Disaster life cycle

Every disaster is different. Some disasters are abrupt, like an earthquake or fire, and some disasters provide advanced warming like a storm. Recovery efforts may last a few months or a few years, or even decades like in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. More than one disaster can happen at the same time, or a few can happen sequentially. Throughout the cycle, communities and households experience trauma, particularly when working with communities historically traumatized by violence, poverty, potential displacement, and environmental injustice (read more about Disasters and Trauma).  

Disaster researchers and practitioners try to capture this dynamic by using the terms “disaster life cycle” or “disaster continuum,” meaning that disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery is a process that repeats, and communities are always in at least one part of the cycle.  

The disaster life cycle is broken down by pre-and post-disaster and in four phases:   

Infographic that shows the disaster life cycle moving from mitigation to preparedness to response to recovery.


Historically, the “response” segment of the cycle receives the most funding and attention (from politicians, media, philanthropy, etc.). Yet, according to the National Institute of Building Science, each dollar spent on mitigation saves an average of six dollars on recovery. Because of the opportunity to generate savings and rebuild communities to adapt to future risks, it is crucial for elected officials, the media, and philanthropy to re-focus more on the mitigation and preparedness phases as well as long-term recovery.   

Disasters impact frontline communities more intensively at every stage of the disaster cycle because of systemic barriers that frontline communities face:  

Mitigation and adaptation 

  • Disinvestment: Communities of color, immigrants, renters, and other groups that experience oppression are more likely to live in hazardous areas that are more susceptible to repeated threats because of segregation, redlining, and disinvestment. When hit by repeated disasters, frontline communities are further destabilized and lose their wealth and resources. 

  • Inadequate infrastructure to mitigate risk and lack of investment: Infrastructure serving frontline communities is less likely to have been maintained and invested in to prevent these risks. Decisions on where and how to mitigate threats are often based on the economic value of a neighborhood, meaning that wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to receive mitigation investments over lower-income areas. When faced with multiple disasters, a community might have less capacity to seek funding for mitigation.  

  • Daily stresses over future shocks: When dealing with housing and economic insecurity, structural racism, and the host of daily stresses that frontline communities face, engaging with a plan to mitigate a seemingly far off threat is likely to be a lower priority, especially if the methods of engagement and outreach are inaccessible.  


  • Language justice: Communities in California speak multiple languages, and language access can be a barrier to receiving or enacting preparedness information. Ensuring all communities have access to tools and resources that allow them to prepare for future events and that agencies have communications prepared for these populations in their language is critical for whole community preparedness. 

  • Weak community engagement practices: Formal trainings events on disaster preparedness often happen at inconvenient times without childcare or dinner, making it difficult for many frontline communities to attend. 


  • Excessive surveillance: Studies show that widespread panic during disasters is rare. In fact, people help each other more. However, in the wake of a disaster, panic and violence sometimes arise, which often manifests in excessive surveillance of people of color. 

  • “Disposable” groups: People who are already devalued in society, for example, people who are undocumented, people who are incarcerated, and people experiencing homelessness, are more likely to be ignored or abandoned during and after a disaster event. 


  • Housing quality: People of color and people with low incomes are more likely to live in older and lower-quality housing, which is more likely to be damaged in a disaster.  

  • Complicated disaster programs: Short- and long-term recovery programs require significant time and effort to navigate, often discouraging those most in need from completing aid applications. 

  • Disaster assistance denial: When they apply for assistance, low-income communities of color are more likely to have their claims denied. Because their damaged items are of less economic value, low-income disaster victims often receive less aid than their wealthy counterparts. 

  • Homeowner bias: Most disaster programs favor homeowners over renters, making it more difficult for renters to return to their neighborhoods. 

  • Immigration status: Undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving Federal disaster recovery aid. 

  • Redevelopment: Mass destruction of communities during a disaster can be used as an opportunity to displace low-income communities and redevelop an area in a way that serves higher-income residents. 

  • A return to “normal”: Most communities that experience a disaster feel the drive to return to the way things were before. However, recovery should be an opportunity to address past wrongs impacting frontline communities, not recreate them. 

Read more about how these barriers impact frontline communities during disasters in California in Stories from the Frontline. There are actions to take throughout this site to address these barriers and better support frontline communities throughout every stage of the disaster life cycle.