Defining a Disaster

"We can be afraid or we can be ready, and Americans are not afraid."

Tom Ridge, Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security

Women talk with emergency personnel at the site of a fire.The inherent nature of disasters means they can strike quickly, at any time of the day or night, with little to no warning.

By definition, a disaster is, "an occurrence causing widespread destruction and distress, a grave misfortune, a total failure..." A disaster is often further defined as being either a man-made or natural event that results in death, injury, and property damage which cannot be managed through normal, routine channels. A disaster requires immediate and effective intervention of multiple government and private sector organizations to help meet the needs of the community and area just after the disaster occurs and the area and people begin to recover.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sites the following as being characteristic of a disaster:

  • Creates demands that exceed the normal capacities of any one organization and/or government.
  • Crosses jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Changes the number and structure of responding organizations which may result in the creation of new organizations.
  • Creates new tasks and engage participants who are not ordinarily disaster responders.
  • Disables the routine equipment and facilities needed for emergency response.
  • Compounds the difficulty of understanding "who does what" in disaster response due to the complexity of governments.
  • Are impacted by lack of standardization in disaster planning and response and complicated coordination in time of disaster. In addition, organizations inexperienced in disaster often respond by continuing their independent roles, failing to see how their function fits into the complex, total response effort.

Examples of natural disasters that might affect Oklahoma include floods, tornadoes, ice storms, and drought. Examples of man-made disasters that could affect Oklahoma include explosions, fires, hazardous material spills, plane crashes, and train wrecks. Civil disruptions are also classified as disasters and include terrorism, riots, and bombings.

On a state and local level, emergency management personnel and disaster preparedness teams have evaluated the likelihood of different types of disasters occurring and have or are currently developing plans to address each of those disaster scenarios.

A disaster may be "officially" declared through actions of the state governor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or the President of the U.S. This process is put into action when the disaster is beyond the capabilities of state and local governments to respond and handle.

When the President declares that a major disaster or emergency exists, an array of federal programs are activated to assist in response and recovery efforts.

The type and scope of assistance is defined and coordinated by FEMA, now a part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security.