Disaster Phases

Breaking the Notion of Disaster Phases

By: Homolata Borah, The author is Assistant Professor, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi and Researcher at the Special Centre for Disaster Research, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Disaster phases are not linear. They may overlap and even occur simultaneously. The complexities in disaster phases are attributed to the social, cultural, economic, political forces influencing the web of flow— and disaster risk management needs to consider moving beyond conventional notions of phases.
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Disaster risk management (DRM) is an evolving discipline. In this evolution, it is perhaps at a stage where environmental management was 20 years ago and the field of development economics some 60 years ago. In the theoretical construct of DRM, the notion of ‘disaster cycle’, marked by separate disaster phases has been widely in use over the last three decades. Taxonomies of disaster phases prescribing separate units of disaster diagrammatically and theoretically are ideas encapsulating the flow from one phase to another but are exclusive of complexities and overlaps. Slippages in DRM are often the result of rigid compartmentalisation of disaster phases. But disaster phases may overlap, be simultaneous, and hence may not be linear. Social, cultural, economic and political forces bring about complexities with them and influence the web of flow.

At different stages of the evolution of the theory and practice of DRM , scholars have reconsidered and redefined these phases. Researchers have used disaster phases to organise important findings and recommendations about disasters (Neal, 1997). Life cycle approaches have provided insights but are not enough to explain social changes. Hence, there is a need for reconsidering the phases of disaster encompassing evolved societies, which requires elaborate research.

This article reviews how the notion of phases has been used over the years to categorise the stages of disaster. Carr (1932) attempted to categorise disaster into four phases. The preliminary or prodromal period is the first phase. Here, underlying forces gear up to cause collapse. The dislocation and disorganisation phase comes second, which refers to deaths, injuries and other losses. Then comes the readjustment and reorganisation phase, which includes community response, culture, morale, the speed to cope up and its complexities. Finally, there is the confusion-delay phase.
This is the period between the disaster event and the actual operation of emergency plans. The phases proposed by Carr describe post disaster responses.

Powell (1954) classifies seven periods of disaster: pre-disaster conditions, warning (precautionary active), threat, impact, rescue, remedy and recovery.  Suggested phases of disaster are a subject of space and time, which evolve constantly, making the capture and reflection of ground realities a challenge. There is a need for collaborative effort and in situ identification of the factors that impact disasters. This demands constant engagement of different agencies.

The two distinct pre-and post-disaster phases may occur at the same time. Disaster management is a terrain where a multitude of dynamic forces operate and needs to be managed during the pre-disaster phase, the actual occurrence of disaster, and the post disaster phase. DRM phases therefore represent complex codes of processes of forces in operation, which are transitional in nature.

There is a clear distinction between pre-and post disaster phases, as proposed by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) and as stated in the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP).  The adoption of the phases of disaster by organisations with similar objectives is discontinuous. There is no distinct and clear model adopted to portray the phases
of disaster.

NDMA marks the period before disaster occurrence as the capacity building phase wherein measures for prevention, mitigation and preparedness are consolidated. The post disaster period includes the period of response, assessment, immediate relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of the disaster impacted communities.

NIDM, on the other hand, divides the phases of disaster into two primary groups: pre-disaster risk reduction phase, which encapsulates prevention, mitigation and preparedness; and post-disaster recovery phase, which encompasses response, recovery and development.

The NDMP also follows a similar cycle representing the phases of disaster.  It broadly divides the disaster phase as pre-and post-disaster phase. The pre-disaster phase incorporates preparedness, mitigation, prevention and risk reduction, while the post-disaster phase includes response and recovery.

According to flow diagrams (Figures. 1, 2 and 3),  to prevent disasters—preparedness and prevention may occur simultaneously and preparedness may even take place before mitigation. Reconstruction can overlap with preparedness, whereby disaster resistant techniques are adopted to minimise the impact of disasters. Some elements of rehabilitation can also be embedded in the pre-disaster phase. These systems of operation are multidimensional.

DRM operations on a regional level should be amalgamated with community based disaster management. As a result the sequence of the phases and the nature of overlap will vary. Regions operate as open systems, whereby external influences have deterministic role and reshape the already strategised model.

