid contributed ( Using the EM-DAT data, Guha-Sapir, Hargitt, and Hoyois (2004) summarize 30 years of the world's disasters and their consequences.

Disaster losses result from interactions among the physical environment, social and demographic characteristics, and the buildings, roads, bridges, and other parts of the constructed environment (Mileti, 1999). These systems and their interactions are becoming increasingly complex (Gillespie, Robards, & Cho, 2004). Each year, many people are killed or injured and many others suffer income and property losses. In 2006, Indonesia had 5,778 persons killed by an earthquake, while a typhoon and landslide combination in the Philippines caused 2,511 deaths (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 2007). The price tag of disasters has climbed to staggering heights; the worldwide estimated annual cost from all types of disaster has increased from about 1.1 billion U.S. dollars in 1960 to over 78.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2006.

Case Studies of Three Disasters

Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004)

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 was the world's largest natural disaster in 40 years, unprecedented in both deaths and damage (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2005). In response to estimates of 283,000 deaths, 14,000 missing and 1,130,000 displaced across the 14 directly affected countries (U.S. Geological Survey, 2005), the relief effort included a major international humanitarian response. While the tsunami's devastation was not discriminatory, certain groups were more affected than others. Children were particularly endangered because of the locations of impact and their limited ability to survive in the force of the water (Birkmann et al., 2006; Cosgrave, 2007). Moreover, Oxfam International (2005) raised concerns regarding the tsunami's impact on women. In Indonesia, for example, women have had to assume greater workloads in caring for extended families, and may be encouraged to marry earlier than in the past because of a post-tsunami gender imbalance. In India, the loss of assets, homes, and family members have contributed to greater gender inequality between men and women (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 2005). Overall, evaluations have highlighted shortcomings in ensuring participation and consultation with affected communities, competition between agencies, housing reconstruction, and exclusion of the most vulnerable sectors of society, including the aged, women, children, and people with a disability (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 2005).

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the north-central Gulf Coast of the United States, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,800 people, the displacement of more than one million and billions of dollars of damage from a combination of floods and winds. The majority of those who died from the disaster were elderly (Knabb, Rhome, & Brown, 2005). Katrina affected 90,000 square miles of land, extending from southern Louisiana to the Alabama–Florida border. The storm surge destroyed many towns in the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and the devastating breaching of levees in New Orleans resulted in the flooding of 80% of the city. It is estimated that the hurricane and the resulting flooding destroyed more than 300,000 single-family homes (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006).

The cost of repairs for the U.S. government from Hurricane Katrina has been estimated as of July 2006 to be over 107 billion U.S. dollars (Liu, Katz, & Fellowes, 2006). Private insurance costs are not published. The total economic impact depends on how long the recovery period persists. Although the economic losses had a relatively small impact on the U.S. economy as a whole, the hurricane destruction devastated many local economies, causing the loss of thousands of jobs and disrupted oil refining activities in the Gulf of Mexico for several months (Knabb et al., 2005). As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the population of New Orleans was dispersed across the southeast United States and other parts of the country, and the State of Louisiana experienced a significant population loss following the hurricane. The disaster response especially from the Federal government has been sharply criticized for being slow and ineffective. The reasons are many, including lack of presidential leadership, inadequate prevention and preparation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), extensive coordination problems between federal, state, and local response efforts, and an overall lack of capacity of responders (Basham, 2005). This lack of capacity was made apparent through media coverage in New Orleans at the Superdome serving as a shelter, where thousands suffered from lack of water, food, space, and restroom facilities. There have been accusations of blatant racism in the government's response as well as adamant denials that race played any role at all. Henkel et al.'s (2006) discussion of institutional discrimination, subtle biases, and racial mistrust explains why these issues continue to surface and some fear that it could happen again.

Civil Unrest, War, and Genocide in Darfur, Sudan (2003 to Present)

Violence in Darfur, Sudan, has led to a conservative estimate of 200,000 deaths (Hagan & Palloni, 2006) and 2.5 million displacements, including those living in internal refugee camps and others fleeing to Chad (Guha-Sapir & Degomme, 2006; Vasagar & MacAskill, 2005). The citizens of Darfur were pawns in the Sudanese political peace process, with the Junjaweed, a Sudanese military group, beginning a full-scale campaign against them. The conflict has been presented as a war between the Arab Muslim North and African Animist and Christian South, but Ylonen (2005) explains how culturally and regionally political, economic, and social marginalization and its effects lead to the conflict. The Junjaweed has eradicated whole villages, destroyed wells and fields, and stolen or ruined anything of value to the people of Darfur. The affected populations are suffering widespread disease and starvation, and many humanitarian organizations have been unable to serve the region because of the ongoing violence, ineffective security, and lack of access, as the Sudanese government continues to restrict international aid efforts. In addition to the government blocking humanitarian assistance, the Junjaweed have sealed off displacement camps and refuse to let necessary supplies be delivered. In Khartoum (the capital of Sudan), aid provisions are not released to agencies. On the few roads that exist in Darfur, roadblocks and hijackings occur regularly. The Junjaweed, together with the Sudanese military, have continued to systematically commit acts of mass murder, rape, torture, and mutilation in Darfur (Cheadle & Prendergast, 2007).

