The Life Cycle of a Disaster


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The Life Cycle of a Disaster

Roger Daniel

Uniqueness and Commonality of Disasters

While no two disasters are identical, they do have common phases. Individual communities progress through these phases at different rates depending on the type of disaster, the nature of disaster exposure, and the degree of disaster response.

This progression may not be linear or sequential, as each person and community brings unique elements to the recovery process. Individual variables such as psychological resilience, social support, and financial resources influence a survivor’s capacity to move through the phases. While there is always a risk of aligning expectations too rigidly with a developmental sequence, having an appreciation of the unfolding reactions to disaster is valuable.[2]

Contributing Circumstances

  1. Scope: refers to size; a local tornado is smaller in scope than a hurricane like Katrina; a small-scale disaster may leave infrastructure intact (communications, food, water, electricity, etc.) The larger the scope of a disaster, the longer the life cycle.
  2. Intensity: refers to the emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact, as well as the physical destruction; the more intense a disaster, the longer the life cycle.
  3. Duration: refers to the total time period a disaster actually takes place; longer duration creates a longer state of hyper vigilance; hurricane season has a longer duration than a single hurricane; the longer the duration, the longer the life cycle.
  4. Multiplicity: refers to the amount of personal exposure or number of times a person has been exposed to a disaster; often results in an accumulation of trauma and stress.
  5. Situational Difference: refers to how significant a person perceives a disaster to their personal situation; renters and the homeless will not be affected by the loss of property in the same way a homeowner might be.


Some disasters have little or no warning, such as earthquakes, explosions, or terrorists attacks. A hurricane usually has advanced warning and time to prepare. Others fall somewhere in between, such a tornadoes and floods. But with an effective disaster preparedness and response plan communities can lessen the impact of a disaster.

Unfortunately, in many communities disaster preparedness often sits on the “back burner” with the thought “it won’t happen to us.” The old saying, “Noah didn’t wait until it was raining to begin working on the ark,” conveys what may be the most important principle in disaster preparedness – don’t be a day late.

Another factor influencing pre-disaster action is the individual’s threat assessment in relationship to the actual risk. The risk may indeed be high, but if the individual assesses the threat as low, he or she is unlikely to take appropriate safety precautions.

IMPACT PHASE: Duration: Minutes/days 

The impact phase is the actual time in which a disaster occurs. It can last a few minutes (tornado, earthquake, terrorist attack) or days (hurricane, flood, forest fire). Common reactions may include confusion, disbelief, shock, and fear. Spiritual reactions may include spontaneous prayer, calling out to God, scripture reading, and singing, depending on the nature and duration of the disaster.

The focus is primarily on personal safety and then the safety of others. Families separated by long distances may experience anxiety until they know their loved one is safe.

RESCUE/HEROIC PHASE: Duration: 1 day/week; longer with larger disasters.          

This is the post-impact phase – the activity immediately following a disaster. It may last a day, a week, or more, depending on the extent of the disaster. It is marked by:

  1. Confusion/chaos.
  2. Triage (formal/informal).
  3. Search and rescue.
  4. People rushing to locate loved ones.
  5. Adrenaline/extreme activity.
  6. Survivors helping survivors.
  7. Strangers helping strangers.
  8. Shelters opened; people housed and fed.
  9. Work crews, chain saws, and other rescue items/equipment.
  10. “Miracle” stories of survival/rescue are common.

Efforts to communicate and coordinate rescue efforts are often frustrated by the loss of electricity, telephones, and email – also a problem for those trying to contact loved ones (spiking anxiety). A survivor’s gratitude to be alive may be joined with survivors’ guilt and a sense of personal vulnerability.

