Updated: Aug 30

Most of us can recognize the disaster when we see one. We might apply the description to a temporary inconvenience such as dropping a full milk bottle on the doorstep day or to the personal catastrophe of losing a day’s work on the word processor. But there is clearly a scale against which misfortune can be measured and the milk bottle episode would easily be trumped by a house fire or a traffic accident. There is a category beyond personal disasters, which includes events which are recognised both as personal disasters for those involved and as occurrences which lead to shared responses, which are publicly acknowledged. One reason why it is impossible to draw a precise line is that disasters by their nature are relative contingent and often intermediate.

For example, the London ambulance service introduced a new computerized dispatch system in 1992 it was a spectacular failure and had to be abandoned after 36 hours. This was disaster of a kind with the public and private face.

While a dictionary defines disaster “as anything ruinous or distressing that befalls; a sudden or great misfortune, or mishap to speak of disasters, as opposed to describing a single person mishap as a disaster, is to speak of cataclysm, catastrophe or devastation. Many different factors contribute to the construction of an untoward event as a disaster.

Disasters are perceived as such because previously adequate precautions are no longer seen to be effective; they represent forms of “cultural collapse” which takes place because of an accuracy or inadequacy in the accepted norms and beliefs. Disasters studies traverse a number of disciplines ranging from the scientific and technological to the sociological and psychological. The interface between these fields and law is inevitably complex, especially as law itself is not a discipline of determinate boundaries. The attraction of a contextual and inter disciplinary work of this kind is that it demonstrates how legal study can be viewed through the prisms of different types of analysis surrounding a particular type of event.

Using the risk analysis distinction between levels of scale and levels of frequency, it can be seen that disasters usually involve high magnitude, low probability events. In other words, where large number of deaths or extensive damage or destruction occur infrequently a disaster is made.

Lower magnitude and higher probability incidents, for example:

Domestic and road accidents, do not usually attract the epithet. When 10 children were killed in a mini bus accident, however the magnitude was far enough outside the normal expectation of road crashes that is attracted the attention accorded to a disaster.

The most comprehensive bodies of disaster literature have been developed in the United States, Italy and Japan these are all highly industrialized countries covering large landmasses and are subject to wide range of disaster agents. Their disaster responses are civilian and somewhat decentralized. They all have a social science community with pragmatic attitude to research and strong international connections. Other European countries have a narrow range of natural disaster concerns.

Classifying Disasters

Dividing disasters into categories allows for more sophisticated analysis in terms of understanding the risk perception, risk management, disaster prevention, civil protection and other related issues. A legal review has to take account also of questions such as employment status, relational matters and jurisdictional divisions Environmental- includes hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.

Ordinary- includes rail accidents where there is low risk perception by passengers.

Technology- includes radiation escapes such as Three Mile Island where high technology institutions place ordinary citizens at risk Industrial- for example oil installations and mining where workers know their job is hazardous.

Attitudes of Disaster:

A number of disasters occurring in or affecting the United Kingdom in the last 25 years provide the background for this account of the legal responses to such events. That period has seen significant changes in social and legal perceptions of disasters.

Perceptions of corporate organizations and their responsibilities for mass death have, it is argued, undergone a change. It is clear that corporate negligence is more likely to be translated into calls for manslaughter prosecutions. There appears to be less blind faith in the ability or willingness of corporate organizations to take safety seriously. Business corporations are increasingly expected to provide compensation for injuries that in earlier times would have been attributed to individual fault or fate.

Consequences of Disasters:

Disasters represents more than the sum of a number of individual or personal tragedies. It is the simultaneous loss of life or profound physical devastation which signifies the event and provides it with its powerful imagery. Disasters do affect individuals and they affect them in different ways.

Broadly speaking in most disasters there are three groups of people who are immediately and directly affected:

The immediate victims, the dead and injured,

Their relatives and friends, and

Any rescuers, including those involved in disaster planning, those employed in rescue services as well as passersby.

The types of damage which any of these might experience will range from death and physical injury to recognised stress disorder. In order to understand social and legal reactions to disasters we have to know something about the emotional significance of death.

For example, the death of a close relative can induce emotions of shock and denial, distress, helplessness and image of death and destruction. These are intense emotional experiences including fear, anxiety and anger. In addition to the denial, distress and helplessness which characterize the psychological reactions of trauma and shock, profound images of death and destruction emerge. Death by disaster compound these reactions.

Factors which influence the degree of psychological effect:

The extent to which the event poses a serious and unexpected life threat to individuals, family and friends, leading to existential fears, feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability, and threat of sudden loss,

A degree of bereavement suffered by victims,

Prolongation of physical suffering, life threat and the lack of normal necessities over an extended period, coupled with the impossibility of changing situations,

The extent to which disaster victims must face displacement or changes in the former environment and new modes of living,

The proportion of community or group affected by the disaster. Victims who are part of community relatively unaffected by disaster will recover better.

Cause-whether it was perceived as natural or man- made. The latter is likely to result in a widespread feeling of having been betrayed by those who are trusted. Loss of trust can lead to conflicts, recriminations and alienation that lessen the sense of community.

Not all outcomes of disasters are negative, sometimes providing useful data paving the way for better prediction, prevention or mitigation in the future, disasters. The development of support groups, community groups and individual gains in terms of understanding can themselves be seen as positive outcomes. Survivors commonly report an enhanced perception of the value of life and of friends and family as a result of experience.

Navin Kumar Jaggi

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