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What Is Disaster Resilience?

October 6, 2020

Our abilities to prevent and mitigate the dangers of disasters such as hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and terrorist attacks may have limits, but improving disaster preparation, response, and recovery planning can lessen their devastating impact and save lives. This is the work of disaster resilience leaders.

The loss of life and widespread suffering caused by disastrous events such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the COVID-19 pandemic underscore the critical need for disaster leadership and social assistance before, during, and after a crisis.Social workers are central to facilitating and supporting resilience in communities devastated by large-scale disasters. By combining counseling, advocacy, and education concepts into strategies throughout the disaster process, those in the role can mitigate the issues that may appear in the aftermath of a disaster while also helping communities remain strong. Those seeking an advanced social work degree with a focus on disaster resilience leadership need to gain a thorough understanding of what disaster resilience is and how effective leadership supports it.

Disaster Resilience at a Glance

Disaster resilience refers to the capacity of different groups and systems — individuals, households, communities, and markets — to absorb the effects of a disaster and recover from it. These disasters can have either natural or human causes. Common natural disasters include the following:

  • Tornadoes
  • Severe storms
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Tropical storms
  • Wildfires
  • Earthquakes
  • Droughts
  • Pandemics

Common human-caused disasters include the following:

  • Active shootings
  • Chemical spills
  • Utility outages
  • Bioterrorism
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Transportation accidents
  • Structural failures

Such events threaten our health, food and water supplies, personal security, economic growth, and mental well-being. Underlying factors, including climate change, political instability, poverty, and social inequities, exacerbate the risks that these events pose for a community.

Disaster resilience is not synonymous with disaster response: the relief work that occurs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as well as in the following days, weeks, and months. The field of disaster resilience includes not only response actions but also preparedness, mitigation, and long-term recovery.

The Threat of Natural Disasters Due to Climate Change

Discussions about disaster resilience and why it matters often delve into the causes of disasters. Unfortunately, climate change looms large as a cause and threatens to be larger in the future. The Fifth National Climate Assessment, a preeminent report on climate change that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) produced in 2023, noted that extreme weather and climate-related events were becoming more frequent, despite increased efforts to combat climate change. The USGCRP, with input from 14 federal departments and agencies, warned that such events would damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems and that the effects of the damage would not be experienced equally:

“Some communities are at higher risk of negative impacts from climate change due to social and economic inequities caused by ongoing systemic discrimination, exclusion, and under- or disinvestment. Many such communities are also already overburdened by the cumulative effects of adverse environmental, health, economic, or social conditions. Climate change worsens these long-standing inequities, contributing to persistent disparities in the resources needed to prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate impacts.”


The United Nations has also recognized the growing threat of disasters related to climate change, as evidenced by its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 objectives for creating a more sustainable future. The wide-ranging SDGs, which target issues ranging from poverty to clean energy, are heavily informed by the Sendai Framework, a document developed and adopted by the U.N. member states during the 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan.

Several of the 17 SDGs are related to disaster risk reduction and align directly with the Sendai Framework’s measures for preventing disasters and reducing disaster risk. For example, the Sendai Framework emphasizes disaster risk reduction as an integral part of climate change adaptation and sustainable development, and it promotes investments in technology development in disaster risk management research. These priorities are reflected in SDG 9 — which calls for building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation — and in SDG 13, which urges action to combat climate change.

A 2023 progress report regarding the SDGs revealed that climate crisis impacts had slowed progress toward achieving their 2030 benchmarks. The report also noted that the lack of progress was especially damaging to the world’s most vulnerable populations. The situation is dire enough that “unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been,” according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Disaster Resilience Leadership and Social Work

Social workers play an important role in leading and facilitating disaster recovery. Their values and practices align with the needs of supporting communities in the aftermath of a disaster. For example, social workers provide emotional and mental health support, including traumatic stress counseling, and they work to connect families to food, housing, and health resources. Also, they are focused inherently on reducing negative impacts on vulnerable communities. These competencies give them a unique perspective that disaster resilience professionals in other fields might not have.

Social workers with relevant training and experience in community organizing and policy development can play an even larger role in disaster resilience. Combining the core training of social work with disaster resilience leadership competencies creates a broad skill set that professionals can use to address the unique leadership challenges associated with disaster management. Social workers with these skills can coordinate public and private sector services and take proactive steps to reduce risk and increase resilience, such as:

  • Making sure communities and individuals have access to essential risk and hazard information
  • Ensuring that government organizations, businesses, and community organizations have inclusive disaster recovery and resilience plans in place
  • Forming community groups that can provide not only services after a disaster but also a vision for sustainable communities

Disaster resilience leaders also advocate for policies and investments that reduce the loss of life and economic damage associated with disasters. Examples include structural investments in infrastructure, particularly projects that can mitigate the potential damage caused by climate change. They also plan and advocate for nonstructural measures, such as the creation and enforcement of building codes, land use planning laws, business continuity, research and assessment resources, and public awareness programs.

Working to Build Resilience

Dr. Reggie Ferreira, a professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work, holds a keen interest in the types of disasters that most people find too mind-boggling and distressing to reflect on for long: destructive storms, humanitarian crises, and large-scale systemic abuses and injustices. This interest has anchored his postgraduate disaster and trauma research. Specifically, his projects focus on scrutinizing the disaster and trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina. This focus became nearly serendipitous as his career took him from his native South Africa to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Dr. Ferreira’s research has also drawn from what he has learned about Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing recovery effort to learn about other contemporary disasters. He examined how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico impacted people who had previously been affected by Hurricane Katrina in order to better understand the implications of repetitive disaster exposure. Dr. Ferreira also traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal, to discuss how lessons from post-Katrina recovery might be applied to the recovery effort that followed the 2015 earthquake there. Additionally, he has applied lessons learned to Puerto Rico, as its recovery from Hurricane Maria is far from over.

“Sometimes we’re so driven, especially in the West, to focus on what’s tangible, like bringing back infrastructure,” he says, “whereas my research is really more focused on the human element, which is often forgotten.”

The ideal upshot of Dr. Ferreira’s research, he says, is to allow people touched by disaster to educate themselves and find the resources and tools they need to heal. He also works to identify the factors that predict social vulnerability and conversely resilience.

Benefits of Dual Degree

Tulane’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership (MS-DRL) dual degree program uniquely brings together a graduate-level education focused on disaster and risk management with interdisciplinary leadership training. The MSW/MS-DRL curriculum includes a comprehensive range of disciplines and areas of study in disaster prevention and response, and how to apply social work and advocacy principles in crises.

Combining a core social work curriculum with disaster and risk management training prepares future leaders to identify threats facing a community, assess the likelihood of a given disaster and its potential damage, and develop risk strategies and policies.

Preparing for Leadership

The Online MSW/MS-DRL dual degree at Tulane University prepares students to launch careers in disaster resilience. The program’s unique curriculum and field internship program give students the knowledge to plan for the future and a changing environment. Contained within the School of Social Work, the interdisciplinary program also embodies Tulane’s dedication to teaching students about diversity and the importance of social and environmental justice.

Visit the Online MSW/MS-DRL program page to learn more about the unique opportunity to prepare for a career as a disaster resilience leader in social work.