The aftermath seems surreal, and the graphic nature of the damages and losses usually result in emotional trauma. Yet, morale is normally high as people direct their energies into meaningful tasks. “Psychological arousal results in high level of activity but cognitive impairment (confusion, difficulty comprehending, problem solving, setting priorities) often contribute to a low level of efficiency and effectiveness. People rushing to help others are often inattentive to safety, and injuries frequently occur in this phase.”[3]

HONEYMOON OR REMEDY PHASES: Duration: Days/weeks/months 

This phase is marked by optimism and a sense of community cohesion among those who have shared a catastrophic event and lived through it – people coming together to rally support. Common to this phase:

  1. Public statements from government officials offering emotional support and assurances of assistance.
  2. Those with insurance think it will cover losses. Those without it often think government assistance and/or donations will help them recover.
  3. Survivors may feel gratitude to be alive with the sense that God is watching over them.
  4. Those who lost loved ones are often comforted by community support.
  5. There may be a sense that the worst is over.
  6. There may be a sense of continuing threat (aftershocks, terrorist attacks, etc.).
  7. Faith communities are usually very busy:
    • Funeral services for the deceased.
    • Spiritual care for survivors.
    • Hospital visits to the injured and their families.
    • Prayer vigils, memorials, and other religious services.
    • Organizing their own faith community if their own facilities are damaged or destroyed.
  8. Meetings between governmental and private industry leaders to focus on needs and develop plans for recovery/reconstruction.


This is perhaps the most difficult phase, and some survivors never get beyond it. It begins when the reality of their loss hits home. It is characterized by:

  1. Deep grief over losses:
    • Death of loved ones; dreams and future hopes; injury related losses.
    • Loss of property and treasured items.
    • Loss of jobs.
    • Loss of financial stability: depletion of savings; mortgages still owed on destroyed properties; difficulties with rebuilding.
  2. Crisis of faith; survivors reevaluate matters of faith.
  3. Frustration with insurance: inadequate insurance; delays in payment; unresponsive agents; etc.
  4. Frustration with government: city, county, and state leadership; federal bureaucracy; FEMA; disaster relief programs; etc.
  5. Frustration with paperwork, red tape, documentation requirements, changing rules, the number of agencies to connect with, etc.
  6. Frustration with temporary housing and disaster food.
  7. Feelings of abandonment as the media move on to the next big event.
  8. Victims of price gouging or unscrupulous builders.
  9. Schools may have been closed, requiring children to be transferred or placed in temporary accommodations.
  10. Higher risk of suicide.

Life is not better for them, but people act as if it is or should be, which can lead to the stigmatization of victims as people wishing to avoid the victims of trauma. “These victims remind us of our own profound vulnerability to unexpected and unplanned events. Such stigmatization increases isolation of the victims and frequently their experience of self-blame. Often the stigmatization of the victim is the result of the expectation and wish of others that the individual “be all better now.”[4]

Survivors come are confronted with just how much they have lost and hit with the stark reality that their life will never be the same. It is also during this time that people decide how to best rebuild in the context of their new reality. There is a growing awareness that their future hopes cannot rest on bureaucracies, and they must take personal responsibility for moving forward to rebuild.

Most survivors discover their own resiliency, and few require professional mental health services. They often find personal strength and resources of which they were previously unaware. The journey forward is not easy or smooth, but marked by setbacks and roadblocks, which are gradually overcome as they pass through the darkest times.

It is perhaps in this phase when spiritual care is most necessary. Chaplains must stay when the media leave.


This phase begins when survivors and the community have worked through the worst of their loss, grief, and frustration, and may continue for many years. Be aware of trigger events that can add stress:

  1. Anniversary of the disaster or dedication of memorials.
  2. Unpredictable events such as a similar disaster striking again or in a neighboring community.

[1] This material is adapted from “The Life Cycle of a Disaster” by Rabbi Steven B. Roberts, BCJC, in Spiritual Disaster Care. (Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 3-16.

[2] L.H. Zunin and D. Meyers, in D.J. DeWolfe, Training Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters, 2nd ed., DHHS publications no. ADM 90-358 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2000).

[3] D. Meyers and D. Wee, Disaster Mental Health Services (New York: Brunner Routledge, 2005), 20.

[4] Ursano, Individual and Community Responses to Trauma and Disaster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 404.

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