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Publication #FCS9254

Effective Community Response to Disaster: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness and Response1

Mark Brennan, Randall Cantrell, Michael Spranger, and Muthusami Kumaran 2

This paper is part of a series of discussions on the impact of community action in response to natural and other disasters.


In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused dramatic and tragic events that devastated communities in the Gulf of Mexico. In June 2012, tropical storm Debby impacted communities in the Florida panhandle; and in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged communities throughout New Jersey. Although these disasters were tragic, they all highlighted the need for coordinated community-based volunteer efforts that prepare for and respond to natural and other disasters. These events underscore the problems and shortcomings associated with coordinating outside logistics, and they show a clear need for local volunteers to serve as the first line of response to such catastrophes. For example, during the first weeks after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, volunteers and active community residents were the rescuers, caretakers, and in many cases, the final comforting companions to the dying. They were the first, and often the only, line of response that existed for weeks. Government officials immediately called on local citizens to volunteer their time, money, and sweat equity in addressing these massive and unprecedented natural disasters.

Such disasters will occur again. The routine threats from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters to the southeastern U.S. and elsewhere are well-documented and predicted. In particular, given the trend of increased storm intensity, the likelihood of the impending threat of severe hurricanes (Category 4 or 5) requires careful crisis and emergency planning strategies. Similarly, the possibility of terrorism remains an ever-present threat.

Individual homeowners can do a lot to prepare for these natural disasters. (Berns-Cadle, 2013). However, when these disasters occur, citizen groups and coordinated efforts of local volunteers can respond to lessen the impacts and “build back better.” Because local residents will be the first responders, the process of organizing local residents must take place before, during, and after such catastrophic events occur (Berke et al., 1993). This publication identifies and suggests methods for linking local organizations, recruiting volunteers, and implementing coordinated action plans before and after the impact of natural disasters.

Importance and Role of Community in Disaster Preparation and Recovery

In recent years, considerably more emphasis has been placed on the role of community in disaster recovery and on the importance of local knowledge, action, participation, and control in determining the nature of disaster response.

It is logical that the community will be the first line of defense in preparing and responding in the event of a disaster. Local residents and groups are in a position to best identify their immediate needs, coordinate preparations, supplement official response efforts, implement emergency response programs, and contribute to local decision-making for future events. Similarly, local communities can provide a sense of connection (Cantrell & Stafford, 2013) and decrease the isolation and abandonment that is often felt among residents during times of disaster. Such capacity for providing these community services does not always exist, but it can be cultivated, encouraged, and empowered.

In all communities, a variety of groups exist with diverse skills and abilities combined with personal and professional experiences that are essential to successful preparation and response to disasters (Independent Sector, 2001). Included are resident groups with needed professional and trade skills for damage control and assessment (engineers, environmental scientists, architects, contractors, and skilled laborers); disaster preparedness and response training (VFW, retired military/national guard/police); medical, psychological, and social service delivery experience (health practitioners, counselors, religious/civic groups); and longtime residents who have witnessed previous responses to natural disasters.

Effective community responses connect these diverse groups and develop action plans to meet common needs. Successfully linking local organizations, citizens, and leaders provides a strong network for local citizens and groups to become actively involved in local preparedness and response efforts. This capacity-building process is most effective when it occurs as part of a pre-disaster planning process (Cantrell et al., 2012), and it continues during and after such catastrophic events. Cooperative Extension and other change agents can help facilitate this process.

The Role of Extension in Community Responses to Disaster

To facilitate such citizen involvement, training at a variety of levels is useful. First, community development/civic engagement training is pivotal to all successful community-based, disaster-response programs. Such trainings provided by Cooperative Extension and other community-development educators would provide an understanding and framework for including broad-based local representation in long-term emergency response and other local efforts. These trainings include skill development such as asset mapping, assessing local power structures, needs assessments, conflict-resolution skills, management methods, and community-profile development. Such training would also inform active citizens that their involvement is essential to local development well beyond times of disaster.

