Several definitions are frequently applied to disaster. A disaster
can be an event that causes extensive destruction, death, or injury
and that produces widespread community disruption and individual
trauma (Hartsough & Myers, 1987). Disasters may be occurrences
of nature such as a hurricane, tornado, storm, flood, high water,
tidal wave, earthquake, volcanic eruption, drought, blizzard, pestilence,
or fire (American Red Cross, 1991); they may have a technological
cause such as hazardous waste contamination or nuclear accident;
or they may be the result of human error or equipment failure such
as transportation accidents, industrial accidents, dam breaks, or
building or structural collapse. In addition, acts of terrorism,
riots, kidnapping, and random acts of violence may be viewed as disasters.
The disaster may be either sudden or slow and insidious over several
months; it may be unexpected or have some degree of predictability
For policies related to the social work profession, it is important
to conceptualize disasters in a framework that encompasses the breadth
of responses compatible with social work knowledge and skills at
the macro, mezzo, and micro levels. Disasters are but one subcomponent
of extreme stress situations. This overall category of phenomena_extreme
stress situations_ may be subdivided into two major areas: (1) situations
that affect individuals (such as rape or other violent crime, a serious
home fire, or a tragic accident) and (2) extreme, collective situations.
A collective stress situation is one in which a social system fails
to provide expected life conditions for its members. Collective stress
situations are divided into disasters and conflicts; conflicts include
such events as wars, riots, and terrorist attacks (Quarantelli, 1985).
Using this framework, disaster trauma exists at two levels: individual
and collective. Disaster creates trauma for entire communities by
virtue of massive disorganization, immobilization of infrastructure,
and hiatus of customary leadership, all of which produce trauma,
grief, and a sense of helplessness in individuals, families, and
small groups owing to losses, severe disruption, and frustrated attempts
to obtain assistance and solve problems.
Across the duration of a disaster, four stages have been identified
that provide chronological targets for social work responses: (1)
preimpact, beginning when a disaster poses no immediate threat but
prompts mitigation and preparedness activities; (2) impact, or the
period when the disaster event takes place; (3) postimpact, or the
period immediately after the impact up to the beginning of recovery;
and (4) recovery, or the period in which disaster survivors are working
toward restoration of their predisaster state (American Red Cross,
1993). It is useful to services delivery to recognize the short-
and long-term stages of recovery; the latter sometimes require years.
For example, nearly three years after the assault of Hurricane Andrew
on South Florida in August 1992, the Miami Herald reported that more
than 1,000 families continued to live in severely damaged structures
Populations at Risk and Outcomes
Within a community affected by disaster, several categories of victims
can be defined: Primary or impact victims are those who have experienced
direct physical, material, and personal losses from the disaster;
context victims are those who have witnessed the destruction of the
disaster (such as the death or material losses of family or friends
and the sociocultural disorganization of the postimpact environment)
but have not directly experienced the specific impact; entry victims
are people who enter the impact area during the postdisaster crisis
period (such as police and military personnel, rescue workers, government
officials, and volunteers) and who are exposed to the death and destruction;
and peripheral victims are those who were not directly affected by
the disaster but who suffer distress and uncertainty over the safety
and well-being of family and friends (Bolin, 1986; Dudasik, 1980).
Among these categories of disaster survivors and victims are the
vulnerable populations of central concern to the social work profession:
poor people; older people; people with disabilities; people who are
isolated, institutionalized, or otherwise at risk; and all exposed
children. These populations may be among the most vulnerable disaster
survivors and may require special attention during preparedness,
immediate relief, and recovery.
The course of recovery is patterned and predictable, with steps
that include (1) heroism, (2) honeymoon, (3) response, (4) recovery,
and (5) reconstruction (American Red Cross, 1992). Effective interventions
are tailored to the phase of recovery. During these recovery phases,
it is common for a second disaster to occur: The emergency bureaucracy's
uncoordinated, ineffective, and at times misguided response and unwieldy
procedures often inadvertently create or magnify difficulties and
impose barriers to problem solving.
