Science of Disasters: The Disaster Life Cycle


DSC_0358Often disasters come to our attention as they are happening. In general the United States lacks a culture of preparedness. We are very reactive (as opposed to proactive) when it comes to disasters. In reality, the actual life cycle of a disaster includes much more than what is seen on the news.

Over the past 70 years, disaster researchers have found that disasters occur over a life cycle of four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (Carr, 1932). Throughout these phases, individuals and communities experience different needs that require the assistance of different organizations. Mitigation includes implementing measures to reduce or eliminate the threat of a disaster. This could include large city-wide projects, such as building levees, or individual efforts, such as purchasing flood insurance. Preparedness involves readying yourself or your community for the response to or recovery from a disaster in the future. City-wide preparedness may include installing tornado sirens, while individual preparedness may include creating a family evacuation plan. Response is what the public typically thinks of when imagining a disaster. It is the flashing lights, evacuation, search and rescue, and sheltering individuals. Typically organizations that are involved in response have systems in place to coordinate their efforts. Resources are usually more abundant than the public thinks because of an influx of resources (including donations) from outside the impacted area. Finally there is recovery, a phase that is often forgotten. Recovery involves restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the impacted area (Smith & Wenger, 2011).  

A great number of needs arise during recovery. Unfortunately because of the lack of planning, diversity of needs, the expense, and the length of time recovery often takes, many of these needs go unmet. Recovery is an aspect of disasters that is greatly in need of public awareness and, relatedly, resources. Coordinating the recovery process is a monumental task, with groups from inside and outside the impacted area coming together to meet the needs of the community (Phillips, 2009).

By looking at the big picture of the disaster life cycle, it becomes clear that most organizations focus their resources on response, often leaving recovery behind. Foundation Beyond Belief is committed to addressing these unmet needs during recovery, where help is often needed most.

This monthly blog series will explore the world of disasters and how Foundation Beyond Belief is creating evidence-based programs to mobilize the secular humanist community to respond.  


Carr, L. J. (1932). Disaster and the sequence-pattern concept of social change. American Journal of Sociology, 207-218.

Phillips, B. (2009). Disaster recovery. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Smith, G. P., & Wenger, D. (2007). Sustainable disaster recovery: Operationalizing an existing agenda. In Handbook of disaster research (pp. 234-257). New York: Springer.