A very different way to think about emergency preparedness and response


It’s a commonplace to say that a disaster, like an earthquake, is not one event but rather unfolds. Immediate emergency response may not catch the fact the underground water line has burst until the sinkhole across the road above appears, thereby requiring more or different immediate response.

Now let’s think of the implications of that.

As part of earthquake preparedness, there are “two-week readiness” programs in place: Households should have two-weeks’ worth of essential supplies in order to survive, should key infrastructures have failed and rescue services been substantially delayed.

By the same logic, what then about the two weeks before the earthquake?

Clearly, disaster preparedness, and not just at the household level, can be seen as unfolding beforehand and as such affecting subsequent emergency response thereafter. Granted, people don’t know beforehand when or if an earthquake will hit, but then again the very same people afterwards didn’t know the earthquake that actually happened would do this much damage.

So what?


This matters much in the same way as current debates over periodizing World War I and II do. It’s one thing to adopt the conventional periodization of the latter as 1939 – 1945. It is another thing to read in detail how 1931 – 1953 was a protracted period of conflicts and wars unfolding to and from a central paroxysm in Europe. (Think: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the late 1940s Dutch war in Indonesia, the French war in Indochina from the late 1940s through early 1950s, and the Korean War, among others.)

From the latter perspective, the December 1941 – September 1945 paroxysm, with carnage and the Shoah, was comparatively short and embedded in a much longer series of large regional wars, which were less preludes to each other than an unfolding process that was indeed worldwide .


Now think of a major earthquake in the same way. What if it were also to be viewed as a central paroxysm in the midst of other disasters that unfold, before and afterwards?

Current lingo about this or that “longer-term recovery” would be considerably problematized when the longer term is one of disaster unfolding into disaster. Immediate emergency response would look considerably less immediate when embedded in a process of recurring response always before the next disaster.

In other words, it is one thing to recognize that, say, today’s wildfires and floods draw funds, personnel and other resources away from more effective earthquake preparedness and response. It is quite another thing to argue that what lies ahead is the paroxysm and that it will be an earthquake and that it is not these wildfires and floods.


Buchanan, A. (2023). Globalizing the Second World War. Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies 258: 246-281.

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