The outcomes of disaster events have immediate and long-term biological,
psychological, social, and environmental consequences, that social
workers from all fieLDF of practice will need to consider in their
response activities. Outcomes for victims and survivors, particularly
those who are most vulnerable, also include extensive damage to property
and possessions, dislocation, unemployment, health and coping problems,
and death. There are a range of reactions to the stress that are
universal, normal for the situation, and widely shared and that abate
naturally (Cohen & Ahearn, 1980). Typical reactions include feelings
of distress, grief, diminished role functioning, problems in living,
irritability, frustration, guilt, and disillusionment. But most disaster
survivors' individual behavior is organized, controlled, and adaptive.
Survivors often exhibit selflessness and personal strength. A strengths
model (as opposed to pathology and deficit models) should guide disaster-related
A significant percentage of survivors develop profound, debilitating
posttraumatic stress reactions requiring extended mental health interventions
rather than short-term disaster assistance. These extreme stress
reactions include fear and irrational behavior, shock, immobilization,
withdrawal, denial and intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, easy startle,
insomnia, decreased attention and concentration, and psychophysiological
reactions (Cohen & Ahearn, 1980; Forster, 1992). Children are
especially vulnerable and often display stress reactions such as
fear, sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, confusion, disruptive
classroom behavior, and aggressiveness (Farberow & Gordon, 1986;
Forster, 1992). Older people, who tend to be more resilient than
younger disaster survivors (Bell, 1978; Huerta & Horton, 1978),
also include a frail and vulnerable subgroup who may be displaced
from extended-care facilities in the disaster impact area. Other
high-risk survivors include people with physical disabilities; people
with histories of stressful life events and dysfunctional coping
patterns (Forster, 1992); and people with intense exposure to the
disaster's impact, including emergency workers, first responders,
and rescue teams. Rescue workers, working under a high degree of
concentration and physical demand, witness firsthand the breadth
of destruction, identify and remove the deceased, and are exposed
to situations that compromise their physical safety. Disaster personnel,
especially those who themselves are primary victims, therefore experience
the additive effects of the disaster event, the aftermath, and unique
occupational stressors (Hartsough & Myers, 1987).
Some survivors experience the reactivation of distress at anniversary
points. Furthermore, the phases of a disaster widely accepted by
the emergency response institutions_mitigation and preparation, response,
and recovery_fail to emphasize the long-term recovery stage, during
which a segment of survivors continue to struggle to reestablish
their homes or other predisaster circumstances at two, three, and
four years after the disaster. For some, especially those who were
highly exposed and bereaved, the experience of distress persists
past the disaster event for some time, even as long as 14 years (Green
et al., 1990). In many cases, the people or families plunged into
precarious economic situations as a result of the disaster or whose
situations were marginal before the disaster become substantially
worse off because of the disaster.
Research on the human services aspects of disaster has focused on
mental health outcomes. In a review of research on the effects of
disaster on mental health, Green (1993) found 131 quantitative empirical
studies of people exposed to natural or technical disasters. Many
of these studies were descriptive. The number of studies using control
group designs was fewer than 25. Natural prospective (single-group
pretest-posttest) and retrospective designs with large numbers of
subjects were few. Intervention research (assessing program or treatment
outcomes) was virtually nonexistent, as was research informing disaster
response services systems and structures (Dodds & Nuehring, in
press). The scarcity of disaster-related research is a result, in
part, of limited access to subjects (survivors) who receive postdisaster
Social work research on disasters is only now beginning to emerge
(Ager & Zakour, 1995; Cherry & Cherry, 1995; Dodds & Nuehring,
in press; Gillespie, Sherraden, Streeter, & Zakour, 1986; Rogge,
1995). Furthermore, little has been done to disseminate information
systematically about disasters and disaster response to social workers
through the established journals and communication channels of the
Management of Disasters
The social disorganization surrounding a disaster and the number
and types of responding organizations and groups create the need
for a well-ordered mass response system. For routine, daily emergencies,
local public and private entities have responsibilities typically
determined by charters and laws. A disaster, in contrast, may be
viewed as an occurrence of such magnitude that it cannot be managed
by a single entity or routine procedures. Consequently, a complex
organizational environment has developed to respond in disaster situations.
