Types of Disasters and Their Consequences

American Public Health Association 

In This Article


A disaster can be defined as an emergency of such severity and magnitude that the resultant combination of deaths, injuries, illness, and property damage cannot be effectively managed with routine procedures or resources. These events can be caused by nature, equipment malfunction, human error, or biological hazards and disease. Public health agencies must be concerned about the universal risk for disaster, the increase in natural disasters across the United States, the negative impact of disasters on public health, and the likely increase of actual and potential effects of manmade disasters.

A significant proportion of Americans are at risk from only three classes of natural disasters: floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Twentyfive to 50 million people live in floodplains that have been highly developed as living and working environments. Another 110 million people live in coastal areas of the United States, including the Great Lakes region. By the year 2010, 60 percent of the US population may be living within 50 miles of the East or West Coast. A category 4 hurricane has an 80 percent chance of hitting the coastal area from Maine to Texas.

Disasters pose a number of unique problems not encountered in the routine practice of emergency health care. Examples include the need for warning and evacuation, widespread urban search and rescue, triage and casualty distribution, and coordination among multiple jurisdictions, government offices, and private sector organizations. The effective management of these concerns requires special expertise. However, hospitals and other health care agencies must be able to address these situations quickly and effectively to meet the standards of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and the regulations of the Occupational and Safety Health Administration.


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