Common Stages of Disaster Recovery
Disasters and mass disruptive events can be extremely unpredictable and chaotic. Even though that is a valid characterisation of catastrophe, disaster experts have discerned a general pattern or cycle of phases that a community and the individuals in it go through from the time of impact of a disaster to establishing a newly reconstructed life.
Disaster responders and relief personnel of all sorts may encounter very different situations and get very different reactions from the disaster-stricken community, depending on what phase the recovery effort is at. A general four-stage cycle has been identified. We look at the prevalent emotions, commonly-found behaviours, and the resources which tend to be most important during each phase.
Phase 1, Heroic
Occurring at the time of impact of the disaster and in its immediate aftermath, the Heroic phase is characterised by a shell-shocked community with emergency needs for food, water, and shelter.
Grief and loss are strong at this stage, but so too are emotions of altruism. There is a sense of the heroic, of people responding from the highest, most sublime part of themselves to help fellow human beings by rescuing, offering needed supplies, and generally giving the best of themselves to meet dire needs. The firemen who went up into the stricken Twin Towers after the 9/11 attacks in New York, thereby endangering and sometimes losing their own lives, are a good example of this.
The community sees many heroic actions, and much energy goes into saving others’ lives and property, even sometimes before one’s own is looked after. An example of this occurred after both Hurricane Katrina (2005) and also the New Zealand earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, when first responders, such as the Search and Rescue teams, toiled long hours to rescue and assist survivors even though their own homes had been demolished in the disasters.
The family groups, neighbours and emergency teams on the scene immediately are the most important source of help in the first post-disaster hours.
Phase 2, Honeymoon
From a few days after the disaster to about three to six months onward (depending on the disaster), a community tends to be in the honeymoon phase.
Survivors — and their loved ones — feel relief at survival, and often there is still an emotional “high” of “I survived. That is what matters. The rest we can deal with.” There is a strong sense in the community of having shared a terrible experience and lived through it. Public officials are often praised for their role in saving lives and organising relief efforts. For agencies such as the Red Cross, there is an excellent opportunity for fundraising. This is because people open their wallets with relative generosity as a result of feeling moved by the intense media coverage of widespread suffering and touching tales of rescue and survival. Survivors experience high expectations about the help that they will get from official and governmental agencies towards rebuilding their lives: partly because many promises are made to them at this stage.
It is easier to recruit volunteers during the Honeymoon phase than later on, as those giving want to know how to give help as well as material goods or money. The communications task of agencies is to help manage the expectations of all parties: survivors, the community, and general public, about what assistance the agencies themselves will be able to give. Communications must also help volunteers learn how to give help: what is needed, where, and how to deliver it. At this stage, survivors — with the help of volunteers, usually — clear out debris and await the promised help.
Community groups which existed before the disaster (and were not wiped out by the disaster) are crucial at this stage, as well as new groups which emerge to meet specific needs developing directly from the disaster.
Phase 3, Disillusionment
Inevitably, reality sets in. Governments put conditions on the assistance they will give, insurance companies find reasons not to pay out on survivors’ once greatest asset — their home — and the media and some helping agencies go home. This phase can last from several months to up to two years.
No longer the focus of the world’s (or even the region’s) attention, survivors begin to experience a strong sense of anger, resentment, bitterness, and deep disappointment if they now begin to experience delays, failures, and/or unfulfilled hopes or promises of aid. People are exhausted by now, worn by the extreme stress of ongoing recovery effort.
At this stage, survivors question aid and governmental agencies’ promises, intentions, service delivery, and achievements. The grim reality of just how long and difficult a road it will be back to “normal” presents itself. People concentrate on rebuilding their own individual lives and solving individual problems. The feeling of “shared community” is lost. Both community leaders and aid agencies have a role here in disseminating correct information, and trying to do damage control with misinformation that spreads via the rumour machine (and these days, on social networking sites as well).
Many of the outside agencies that were active at previous phases now pull out. Local agencies may be shown to be quite weak without the outside aid, and alternative sources of funding and assistance need to be explored by the community — and possibly by individual families as well.
Phase 4, Reconstruction
Lasting for several years following the disaster, this is the long-term phase of disaster recovery. It may proceed at a glacial pace and is probably not supremely interesting to the media (until anniversary days of the event, when follow-up media reports are prepared).
The emotions that appear here can vary widely according to (1) the status (emotional and financial) of survivors, (2) the manner in which previous stages were handled, and (3) the actual level of resources that have come available: more resources equals less survivor stress, and the converse is also true. Survivors realise that they are ultimately responsible for solving the problems of their lives. If recovery efforts are visible, the community — and through that the individuals in it — achieve a sense of efficacy, that sense of being empowered that fuels further recovery. If community efforts towards recovery are not visible, individuals are more at risk for succumbing to PTSD and other serious mental and physical un-wellness.
Mostly, the behaviours seen at the Reconstruction phase are those of self-responsibility. In the best case scenario, individuals and families have assumed control of their own recovery, and new construction plans reaffirm belief in their capabilities and capacity to recover. If things have been mishandled all along, and/or there are few resources available for re-construction, behaviours will tend to be more dysfunctional: the apathy of depression may be seen instead of focused movement towards re-establishment of “normal”.
At the last phase of recovery here, the people of the community and the groups who have a long-term investment in it are the crucial components. (Hallock, D., 2010; North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, 1999)
- Hallock, D. (2010). Understanding the four phases of disaster recovery. Retrieved from: hyperlink.
- North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. (1999). Common stages of disaster recovery. Retrieved from: hyperlink.
This article was adapted from the “Psychological First Aid” Mental Health Academy course. This short course will equip you to successfully enter a disaster relief setting or situation of narrower-scale adversity, and offer Psychological First Aid, promoting safety, calmness, empowerment, connectedness, and hope to survivors.