Federal laws (in particular, the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, the
Disaster Relief Act Amendments of 1980, and the Robert T. Stafford
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act) grant authority to
the federal government to provide assistance in defined disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers the federal
natural disaster relief programs and civil defense systems. FEMA
supplements state and local governments in emergency response operations
and may order any other federal agency (for example, the Departments
of Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, or Justice) to
directly help state and local governments. These agencies, in turn,
mobilize such functions and services as emergency transportation,
communications, emergency food distribution and mass care, housing,
direct financial assistance, emergency medical care, crisis counseling
programs, search-and-rescue operations, mortuary services, and construction
management (Myers, 1994).
To mobilize these organizations, a declaration of disaster is initiated
according to an increasing level of emergency. A local emergency
is declared when the governance of a city or county deems conditions
to pose an extreme threat to the safety of people and property within
that jurisdiction. When the disaster conditions threaten the safety
of people and property within a state, the governor may proclaim
a state of emergency, making mutual aid assistance mandatory from
other cities, counties, and state authorities. When damage exceeds
the resources of local and state governments, the president may declare
a disaster, which may activate two types of federal assistance as
provided for in the Stafford Act. Individual assistance may include
low-interest loans, individual and family grants, temporary housing,
and crisis counseling. Public assistance in a disaster declared by
the president may include search-and-rescue operations, repair and
replacement of public property such as roads, and debris clearance.
The president also may declare a state of emergency, which authorizes
emergency mass care, search-and-rescue operations, and emergency
transportation (Myers, 1994).
In addition to FEMA and state and local governments, several volunteer
agencies assume defined roles and responsibilities in disaster situations.
Chief among these is the American Red Cross. In 1905 a congressional
charter (reaffirmed by the Disaster Relief Act of 1970 and the Stafford
Act, as amended in 1988) designated the American National Red Cross
to conduct a system of national and international relief to mitigate
the suffering caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other
great national calamities and to develop and execute measures for
preventing these events (American Red Cross, 1991). Using voluntary
contributions, the Red Cross coordinates with local, state, and federal
resources to disseminate official warnings, conduct voluntary evacuation,
provide emergency shelter and services, and coordinate a trained
volunteer rescue corps.
A host of other key volunteer organizations are involved in disaster
response, including the Salvation Army (bulk food distribution, mass
shelter facilities, trained staff and volunteers, crisis intervention,
financial assistance), Volunteers of America (ambulances and air
transportation and rescue), the United Methodist Church, the Southern
Baptist Convention, the National Catholic Conference and Catholic
Charities, the Mennonite Disaster Services, and the Christian Reformed
World Belief (Myers, 1994).
Following two major airline crashes in the mid-1980s, the Dallas
branch of the Texas chapter of NASW, in cooperation with the Dallas
area chapter of the American Red Cross, submitted a request for mental
health disaster services that was later implemented by the National
Red Cross. As a result of this policy decision, several professional
organizations have entered into a statement of understanding with
the American Red Cross. NASW entered into such an agreement in 1990
(NASW & American Red Cross, 1990). The California chapter of
NASW, Los Angeles County regions, developed a statement of understanding
with the American Red Cross in 1993. These agreements were developed
to facilitate social worker participation in the planning, training,
and provision of mental health services to disaster victims and Red
Cross personnel as needed (NASW & American Red Cross, 1993).
Various NASW chapters have developed agreements with other volunteer
organizations, such as the North Carolina chapter's agreement with
the Salvation Army.
Disasters are collective, communitywide traumatic events that cause
extensive destruction, death, or injury and widespread social and
personal disruption. They apparently are becoming more frequent as
populations concentrate in coastal areas at high risk for natural
disasters such as hurricanes (Freedy, Resnick, & Kilpatrick,
1992) and in urban centers at high risk for technological and industrial
disasters (Baum, 1987; Freedy et al., 1992). Additionally, a changing
global political climate has led to an increase in terrorism and
random acts of violence. Striking whole locales, disasters may endanger
and overwhelm already vulnerable members of the community, such as
children and people who are older, disabled, isolated, institutionalized,
in out-of-home care, or living in compromised housing.
In addition to empirical studies that have accumulated on the effects
of disasters, much practice wisdom has evolved around the delivery
of disaster assistance. Even though an immense emergency response
system of voluntary and government organizations has become established,
disasters continue to be undermitigated, not prepared for, and significantly
mismanaged. This "second disaster" is cited as creating
more long-lasting and severe stressors for survivors and victims
than the original disaster (Cohen & Ahearn, 1980; Myers, 1994).