Similarly, more general grassroots mobilizations can plan for, respond to, and rebuild in the aftermath of disaster. Included would be active efforts to bring together diverse local groups, the formation of local groups for planning, establishment of formal long-term visioning and goal setting for disaster preparation/recovery, and recruitment of experienced local citizens to take direct action. Similarly, the establishment of alliances between local groups could set the stage for a more effective resource and responsibility sharing during times of crisis. Such alliances can include identifying organizations or individuals to serve as liaisons between local grassroots efforts and more formal structures (state and federal response organizations, military/national guard, emergence-response agencies). Extension programming and trainings can be a valuable resource in facilitating all of these activities and skills.

Ways Community Volunteers Can Help

The following community and volunteer responses can help in a number of ways before, during, and immediately following the aftermath of a disaster because they are able to

  • coordinate a more successful evacuation and transportation effort;

  • provide structure and order in times of chaos;

  • aide in organizing resources for distribution before and after disasters;

  • decrease the isolation and sense of abandonment that quickly engulfs disaster victims in the affected areas; and

  • contribute to local connections and interaction that signals resiliency within the community.


Local volunteers and community-level action is essential to effective natural-disaster preparation and response. They are particularly important because citizens are in many cases the first responders, and thus they may have the greatest chance to save lives and provide support immediately following the aftermath of a disaster. Certainly, an effective community response can serve to diminish some of the suffering and loss that occurs during and after disasters.

Community and volunteer coordinators have an obligation to help facilitate community organization and preparation to aide fellow citizens in times of such great need. The only thing that is certain in these times is that local residents will be the first people capable of responding. In these disaster settings, local volunteers and community organizations are presented with an unprecedented opportunity to make a measurable impact on local well-being. The quality and extent of this response may hold the key to minimizing disaster effects, maintaining order, increasing hope, and maximizing recovery efforts.

In the end, facilitating local involvement in disaster preparedness and response is about far more than the provision of basic and logistical needs. It ensures that local voices are heard, local struggles are recognized, and the dignity of local people is respected. With this capacity established, local citizens can respond and recover in a manner that improves local life. The response and rebuilding process will belong to the front line of disaster responders—community volunteers—who will reinvest in their communities.

References and Suggested Reading

Berke, P.R., J. Kartez, and D. Wenger. (1993). Recovery after Disaster: Achieving Sustainable Development, Mitigation and Equity. Disasters 17(2): 93-109.

Berns-Cadle, H., Cantrell, R., Carnahan, L., Fetzko, R., Hwang, D., Kilcollins, R.F., and Spranger, M., (2013). Florida Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards. Gulf of Mexico Alliance. Gainesville, FL: ShorterChilds.

Brennan, M.A., C. Flint, and R. Barnett. (2005). Community Volunteers: The Front Line of Disaster Response. Journal of Volunteer Administration. 23(4): 52-56.

Cantrell, R. and A. Stafford (2013). The Introduction and Development of the Community-flow Measurement Instrument. Journal of Community Development. (

Cantrell, R.; Nahmens, I., Peavey, J., Bryant, K., and M. Stair (2012). Strategy for Establishing Housing Production Facilities Outside Disaster Areas. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development & Research and the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, Washington, D.C. (February), 71 pages. (

Flint, C. and Brennan, M.A. (2006). The Rural Context of Disaster: Exploring the Role of Community Emergency Response Teams. Rural Realities.

Florida Department of Community Affairs. (2010). Post-Disaster Redevelopment Planning: A Guide for Florida Communtiies. Tallahassee, FL.

Useful Web Sites

  1. US Citizen Corps,

  2. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT),

  3. National Citizen Corps Council Partners,

  4. Corporation for National and Community Service,

  5. US Citizen Fire Corps,

  6. US On Watch Neighborhood Watch Program,

  7. Medical Reserves Corps,

  8. Citizen Corps Affiliate Programs and Organizations,



This document is FCS9254, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date July 2006. Revised January 2014. Reviewed January 2014. Visit the EDIS Web Site at


Mark A. Brennan, PhD, former faculty member, assistant professor; Randall Cantrell, PhD, assistant professor; Michael S. Spranger, PhD, professor; and Muthusami Kumaran, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.