Disaster Management: Dealing with an Environmental Crisis

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

The process of dealing with an environmental crisis begins way before the crisis takes place. In this lesson we will learn the steps of disaster management, when they occur, and why they are necessary.

Managing an Environmental Crisis

It is maintenance day on the nuclear reactor. This is a routine procedure, but you aren't aware other scientists are performing a test to see if they can cool the reactor using a new power source while you have it shut down. If you had known about this, you would have monitored the system differently. Instead, the result is a nuclear reactor leak that causes an environmental crisis.

How does this example relate to disaster management, and how do you manage an environmental crisis? An environmental crisis occurs when the natural ecosystem of an area undergoes a significant change that damages it, just like the nuclear reactor leak in our example. This change can be caused by a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, or it can be the result of human causes, like an oil spill. And the process of containing or repairing the damage from an environmental crisis begins before the disaster even occurs.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens is an example of a natural disaster causing an environmental crisis.

There are four separate phases of disaster management that we will discuss. As we continue our lesson, we will walk through these phases as they are used to combat an environmental crisis using the example of our nuclear reactor leak.


The first phase of disaster management is mitigation. Mitigation involves taking steps to make a situation less severe. First, you must predict what possible environmental crisis could occur. Then you monitor what circumstances might intensify the crisis if it happens. Finally, you take steps to prevent these circumstances from coming together. In other words, if you cannot prevent every disaster, you can try to avoid making it worse.

Mitigation involves taking steps to predict and avoid a crisis situation.

When you were shutting down your nuclear reactor, you knew that a failure of the cooling system was a possible crisis. Because of your awareness of this potential hazard, precautions were taken to back up the cooling system and prevent a meltdown. If the cooling system had failed without a backup, you would be facing an even more difficult situation.


The next phase of disaster management is preparedness. Being prepared means that you have a plan when disaster strikes. A disaster plan begins with an assessment of what needs to happen when a crisis occurs. This information is then prioritized and duties are assigned. The plan is practiced over and over again to ensure it will run smoothly. In other words, everyone who needs to act should be prepared to do so, and know what they need to do.

Participating in a fire drill, like these children, is a good example of being prepared for what to do in an emergency.

The nuclear facility where you work has an established emergency plan and drills are carried out on a regular basis. As a result, when the cooling system failed and the nuclear core faced a meltdown, everyone knew what action to take. You set off alarms, evacuated the facility, notified authorities in surrounding areas, and continued efforts to prevent the impending disaster. You had hoped this would never happen, but are grateful you have a plan.


Despite the fact that you had a backup plan and were prepared in the event it failed, an environmental crisis still occurred. What do you do now? This phase of disaster preparedness is response. Response refers to what you do in the aftermath of a disaster. This is when you assess the damage and take immediate steps to deal with the short term effects. In other words, you see what has been damaged, what can be fixed, and what needs to be done to stabilize the situation.

A helicopter responds to a forest fire and drops water in an attempt to contain the fire and stabilize the situation.

As the facility was being evacuated, there was an explosion that sent radioactive material into the air. You reported the extent of the damage and initiated an emergency flooding of the reactor core. Meanwhile, community emergency services evacuated the surrounding towns and coordinated efforts to assist your attempts to cool the reactor so the radiation could be contained. It took a few days to cool the reactor and bring in a team to seal it, containing the radiation. The environment has been damaged, but finally the situation is contained.

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