Much remains to be understood, and many systems and policies require
significant refinement, if not reconcept-ualization, if disaster
response is to advance in quality and effectiveness.
NASW has adopted a disaster policy at the national level for four
1. Disasters are large-scale catastrophes that affect whole communities
or multiple communities in geophysical, social, and psychological
2. The trauma and deprivation resulting from disasters often are
magnified for those with few resources and reduced opportunities
to rebuild homes and replace losses. As such, vulnerable populations,
such as children, older people, or people with disabilities, are
likely to be among those especially affected by disasters.
3. Of all the allied health and human services professions, social
work is uniquely suited to interpret the disaster context, to advocate
for effective services, and to provide leadership in essential collaborations
among institutions and organizations. Individuals, families, groups,
neighborhoods, organizations, schools, interorganizational networks,
and whole communities require intervention. Furthermore, compatible
with social work epistemology, disaster assistance must be construed
holistically, encompassing the physical, developmental, psychological,
emotional, social, cultural, and spiritual needs of survivors. Finally,
respected disaster response modalities readily translate to the language
of empowerment and classic, generalist social work practice.
4. Although social workers have been quick to respond to need in
the immediate aftermath of disasters, they have largely provided
direct casework and, at times, community organization services to
survivors and have received little recognition for their efforts.
Social work's input in planning for disaster response at national,
state, and local levels has usually been negligible; social work
research on disaster is only now emerging (Ager & Zakour, 1995;
Cherry & Cherry, 1995; Dodds & Nuehring, in press; Gillespie
et al., 1986; Rogge, 1995). Practically no intervention research
has been done to date on the outcomes of disaster assistance efforts.
The importance of the potential contribution and role of social work
warrants more than ad hoc, intuitive, spontaneous responses on a
disaster-by-disaster basis. Effective disaster leadership and a proactive
presence on the part of the profession require preparation, direction,
training, and rehearsal.
NASW supports participation in and advocates for programs and policies
that serve individuals and communities in the wake of disaster. NASW
- the prevention or mitigation of the adverse consequences of disaster
and effective preparation for disaster by individuals, families,
social networks, neighborhoods, schools, organizations, and communities,
especially where vulnerable populations are concentrated
- enhancement of the efficiency, effectiveness, orchestration,
and responsiveness of disaster relief and recovery efforts to prevent
the second disaster phenomenon that magnifies the trauma of the
- the provision of mental health and social services to survivors
in a context of normalization and empowerment, with sensitivity
to the phases of disaster recovery and with understanding of the
unique cultural features of the affected community and its populations
- attention to the protracted recovery phase of disasters that
leaves substantial numbers of people without resources, without
resolution of their losses, and with little opportunity to restore
their predisaster quality of life
- attention to the special and critical training, stress management,
and support needs of disaster workers in all capacities, from administrative
to field staff, and the need to respond to their circumstances
as victims and survivors
- education of social workers and social work students in the specialized
knowledge and methods of trauma response and critical incident
- the development of rigorous disaster research, especially intervention
- the development of a cadre of well-trained disaster professionals
committed to effective interdisciplinary and interorganizational
collaboration in disaster planning and disaster response, at both
the administrative and direct services levels
- the presence, commitment, and leadership of social workers in
- the provision of accurate and effective public information on
the normal stages of disaster reaction, functional coping methods,
and strategies for accessing and successfully using the disaster
Ager, R. D., & Zakour, M. J. (1995, March). Network
exchange and the coordination of disaster relief services. Paper
presented at the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social
Work Education, San Diego.
American Red Cross. (1991). Statement of understanding
between the American Psychological Association and the American
Red Cross (ARC Publication No. 4468). Washington, DC: Author.
American Red Cross. (1992). Disaster mental health
services I: Glossary of terms (ARC Publication No. 3077-1A). Washington,
American Red Cross. (1993). Disaster services regulations
and procedures (ARC Publication No. 3077-1A). Washington, DC: Author.
Arthur, L. (1995, April 6). Two S. Dade cities angered
over vote on hurricane relief fund. Miami Herald, p. 28.
