Understanding the Four Phases of Disaster Recovery

Here at the American Red Cross, our role changes through different phases of disaster relief. All relief efforts—regardless of the disaster size—transition through four distinct phases. Anticipating how a relief effort will unfold helps us better serve those affected by the disaster.

Each stage of recovery demands a specific type of public affairs response. (In case you’re unfamiliar with that term, “public affairs” is used by the military, government agencies and the American Red Cross to describe public relations, communications and media relations.)

The American Red Cross recognizes that our disaster relief unfolds in the following stages:

  1. Heroic Phase.
  2. Honeymoon Phase.
  3. Disillusionment Phase.
  4. Reconstruction Phase.

What happens in each phase? What should we anticipate as each unfolds? How do public expectations change? How should our communications strategy shift in each phase?

1. Heroic Phase.

This occurs immediately after a disaster strikes. The community is often shell-shocked and in dire need of basic emergency needs such as food and shelter.

The Red Cross is already in place and providing services immediately after the disaster. Therefore, we are seen as being heroes in the community, just as fire and emergency personnel are perceived as being heroes.

In public affairs, we have a twofold message in the heroic phase. First, we want to assure the public that we are there. We want people to know that the Red Cross is on the scene providing immediate relief. Second, we want to inform those affected by the disaster how they can GET help.

2. Honeymoon Phase.

This stage occurs in the first few days after the disaster. Usually it carries with it a great deal of public support and media coverage. This is also the time when we receive the most praise from public officials.

Fundraising and volunteer recruitment are easiest in the honeymoon phase.

In addition to helping people know how to GET help, in this phase the messages expand to help people know how to GIVE help (and also how NOT to help). Individuals want to volunteer, and people are looking for ways to contribute money or donate in-kind items such as clothes, food or water.

While it is useful to capitalize on the goodwill of the public during this phase, we must also be careful not to get carried away. Our public affairs work must help manage public expectations about the kinds and amounts of services that we provide.

3. Disillusionment Phase.

By this time, the community and survivors are getting tired. They are being worn thin by the stress of the ongoing recovery efforts.

People sometimes begin to question Red Cross and its service delivery, fundraising methods or community partnerships. During this phase, media, elected officials, partners or the general public are more apt to vocalize criticism.

It is very important for us to closely monitor the mood of the community and to stay abreast of changes in the operation. We must be fully prepared to explain any changes in service delivery.

Disillusionment will likely be expressed first in the social media. This is the phase when we must listen to what people are blogging or tweeting. We must join their conversations by commenting on blogs, using Facebook to address concerns and tweeting to correct misinformation and disseminate accurate information.

4. Reconstruction Phase.

This is the long-term phase of the disaster where we must manage the expectations of the public regarding the ongoing recovery process. By now, the news media will likely have shifted their focus somewhere else. Likewise, the public’s attention moves from Red Cross services to the work of our partners. At this stage, it is important to help people understand the difference between our services and those of our partners.

In the timeline following a disaster, the relief effort transitions through these four distinct, yet overlapping phases. Our communications changes in each phase, yet we remain anchored to our fundamental Red Cross message—We Are There!


One Response to Understanding the Four Phases of Disaster Recovery

  1. Deb Maney says:

    Very interesting perspective from a public affairs view. I would bet through all four phases (good and bad) that the impacted people getting the help and support see all American Red Cross representatives as wonderful no matter what the “public” in general perceives! Thank you for the new thoughts. Deb

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