Responses to Disaster

International: Most major disasters are problems of international magnitude. All nations have hazards, although the range of disasters varies widely in various parts of the world. The Indian Ocean tsunami directly affected 14 countries and indirectly impacted many others. The genocide in Darfur is creating severe refugee problems in surrounding countries. Oliver-Smith (1994) notes that the policies and activities of one nation can increase risk in other nations. However, some progress is being made by countries working together to solve mutual concerns and challenges (Slaughter, 2004) and through dedicated efforts of global institutions such as the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, the Yokohama Strategy, International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and the Hyogo Declaration (Nates & Moyer, 2005).

U.S. Government: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, resulted in profound policy changes in the United States. This led to the creation of a major new agency. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Homeland Security Presidential Directive Five, entitled “Management of Domestic Incidents,” issued in 2003, authorized a radical change in the American government's approach to disasters. This approach is spelled out in the National Response Plan (NRP), implemented through the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The NRP specifies that extensive training is necessary for those operating in the system. The NRP is a complex, formal preparedness, and response plan intended to provide a comprehensive policy framework for coordinating federal, state, and local governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations and private sector resources (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2004). Nongovernmental and voluntary organizations are directed to collaborate with governmental first responders at all levels. The American Red Cross and National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which includes 39 national voluntary organizations, are mentioned explicitly as serving the emergency support function of mass care, housing, and human services. The NRP/NIMS represents a top–down management system, centrally coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security. Adjustments are being made to the NRP/NIMS as a result of the many problems surfacing during the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Some question the viability of a top-down approach, arguing that the complex nature of disasters demand a fluid, open, and adaptive organizational system (Pearce, 2003).

Social Work Roles in Disaster: Emergency Relief and Reducing Vulnerability

The disaster field is organized overall around a cycle of four stages: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (National Governors' Association, 1979). Mitigation and preparedness take place before disasters strike, and response and recovery take place after disasters have happened (Banerjee & Gillespie, 1994). Social workers have played major roles professionally and as volunteers in disaster work at the micro and macro levels. Social workers have traditionally been involved during the response and to some extent the recovery period (Zakour, 2006). Gillespie and Banerjee (1993) argue that effective response requires expanded involvement of social workers in all four stages.

Rogge (2003) points out that disaster social work is concerned with intervention in the social and physical environments of individuals and groups as a means of preventing serious long-term emotional, spiritual, and mental health problems after a disaster. Consistent with the complex nature of disaster, social work deals with problems at the individual, family, group, organization, community, and structural or institutional levels (Streeter & Murty, 1996). With community connections and knowledge of local values and norms, social workers can be involved with disaster mitigation, including mobilizing communities to support land-use planning and management, lobbying for stronger building codes and standards, expanding the use of disaster insurance, creating improved disaster warning systems, and working toward safer infrastructure (“lifelines”) to reduce vulnerability (Mileti, 1999).

Social workers also facilitate access to those in need, linking vulnerable populations to services and creating connections across service systems to improve distribution of resources (Gillespie & Murty, 1994). Some of the earliest social work research in the disaster field is on organizations and interorganizational networks (Gillespie, 1988; Gillespie, 1990; Gillespie, Colignon, Banerjee, Murty, & Rogge, 1992; Gillespie, Sherraden, Streeter, & Zakour, 1986). Zakour and Gillespie (1999) point out the advantages of linking government and nonprofit organizations in disaster preparedness networks, for example, the integration of government resources with the knowledge of community needs of local nonprofits.

Social workers are also integral to the disaster preparedness team, as they frequently provide traumatic stress services. These services include psychological debriefing to help victims understand typical stress responses, teaching useful coping mechanisms (Miller, 2003), and coordinating community resources (Gillespie, 1991; Gillespie, Colignon, Banerjee, Murthy, & Rogge, 1993). After the Oklahoma City bombing, Callahan (2000) found that debriefing by social workers helped police and fire fighters process their losses. Similarly, in Kosovar refugee camps, Drumm, Pittmann, & Perry (2003) found individual counseling helped refugees manage stress and emotional problems.

International social work organizations, including The International Federation of Social Workers and Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work, played a central role in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The organization launched the Families and Survivors of Tsumani Project (FAST,, which was designed to support the recovery of children, youth, and families who were impacted by the tsunami. FAST's goal was to ensure social–emotional support, advocacy, and planning and capacity building for family and community recovery.

The most important role for social work in disasters is reducing community and individual levels of vulnerability. Recent work on vulnerability focuses on changing the system (Cutter, 1996), and is highly consistent with social work values and practice (Gillespie, 2007; McEntire, 2004). These strategies for changing the system involve (a) using existing environmental laws to challenge construction and operating permits, decisions about locating or transporting hazardous materials, discharge permit violations, and underenforced statutes, (b) writing new legislation focused on environmental justice, (c) filing toxic torts where people claim injuries to their health or property, and (d) mobilizing grass roots activism focused on systemwide opposition to racism, poverty, and injustice. In addition to the relevance of social work, there are good reasons to make use of the vulnerability perspective. First, there is not much we can do to affect natural hazards, but we can reduce vulnerabilities. Second, vulnerability relates to every kind of hazard and disaster. Third, vulnerability takes into account both positive and negative features (capabilities or liabilities), thus incorporating individual and community resiliency. Fourth, vulnerability is a function of many variables representing different disciplines. Fifth, levels of vulnerability are continuously changing and must be periodically reappraised. Sixth, there are things that can be done during each phase of disaster to reduce vulnerability. The vulnerability perspective offers social work a way to build on its roots, contribute significantly to the disaster field, and reduce the human and material losses from disaster.


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