The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for disaster scholarship, and emergency management practice and policy communities. Issues that these communities have grappled with for decades have taken on new urgency thanks to the ongoing global threat.“The question of how disasters should be defined, including the extent to which they are socially constructed, are important ones.”
Since the founding of disaster research, the question, “what is a disaster?” has been a central point of debate, concern, and interest among scholars, resulting in academic articles, opinion essays, and multiple books.1See, for example, Ronald W. Perry and E. L. Quarantelli, What Is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions (Xlibris Corporation, 2005). The question of how disasters should be defined, including the extent to which they are socially constructed, are important ones. Within the emerging discipline of emergency management, however, the necessity of managing events has resulted in a tentative model of hazard event types that has largely side-stepped this conversation in order to meet the public’s needs before, during, and after crises.
Efforts to explore where the pandemic fits within our traditional conceptualization of hazard events is of particular importance now as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing. This event is poised to generate a new wave of disaster research and better understanding the pandemic’s place can increase the value of their findings. Moreover, appropriately defining the pandemic can improve response and recovery effectiveness, potentially saving lives and protecting communities.
Categorizing hazard events
Many of the events that might popularly be considered disasters differ in significant ways. Scholars have argued that “disasters” generally fall into one of at least three distinct categories: emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes.2CRC Press, 2016More Info → The implication is that what might be described as a “disaster” may in fact be a different type of hazard event (i.e., an emergency or a catastrophe).
Emergencies are events that are primarily managed locally using existing plans and procedures to address relatively limited impacts and needs (e.g., the 2020 Chicago car pile-up). Disasters have more impacts and needs, require participation from many more organizations, and necessitate more complex procedures and plans than those used during an emergency (e.g., the 2011 Joplin tornado). Disasters include the emergence of spontaneous response efforts and convergence of people and resources to the impacted area.3Allen H. Barton, Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations (Doubleday & Company, 1969). In a catastrophe there are widespread impacts and needs covering a large geographic area. Local, and often national, organizations are overwhelmed, and regional or even international assistance is needed, though it is slow to arrive. Existing plans and procedures are insufficient and extensive improvisation and outside leadership is required (e.g., Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure).4For robust discussions on these differences see Erik Auf der Heide, Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Coordination (CV Mosby, 1989).; E. L. Quarantelli, “Emergencies, Disasters and Catastrophes Are Different Phenomena” (working paper, Delaware Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 2000); John Barnshaw, Lynn Letuka, and E. L. Quarantelli, “The Characteristics of Catastrophes and their Social Evolution: An Exploratory Analysis of Implications for Crisis Policies and Emergency Management Procedures” (working paper, Delaware Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 2008).
The Covid-19 pandemic clearly exceeds the bounds of the emergency and disaster categories. But is it a catastrophe?
Like a catastrophe,5For a description of the characteristics of catastrophic events, see Quarantelli, “Emergencies, Disasters, and Catastrophes.” the Covid-19 pandemic has created widespread impacts—not only to a regional community, but to a global one, impeding the ability for communities to support one another. In the United States, community functions have been sharply curtailed. Local resources, including emergency organizations, have been directly impacted in many places. The pandemic has garnered widespread national and global media attention that has contributed to shaping the understanding of the event, particularly as reality has been disputed and politicized.“Rather than the widespread destruction of housing and infrastructures, the pandemic has manifested through illness and death, economic recession, and strain on health and governance systems.”
However, the Covid-19 pandemic differs from the current articulation of catastrophic events in seemingly important ways. Rather than the widespread destruction of housing and infrastructures, the pandemic has manifested through illness and death, economic recession, and strain on health and governance systems. Local leadership has largely remained intact, allowing for locally led responses. Although, like in a catastrophe, federal leadership has been necessary to provide technical expertise and specific resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. The help that usually converges from surrounding communities has largely been absent given the diffuse nature of needs and impacts. Finally, where ordinarily catastrophes (as well as emergencies and disasters) are relatively short in duration and contained geographically, the pandemic is a global event that will require a possibly years-long response.
