Disasters are defined in many ways. The World Health Organization (WHO, n.d.) defines disaster as “a situation or event, which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to the national or international level for external assistance.” The United States Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) defines it as an emergency that “requires responsive action to protect life or property” (USDHS, 2008, p. 138). Hammond, Arbon, Gebbie, & Hutton (2012) summarize these definitions in their statement that
A disaster is a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.” (p. 236)
Simply put, a disaster is a catastrophic event that overwhelms available resources. Disasters can be natural or anthropogenic (caused by human activity). In May 2016, a fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, destroyed 2,400 structures in the area, forcing more than 90,000 people to evacuate the region.
The fire grew so much that at one point it was creating its own weather and required firefighting reinforcements from across the country. All the stores and amenities in Fort McMurray were closed . . . and residents were told to boil their water. (Morgan, 2016)
Figure 13.1.1 Highway 63 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, May 3, 2016
“Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in South Fort McMurray,” by DarrenRD, is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 International License, via Wikimedia Commons.
Natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and extreme winter conditions occur more frequently than anthropogenic disasters such as civil unrest, terrorism, and armed conflict; in 2015, there were 376 naturally triggered disasters registered (Guha-Sapir, Hoyois, & Below, 2015). Disasters are typically considered “low probability, high impact” events (Saunderson Cohen, 2013, p. 21).
Planning for any type of disaster requires consideration of common elements including mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Canada’s Emergency Management Act recognizes the roles that all stakeholders must play in Canada’s emergency management system including “coordinating emergency management activities among government institutions and in cooperation with the provinces and other entities” (Emergency Management Act, 2007).