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What's a disaster?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE, MD | January 22, 2002

"It's easy to see how the term 'disaster' becomes more and more slippery."

—Dr. Z. Allen Abbott

If the 9/11 attacks had killed 30 people instead of 3,000, would they still be called a disaster? And if a terrorist act is both a crime and a disaster, could a school shooting share those same classifications?

Questions like these could spark lively lunchtime debate among disaster responders -- if they ever had time for lunch. It's worth pondering: just what is it we're responding to anyway?

"It's easy to see how the term 'disaster' becomes more and more slippery," said Dr. Z. Allen Abbott, director of the American Baptist Men, a group that in October deployed disaster response teams to clean more than 800 apartments in and around New York's ground zero.

Usually Abbott's teams are on the ground within hours of a natural disaster. "But the New York City operation changed all that for us. It was not until Oct. 21 that we actually began operations. I don't think anyone in our network will ever again think only of natural disasters when they hear the word 'disaster.' "

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began actively defining acts of terrorism as disasters after the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. And former President Clinton, in a presidential decision directive signed in June 1995, designated FEMA as the lead federal agency for "consequence management" in the event of a terrorist attack.

Virtually every disaster responder agrees that the World Trade Center collapse would have been a disaster regardless of its cause. "If it had been caused by two off-course airplanes accidentally flying into the buildings, we would have considered it a disaster as well," pointed out Bob Arnold, associate director for capacity building and evaluation for Church World Service's (CWS) emergency response program.

Whether human acts -- terrorism, accidents, crime -- cause disasters largely depends on how many lives are lost or how much property is damaged. But there's also no set number of lost lives or dollar value of destroyed property that turns an isolated incident into a disaster. Instead, an incident is often considered a disaster when responding to it depletes local or state resources.

Is a school shooting ever a disaster? "It depends the scope and scale," said Arnold. "And a school shooting is not a terrorist act. It's a crime. The difference between crime and terrorism is intent: terrorism has political goals - it makes statements, gains public attention, seeks to destabilize the political or economic or social milieu."

But both terrorism and crime and cause disaster, he added. For example, "arson - a crime - could cause a major disaster depending on lives lost and property damaged."

The worst school shooting in U.S. history -- at Littleton High School where two teenage gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher before shooting themselves -- was a state-declared disaster in Colorado.

"It activated the National Guard and allowed the expenditure of funds from the State Disaster Emergency Fund," said Polly White, public information officer for the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. "It was not, however, raised to a federal level because it didn't deplete the state's resources."

State-level definitions of disaster generally include acts of terrorism but many are loose enough to conceivably include crime as well. Colorado, for example, defines disaster in part as "the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural cause or cause of human origin."

Colorado also activates its state disaster operations "to avert danger or damage" and includes "civil disturbance" among the specific potential disasters it lists.

CWS defines a disaster as an occurrence -- whether it's a shooting, terrorist attack, or tornado -- that "produces human suffering or creates human needs that survivors cannot alleviate without assistance."

Allen and the American Baptist Men have adopted this definition, he said. "We are not claiming we can respond to all these events. But it helps us understand the broad scope and keeps the emphasis on human suffering. In my opinion, school or office shootings should qualify."

But Ken Curtin, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison, is not so sure. "All events have many classifications," he said, the way a terrorist event could also be thought of as a crime, mass murder, or attack.

Curtin said he simply doesn't hear crimes such as school shootings regularly referred to as disasters. "I haven't heard them referred to as such, neither in the public vernacular nor in emergency management circles," he said.

It seems to depend on the scope of the incident, said Jane Morgan with the American Red Cross, and whether the immediate local area has resources available to respond. "A school shooting in, say, Chicago involving one person does not have the same impact in that community as the same shooting in a rural town," she said.

"So there are a lot of variables and it is definitely not an easy question."

If disaster responders disagree on the definition of "disaster," they do agree that individuals and organizations alike can play key roles in disaster preparedness.

New heights of public awareness after the Sept. 11 attacks will help people be more prepared not only for potential acts of terrorism but also for natural disasters and even crime, responders said.

White said that, in Colorado, public information messages now include "awareness of your surroundings" as a way to prepare for disasters. "We'd always pushed 72-hour kits, emergency contacts, rally points for families - which are as good for terrorism as for any other disasters. But we now add things like 'be aware of conspicuous behavior, pay more attention to those emergency exits, report suspicious activities.' "

The Sept. 11 attacks have changed individual and group perceptions about who's supposed to get involved, added Curtin.

"It would be very difficult today to find a New York City human services agency that did not take on some disaster responsibility since the attack and that did not regret not knowing more about disaster human services response beforehand -- the programs and the players."

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