Responding to disasters

Disasters impact on entire communities. The immediate effects include loss of life and damage to property and infrastructure, with the survivors (some of whom may have been injured in the disaster) traumatized by the experience, uncertain of the future and less able to provide for their own welfare, at least in the short term. More than likely, they are left without adequate shelter, food, water and other necessities to sustain life. Rapid action is required to prevent further loss of life.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent aims to respond to disasters as rapidly and effectively as possible, by mobilizing its resources (people, money and other assets) and using its network in a coordinated manner so that the initial effects are countered and the needs of the affected communities are met.

The primary aims of disaster response are rescue from immediate danger and stabilization of the physical and emotional condition of survivors. These go hand in hand with the recovery of the dead and the restoration of essential services such as water and power. How long this takes varies according to the scale, type and context of the disaster but typically takes between one and six months and is composed of a search and rescue phase in the immediate aftermath of a disaster followed by a medium-term phase devoted to stabilizing the survivors’ physical and emotional condition.

The social, economic and political consequences of disasters are frequently complex. For instance, the disaster may:

  • disrupt vital community self-help networks, further increasing vulnerability;
  • disrupt markets over a wide area, reducing the availability of food and opportunities for income generation;
  • destroy essential health infrastructure such as hospitals, resulting in a lack of emergency and longer-term medical care for the affected population.

Moreover, the situation may be compounded by a secondary threat, such as earthquake aftershocks or epidemics. It is essential that disaster response activities do not make a bad situation worse by fostering dependency or destroying existing community-support mechanisms. Rather, they should lay the foundations for the subsequent recovery of the affected population. Disaster situations are highly fluid, evolve rapidly (often in unpredictable ways) and therefore require a close degree of coordination and cooperation between those involved in the response, including the affected community itself. Find out more

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