Baum, A. (1987). Toxins, technology, and natural
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crises, and catastrophes: Psychology in action (pp. 9-53). Washington,
DC: American Psychological Association.
Bell, B. D. (1978). Disaster impact and responses:
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Bolin, R. (1986). Disaster characteristics and psychosocial
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11-36). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Cherry, A. L., & Cherry, M. E. (1995, March).
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Paper presented at the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on
Social Work Education, San Diego.
Cohen, R. E., & Ahearn, F. L. (1980). Handbook
for mental health care of disaster victims. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
Disaster Relief Act of 1970, P.L. 93-288, 88 Stat.
Disaster Relief Act Amendments of 1980, P.L. 96-563,
94 Stat. 3334.
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments
of 1988, P.L. 100-707, 102 Stat. 4689 to 4711.
Dodds, S. E., & Nuehring, E. M. (in press). Preparation
for disaster: A formula for social work research. Journal of Social
Dudasik, S. (1980). Victimization in natural disaster.
Disasters, 4, 329-338.
Farberow, N. L., & Gordon, N. S. (1986). Manual
for child health workers in major disasters (DHHS Publication No.
ADM 86-1070). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Forster, P. (1992). Nature and treatment of acute
stress reactions. In J. H. Gold (Series Ed.) & L. S. Austin
(Vol. Ed.), Clinical practice: Volume 24. Responding to disaster
(pp. 25-52). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Freedy, J. R., Resnick, H. S., & Kilpatrick,
D. G. (1992). Conceptual framework for evaluating disaster impact:
Implications for clinical intervention. In J. H. Gold (Series Ed.) & L.
S. Austin (Vol. Ed.), Clinical practice: Volume 24. Responding
to disaster (pp. 3-23). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Gillespie, D. F., Sherraden, M. W., Streeter, C.
L., & Zakour, M. J. (1986). Mapping networks of organized volunteers
for natural hazard preparedness (Publication No. PB87-182051/A09).
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DC: Georgetown University Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry.
Green, B., Grace, M., Lindy, J., Gleser, G., Leonard,
A., & Kramer, T. (1990). Buffalo Creek survivors in the second
decade: Comparison with unexposed and nonlitigant groups. Journal
of Applied Social Psychology, 20, 1033-1050.
Hartsough, D. M., & Myers, D. G. (1987). Disaster
work and mental health: Prevention and control of stress among
workers (DHHS Publication No. ADM 87-1422). Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.
Huerta, F., & Horton, R. (1978). Coping behavior
of elderly flood victims. Gerontologist, 18, 541-546.
Myers, D. (1994). Disaster response and recovery:
A handbook for mental health professionals (DHHS Publication No.
SMA 94-3010). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
National Association of Social Workers/American Red
Cross. (1990). Statement of understanding between National Association
of Social Workers and the American Red Cross. Washington, DC: Authors.
National Association of Social Workers/American Red
Cross. (1993). Statement of understanding between the California
chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Los Angeles
County regions and the American Red Cross. Los Angeles: Authors.
Quarantelli, E. L. (1985). An assessment of conflicting
views on mental health: The consequences of traumatic events. In
C. R. Figley (Ed.), Trauma and its wake: The study and treatment
of post-traumatic stress disorder (pp. 173-215). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency
Assistance Act, P.L. 93-288, 88 Stat. 143.
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to technological and natural hazards: Tool for empowerment. Paper
presented at the Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social
Work Education, San Diego.
Austin, L. (Ed.). (1992). Clinical practice: Responding
to disaster. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Green, B., Grace, M., Lindy, J., Titchener, J., & Lindy,
J. (1983). Levels of functional impairment following a civilian
disaster: The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. Journal of Consulting
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Holen, A. (1991). A longitudinal study of the occurrence
and persistence of post-traumatic health problems in disaster survivors.
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Lima, B., Pai, S., Lozano, J., & Santacruz, H.
(1990). The stability of emotional symptoms among disaster victims
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to an industrial disaster. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 355
(80 Suppl.), 131-137.
Policy statement excerpted from Social
Work Speaks, 5th Edition: NASW Policy Statements, 2000-2003, from
NASW Press (2000).