The Disaster Life Cycle


Typhoons, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, famines and other disasters affect millions of people and cause billions of dollars in damage each year. Many of these events are impossible to predict precisely, but the disaster response community has a variety of tools it can employ to reduce their effects. The community understands these tools as arrayed across a “disaster life cycle” that includes work from prevention efforts all the way through long-term recovery and “building back better.”

Copyright 2021 Center for Disaster Philanthropy

The disaster life cycle includes several phases:

  • Mitigation: Disaster mitigation work involves directly preventing future emergencies and/or minimizing their negative effects. It requires hazard risk analysis and the application of strategies to reduce the likelihood that hazards will become disasters, such as flood-proofing homes or buying insurance.
  • Disaster preparedness: Disaster preparedness efforts include plans or preparations made in advance of an emergency that help individuals and communities get ready. Such preparations might include the stocking of food and water or the gathering and screening of willing volunteers, ready to mobilize post-disaster.
  • Disaster response: Disaster response work includes any actions taken during or immediately following an emergency, including efforts to save lives and to prevent further property damage. Ideally, disaster response involves putting already established disaster preparedness plans into motion. Typically, this phase of the disaster life cycle draws the most attention. It is also known as “disaster relief.”
  • Disaster recovery: Disaster recovery happens after damages have been assessed and involves actions to return the affected community to its pre-disaster state or better – and ideally, to make it less vulnerable to future risk. Risk identification includes understanding the nature of hazards as well as understanding the nature of vulnerabilities. Subsequent efforts may range from physical upgrades to education, training and public awareness campaigns.

Most people give financially immediately after a crisis, in response to clear emotional appeals. Yet donors who allocate funds across the disaster life cycle have an opportunity to help ensure that each dollar given reaches its full potential. Investing in mitigation saves money. Research estimates that for every $1 spent by federal mitigation grant programs (Federal Emergency Management Agency, Housing and Urban Development or Economic Development Administration) at least $6 is saved in casualties, property damage and the like. On an international scale, it is more challenging to determine savings as each country faces different risks and mitigation needs.

The U.S. research, conducted by the nonprofit group the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), found that over the past 23 years these three departments invested $27 billion in mitigation grants as outlined below. It resulted in $158 billion in societal savings (see chart).

Source: Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2018 Interim Report

Key Facts

  • Too often the only time disasters are talked about is after a disaster hits a community. However, discussion of disaster preparedness, response and recovery must take place before a disaster occurs to increase impact and to avoid duplication of efforts and less efficient use of donated funds.
  • Donors can achieve impact with disaster relief throughout the disaster life cycle. Historically, the donor community has measured impact almost exclusively by meeting immediate needs in the wake of a disaster. The benefits of disaster mitigation, preparedness and disaster recovery are less obvious but no less important.
  • Vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the poor and the chronically ill are often the hardest hit in disasters; preparedness efforts that focus on them can be especially effective. Communities should inventory their own resources, capabilities and challenges so that a record of needs—and who might be able to help meet them—already exists when a disaster hits.

How to Help

Private dollars can help with disaster relief throughout the disaster life cycle. Suggestions for donors include:

  • Seek to incorporate the entire disaster life cycle in funding efforts, from preparedness through recovery. Strategic, long-range planning cuts down on waste and duplication of efforts.
  • Fund efforts to “build back better.” In addition to the restoration of communities to their pre-disaster status, seek opportunities to reduce further disaster risk. Communities in high risk areas that suffer repeatedly from chronic fires, tornadoes or floods, for example, should be relocated or rebuilt using materials that resist extreme natural forces.
  • Foster conversations between key players. Gather representatives from across the community—including both government and non-government sectors—to discuss options, strategies, resources and potential shared initiatives. Work on developing high-level relationships to build awareness and effectiveness, as well as to cut down on duplication of services and waste in the event of a disaster.   
  • Invest in studies and pilot programs that explore the benefits of disaster preparedness and mitigation. Pilot programs must be adequately staffed and technically supported. Those involved must have access to accurate and complete information, grounded in the local context. In addition, the publication and dissemination of best and promising practices can help raise awareness of what’s working and what’s not.
  • Support inclusive planning efforts/innovative strategies in disaster preparedness. Seek opportunities to shore up agencies that work with special needs populations so that when disaster strikes, a plan will already be in place for minimizing harm and for coordinating relief and recovery efforts. Promote efforts to ensure that local emergency management officials—both domestically and internationally—know how to design and manage inclusive plans. Understand the importance of creating culturally appropriate conditions for recovery, such as shelters that are staffed by people who understand diverse cultures and stocked with culturally appropriate food and medicine, for example.
  • Use the Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy tool to gain information. CDP and its partners at Candid (formerly Foundation Center), annually produce the Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report that analyzes spending on disasters across the world in all categories of the disaster life cycle. You can use this report and its associated mapping tool to get insights into how funders are supporting all stages of a disaster.

What Funders Are Doing

It is rare to find a grant that purports to fund “the disaster life cycle” so in this Insight we at CDP chose to focus on mitigation, risk reduction and preparedness grants to give funders and donors a sense of the kinds of programmatic interventions they could support in this area. Throughout the other Issue Insights, CDP mostly describes response and recovery grants, so we wanted to provide a balance of perspectives.

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