The world’s largest riverine island district, Majuli, Assam, may be contextualised to understand the notion of phases of disaster. Majuli suffers from floods more than twice each year. The only island district in India, Majuli, bounded by the Brahmaputra in the south and Subansiri in the north, receives about 1,710 mm of rainfall annually. Heavy rainfall, followed by an increase in the levels of the Brahmaputra cause frequent flooding (Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority, undated). This frequency presents many challenges for DRM. The complexities pertaining to disaster cycle, which bring up obstacles for disaster management in Majuli can be discussed to understand why disaster phases are more complex than we consider them to be and that the stages suggested in the cycle of disaster management do not operate in the given order. The reconstructions of houses affected by erosion are also a part of the preparedness realised in the pre-disaster phase of the cycle. This phase may include the adoption of stilt bamboo housing technique like that of the Mishing tribal groups, which leads to no household asset losses.  Certain constructions targeted to protect the embankments practiced in the post-disaster phase can also be a part of preparedness. The usage of cultural centres to build capacities to prevent floods can also overlap in the preparedness period.

Majuli, or any other place that has a fragile ecosystem, presents difficulties for operations using a singular phase flow. Communities affected by erosion may be building their economic structures from the start. In addition, the reconstruction phase can be summed up with receiving relief and other services like health care, rescue etc., which are a part of the immediate relief and response as realised in the post-disaster phase.

NIDM suggests development as the climax stage of the disaster phase. Development is implemented through the construction of roads, protection of new embankments with geo-hazard bags, porcupine structures etc. This can also be categorised under prevention techniques.

The reality of regions and the operations of the underlining forces on them is way more complex than the conceptual and diagrammatic resources available. Case studies of different regions vary and outline unique sets of challenges, which can be adjusted within the solution frameworks.

Regional realities break the notion of disaster phases. In cases where disasters have been frequent, resilience has also developed. This may be lopsided but some degree of minimisation of losses or minimised risks is witnessed. Odisha’s super cyclone in 1999 caused about 10,000 deaths, but in the cyclone Phailin that occurred in 2013, mortality was significantly reduced. This is a result of the investments made in the preparedness phase—as early warning systems, better governance, and collaborative efforts. This clarifies that the segment on recovery phase over a period of time has reduced. Reduced recovery and a larger preparedness phase result in  resilient communities effectively managing and minimising the losses of disasters. The endeavour of DRM should target for a gradually decreasing recovery and response phase.

Conventional disaster phases are limited in the sense that they do not cover the progress that has been made in DRM  in different regions, from varied experiences. Thus the phases adopted by scholars and administrative organisations do not allow reflections of the changes and progress made by communities.

Disaster Phases | Endnote

Phases are not inevitable and therefore their suitability is limited. Breaking of disaster cycles should be a significant objective of DRM. Resilient communities can be found having overlapping disaster phases with reduced recovery, reconstruction and rebuilding phase and a larger component in the prevention, mitigation and preparedness phase. It is vice versa for less resilient communities. The preparedness phase for the communities is also subject to shrinkage, owing to the already well established structure prepared to deal with disasters. The organised structure of DRM can potentially be disorganised with intervention of unfamiliar disaster types. For example, issues of climate change can create newer risks in an already flood prone area.

The march towards significantly reduced losses demands breaking the cycle of disaster whereby established systems deliver efficient responses to disaster scenarios, with constant decrease in pre- and post-disaster time period.


Lowell C., 1932. Disaster and the sequence Pattern concept of Social Change, American Journal of Sociology, 38: 207-218.

National Disaster Management Authority, 2016, Disaster Management Cycle, Available at: https://bit.ly/2NCeUy8

________________, 2014. Understanding Disasters, Available at: https://bit.ly/2ObrOT6

David N.M., 1997.  Reconsidering the Phases of Disaster, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 12 (2): 239 – 264. NIDM, “ Understanding Disaster”, also available at    http://nidm.gov.in/PDF/Disaster_about.pdfaccessed on 20th July, 2018

Powell, J.W., 1954. An Introduction to Natural history of Disaster, Baltimore: University of Maryland Disaster Research project.

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