At this early stage, there is evidence to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic does not neatly fit within the existing classification of hazard events (e.g., types of impacts are atypical, local leadership remains intact, duration of the event itself is long). It may be the case that the pandemic is an indication that the catastrophe category needs to be expanded or there may be a need for an additional category that has yet to be articulated.6There has been brief mention of the possibility of a “mega-catastrophe” category, see Barnshaw, Letuka, and Quarantelli, “Characteristics of Catastrophes and their Social Evolution.” For a discussion of complex humanitarian emergencies, see J. M. Albala-Bertrand, “Responses to Complex Humanitarian Emergencies and Natural Disasters: An Analytical Comparison,” Third World Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2000): 215–227. It is also possible that what is necessary is a fundamental reimagining of how hazard events are categorized and compared to better represent our lived reality.7Outside of the emergencies/disasters/catastrophes framework, there are other event categorization schemes from related disciplines and related international scholarship. These schemes are valuable and useful, but the differences in terminology and, occasionally, in language, make it difficult to integrate them into this discussion. Some may interpret the inability to categorize the pandemic as a failure of the hazard event conceptualization, but we view it as an important moment for refinement.
Implications for research, practice, and policy
It is in the best interest of disaster researchers and the public to further explore the unique nature of the different categories of hazard events, to establish their similarities and differences, and their implications for emergency management practice and policymaking.
Contextualizing events within this categorization framework is important for disaster theory. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure, E.L. Quarantelli, in an essay for the SSRC, argued for categorizing the event as a catastrophe, not a disaster. Quarantelli’s observations laid the groundwork for disaster research done by other scholars in the wake of Katrina to situate their own work within a catastrophe framework.8See, for example, Havidán Rodriguez, Joseph Trainor, and E. L. Quarantelli, “Rising to the Challenges of a Catastrophe: The Emergent and Prosocial Behavior following Hurricane Katrina,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604, no. 1 (2006): 82–101. Quarantelli argued that the scale of the event must be taken into account by the research to prevent a mis-generalization of the findings to other types of hazard events.9E. L. Quarantelli, “The Disasters of the Twenty-first Century: A Mixture of New, Old, and Mixed Types,” (working paper, Delaware Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 2006).
Although research suggests the way that we respond to emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes are categorically different, disaster researchers have tended to generalize research findings across event types. This represents not only poor scientific practice, but also may be dangerous for the public, especially if decisions about management are made based on this research. As global research initiatives are undertaken, it is especially important for researchers to consider these theoretical issues.“It is a foundational goal of an emerging academic discipline like emergency management to distinguish between phenomena and determining how the pandemic compares to other types of hazard events is in line with this goal.”
Our purpose in this essay is not to be prescriptive about the meanings of words, but instead to illuminate the value of identifying how hazard events differ. It is a foundational goal of an emerging academic discipline like emergency management to distinguish between phenomena and determining how the pandemic compares to other types of hazard events is in line with this goal. We agree with Quarantelli that while explicit definitions are not necessary for the continued advancement of social science research on disasters, further conceptual clarity is both valuable and necessary.10Routledge, 1998More Info → This is not just a theoretical exercise, but also a practical one.11Quarantelli, “Emergencies, Disasters, and Catastrophes.”
The differences between types of hazard events necessitates that emergency management efforts, including the preparedness for, response to, and recovery from those events be handled differently. The assumptions that must be made when planning for and responding to an emergency, disaster, or catastrophe are necessarily different from one another.12Quarantelli, “Emergencies, Disasters, and Catastrophes.” For example, requisite resources (including staff time), strategies for mobilization, demobilization and remobilization, and relationships and responsibilities across government agencies and throughout the community are different from one type of event to another. Practice has long recognized the differences in planning required to respond to emergencies as compared to disasters, and the entire emergency management system has been built to recognize this difference. Yet, practice does not yet fully recognize catastrophes as being events unique from disasters. Furthermore, planning in this way ignores events that stand on the fringes of these conceptualizations, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
The absence of a shared conceptual understanding of an event like the pandemic can result in confusion, which has consequences, not just for how the event is understood, but more importantly, for how it is managed. Disaster researchers have warned that when a catastrophic event is responded to as though it is a disaster the response will fail. Although the ongoing pandemic does not fit neatly into a category, as discussed above, it is most appropriate to view it through the lens of catastrophe, rather than a more localized and less impactful disaster.“The federal emergency management system is designed to respond to disasters, not catastrophes.”
