Understanding How Victims Respond During a Disaster


In the past decade, more than 650 major disaster declarations and 190 emergency declarations were made that disrupted the lives of Americans and tragically affected the communities where they live and work (FEMA, 2013). During disasters, the compassion and generosity of volunteers is demonstrated time and again. However, in order to provide adequate assistance, volunteers need to understand the emotional stages that victims experience during, and following, a disaster. This practice is excerpted, with permission, from Louisiana State University's website.


Volunteers may not know what to expect when serving during a disaster or disaster recovery mission. However, having an understanding and awareness of a victim's state of mind can make a big difference during rescue and recovery operations.


According to Janet Fox, Associate Professor at the Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter's 4-H Volunteer and Leadership Development Office, and Lannette Hebert, 4-H regional coordinator for the LSU AgCenter's Southwest Region, volunteers need to know the following to be most useful during a disaster:

Recognize that victims go through several stages during and after a disaster situation, and with each stage, the needs of the victims change. Most disaster victims experience grief expressed as denial, anger, depression, and finally, acceptance.

Respect the feelings and experiences of those who lived through the disaster. Some individuals become withdrawn and are unable to talk about the event, while others have intense feelings of anger and sadness. Not everyone has immediate reactions. Some individuals have delayed responses that show up days, weeks, or even months later.

Provide a listening ear. Try to discourage rumors, which just add to feelings of fear and abandonment for victims.

Know the factors that contribute to how a victim copes with the disaster. Victims are more vulnerable to the effects of a disaster if they have had direct exposure to the disaster. This includes:

  • Being evacuated
  • Seeing injured or dying people
  • Sustaining injuries themselves
  • Feeling that their lives are threatened
  • Experiencing personal loss, including the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend, or pet

Cultivate the skills of acceptance, awareness, attentiveness, and attitude. Volunteers are often introduced to cultures that are quite different than their own, and it's important to avoid stereotypes. Although the behaviors, values, and beliefs of the victims can differ greatly from the volunteers trying to serve them, volunteers should be open to learning so they can develop empathy and a greater understanding of how to serve effectively.


According to Hebert, volunteers who serve:

  • Grow to understand themselves and others
  • Witness and begin to understand the issues of poverty first-hand
  • See how rich their own lives are
  • Experience the joy of selfless giving

For more information:

Related Resources: 

Citations: Coolman, A. D. (2005, September 2). LSU AgCenter experts offer tips for volunteering. http://www.lsuagcenter.com/news_archive/2005/September/Headline+News/LSU+AgCenter+Experts+Offer+Tips+for+Volunteering.htm

Federal Emergency Management Agency. Disaster declarations by year. Retrieved April 3, 2013, from http://www.fema.gov/disasters/grid/year


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