What is a Disaster? (Part II)

So here is Part II of the old article.  Based on some emails and feedback on Part I, I’m writing a Part III (Final) piece, so watch for that in the future.


There are many types of disaster but in general, they tend to fall into two categories: natural disaster and man-made disasters.  However, it’s not so easy to put a situation into one bucket; it’s not all black or white.  Sometimes there are grey areas and by definition, the disaster may not fit into a single disaster category.  Here is how the two categories can be further split;

  1. Man-made Disasters (Intentional) – I think in many respects this      one speaks for itself.  This is the      category where you put such things as terrorism and those that      intentionally try to cause harm to someone or something.  It could be to blow up a building – like      the World Trade Centre disaster in 2001 – or it could include such things      as roaming gangs causing problems (and in many cases casualties) while      trying to establish territory for their drug operations.  It can anyone that starts a fire that      gets out of control and apartment blocks go up in smoke with people      loosing everything.  If it’s      premeditated and intentional then it would fall into this category.  It’s the most common category for      man-made disasters.
  2. Man-made Disaster (Unintentional) – Sometimes there are disasters      caused by people that aren’t intentional and aren’t premeditated.  I don’t believe that electricians and      welders intentionally start fires while they are working.  Sometimes a spark from a torch will      ignite a rag, some old dry wood or cabling and cause a major fire.  The situation is still man-made – or the      trigger was caused by a person – but there was no intentional malice      behind it.  It could simply have      been an accident, an error in judgement or lack of proper procedural      training that caused the fire.
  3. Man-Made Natural Disasters      (Unintentional)      – This category may not be so obvious.       These natural disasters can be caused as a result of human      interference with natural events.       For instance, the building of dams and the clearing of forests for      development can cause erosion to occur that can enhance the threat of      floods.  Often, the surrounding      landscape and the trees soak up the water the roots help strengthen the      soil that surround them.  But if      that is removed to help build a new mall for suburbia, it can cause the natural      environment to no longer provide the protection it once did.  It wasn’t done with intention –      hopefully – but what will trigger the natural disaster is the fact that      human changed something with the natural environment to cause potential natural      disasters to occur.  Here’s another      way of looking at it.  A wild and      thunderous storm can cause landslides, flood and other damage yet, the      landslide may not have been triggered by rain but due to man having      cleared the hillside of trees and other brush that – if untouched –      would/could have prevented the landslide from occurring.  I’m not suggesting that a hard rain      can’t and won’t cause a landslide but it might occur because of a decision      made by us.  The overall situation      will be determined a natural disaster because it was weather related to      start with but the consequences of the storm and bad decisions by man,      caused the relating scenario that caused the landslide.  The rain didn’t cause the landslide, the      decision my man to clear the land of trees quite possibly caused that      component of the disaster.  Make      sense?
  4. Natural Environmental Disasters – This is another category that      speaks for itself.  When you think      of natural disaster you think of lightening storms, tsunamis, earthquakes,      tornadoes and hurricane’s – among many other natural disasters that can      occur.  If the situation is      triggered by natural or environmental events then the situation or rather      the disaster, falls into this category.       Like the ‘man-made’ category, this is one of the two main categories      for disasters.


Often, the trigger will determine if it’s a man-made or natural disaster, not the resulting responses that are implemented as a result of the disaster.  What category would we put such things as ‘over-fishing’ or the killing of rare animals?  They are man-made disasters – or can be – and they can cause disasters for people.  The destruction of the environment by man can cause animals such as bears to enter town and cities, which if not addresses appropriate can place people in jeopardy.  Living inCanadaas I do, we do hear of stories of people being attacked by animals because man has caused problems for their environments driving them into areas they wouldn’t’ normally enter.  Are the natural or man-made disasters?  Or do they only count as a disaster until a person is involved / harmed?

So, what is a disaster?  It’s whatever an organization or person perceives it to be in some respects.  If the situation can be managed – either proactively or with adequate response mechanisms in place – then it won’t be a disaster.  If there are no risk mitigation strategies or continuity plans in place, the same situation could be termed a disaster for the company without those strategies and plans.  One situation; two corporations but because of what has been implemented and developed – such as a BCM program – one will experience a disaster while the other may not.

From a personal perspective, the closer I am to a situation and the greater the impact it has on me, the more I will see it as a disaster.  The farther away I am and the less impact to me, the less I will see it as a disaster – with a capital “D”.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t have feelings for those impacted but I won’t have the same definition of the disaster as those that are actually impacted by it.

A disaster is more than just the failure of a technology component or the obvious natural disasters such as tornadoes and forest fires, which incidentally can be caused by people.  A disaster is the level of tolerance and impact you’re willing to manage before it either gets out of hand or begins to hamper what you’re doing.  If a corporation can manage a serious situation and have the right mechanisms in place to respond – or mitigate the situation – the less of a disaster it might become.  And even then, the level of disaster / crisis management might be of a high quality and execution but the level of impact on other parties may also be significant, which will cause the situation to become a disaster even when a corporation has the right mechanisms, training, response plans and contingencies in place.

Pigeon-holing a situation to fit this type of disaster or that type of disaster isn’t as simple as it may seem.  It’s also not as easy to understand that what might be a disaster for one may not be for another.  A disaster can be many different things to many different corporations, peoples, industries and communities.  It’s our job as BCM professionals / practitioners to be aware of this and help corporations understand what a disaster is for them – the corporation – and ensure the right assessments; analysis and contingency strategies are developed.

What’s a disaster?  In short, it can be anything…  I think that covers it pretty well.



The new book by StoneRoad founder, A.Alex Fullick, MBCI, CBCP, CBRA, ITILv3, “Heads in the Sand: What Stops Corporations From Seeing Business Continuity as a Social Responsibility.”  Available at www.stone-road.com **



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s