In order for local and state emergency management agencies to have any hope of managing catastrophic events effectively they will require increased funding and a larger, more educated, specialized, and diverse staff than most currently have. This is of particular urgency not only in the midst of the pandemic but also as the consequences of the climate crisis begin to manifest across the country. At the federal level, legislators, officials, and bureaucrats must recognize that the nature of some types of events, like a nationwide pandemic, necessitate not only federal resources, but also federal leadership. Yet, the federal emergency management system is designed to respond to disasters, not catastrophes. This has been underscored by the absence of effective federal leadership throughout the course of the Covid-19 response.
In the same way that practice has evolved to recognize the differences between managing an emergency and a disaster, practice must now evolve to recognize the differences between managing a disaster and a catastrophe. US federal emergency management policy was developed to support the management of disasters caused by what has typically been defined as natural and man-made hazards. The Stafford Act, signed into law in 1988, is the cornerstone of federal emergency management policy. It outlines the declaration process and types of assistance that can be provided to states and localities for emergency management purposes.
In March, questions were raised about whether the Stafford Act could be invoked for the pandemic because “viruses” were not explicitly written into the language of the law. Senator Kamala Harris introduced a bill to expand the Stafford Act to include pandemics.13Then-presidential candidate Julián Castro had also proposed changing the Stafford Act’s list of hazards to include what he called “hybrid events,” indicating that the incompleteness of the hazards identified by the Stafford Act had captured the attention of lawmakers even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was never voted on and the White House approved a state of emergency and major disaster declarations for every state and territory anyway. (Tom Ridge, an author of the Stafford Act, wrote a hurried op-ed indicating his intent was for the Stafford Act to be used in a pandemic despite the words themselves not appearing.) This instance shows the precarity on which the entire governmental emergency management system rests—that a misinterpretation or an overly stringent reading of the Stafford Act could mean it’s not used in the midst of the greatest domestic crisis in living memory.
Also problematic, from our perspective, is the Stafford Act’s definition of disasters as “natural catastrophe[s],” suggesting fundamental misunderstandings of terminology. Properly using evidence-based terminology and defining hazard events by their characteristics and impacts, rather than by the hazards they result from, would expand the list of events for which the Stafford Act could be invoked.
This is particularly important now because our hazardscape is evolving with climate change, increasing globalization, development and new technologies.14For example, transboundary events which cross the boundaries of various policy systems leading to more complex events are described in E. L. Quarantelli, Arjen Boin, and Patrick Lagadec, “Studying Future Disasters and Crises: A Heuristic Approach,” in Handbook of Disaster Research, ed. Havidán Rodriguez, William Donner, and Joseph Trainor (Springer, 2018), 61–83. Emergency management policy that relies on a static set of hazard types will fail to address new but impactful threats. Policy that does not rely so heavily on hazard type and instead favors a more holistic understanding of events, including hazard event type, could strengthen national emergency management policy and better meet the changing needs across the country.“Policymakers need to reform our emergency management system so that it is flexible enough to effectively manage all event types, not only events that fall within our traditional understanding of disasters.”
In addition to confusion over how hazard type legally affects response, the broader emergency management system faces at least two additional problems related to hazard event types. First,
this system is not set up to effectively manage catastrophes or events that fall outside the traditional classification. Therefore, any response to an event that is catastrophic or more significant will be inadequate. Second, we lack a shared understanding of how to identify hazard event types. As a result, even if the US emergency management system could effectively manage catastrophes, if its practitioners do not recognize that the event they are managing is a catastrophe, the response will again be inadequate. Policymakers need to reform our emergency management system so that it is flexible enough to effectively manage all event types, not only events that fall within our traditional understanding of disasters.
Disaster research and pandemic policy
The Covid-19 pandemic reveals fundamental problems that undercut disaster theory, practice, and policy. The existing categories of emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes, as they are currently conceptualized, exclude certain events. Epidemics and pandemics, because their characteristics differ so significantly from the traditional understanding of natural and technological hazard types, break the bounds of the classification structure, and challenge the traditional thinking in the United States.
It is not the usual tradition of disaster researchers to identify the points of failure in an ongoing response, often because response is so ephemeral. The timing of the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for disaster researchers to inform decisions made by policymakers, practitioners, and the public as the response unfolds, which is especially important while there is still time for lives to be saved.
In the same way that Quarantelli challenged researchers to “think outside of their usual perceptual boxes” in the aftermath of Katrina we are now challenged again to do so with the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an old conversation with new importance not only in the face of the pandemic but also in our increasingly complex world.
Banner image: New York National Guard/Flickr.