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Social assessment as a complementary tool
to hazard risk assessment and disaster planning

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2010-1

Social assessment as a complementary tool
to hazard risk assessment and disaster planning

Alison Cottrell, Centre for Disaster Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia. Email: Alison.cottrell@jcu.edu.au
David King, Centre for Disaster Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

Keywords: social impact assessment, hazard mitigation, emergency management

Alison Cottrell

Centre for Disaster
Studies James Cook University

David King

Centre for Disaster Studies
James Cook University



This paper presents the case for the integration of social assessments into emergency and disaster risk management planning. Post disaster studies, social assessments and social impact assessments are all closely related activities. However, post disaster studies are obviously after the event whereas social assessments and social impact assessments ideally should be undertaken before an event occurs. This paper identifies the linkages between social impact assessments as pre-event activities, post-disaster impact assessments as post event activities, the types of variables that need to be considered, and the different types of methodologies that might be used. The linkage to pre-event assessments and the role of planning in disaster mitigation is also made. A classification of disaster impacts is presented that identifies different timescales and methodologies of impact studies. From this an approach to social assessment for disasters is identified that may guide both the methodology and the assessments within the context of pre-existing vulnerability and mitigation strategies.

Social assessment as a complementary tool
to hazard risk assessment and disaster planning


Emergency management has developed processes to enhance mitigation and the treatment of risk. The AS/NZ standard ( Standards Australia, 2004) provides a structure for risk assessment that is widely used by emergency managers and local governments to identify, analyse and evaluate risks and thence to treat those risks. The structure and processes of the standard are extended through guides and risk management manuals (for example, in Australia, see Department of Transport and Regional Services, 2006; Queensland Department of Emergency Services, 2001, 2004; Zamecka & Buchanan, 1999, 2000). This has led to the development of many risk management strategies and studies throughout Australia and evaluations of the effectiveness of some of these (Centre for Disaster Studies, 2006). Evaluation of Natural Disaster Risk Management studies in Queensland revealed many limitations to the process, despite the excellence of guides and manuals ( Zamecka & Buchanan, 1999, 2000) that had been prepared to assist local and state government organisations: the method and structure of risk management studies closely followed the AS/NZ standard, but risk evaluations and analyses defined risks and identified treatments within the constraints of local government or organizational silos. Because the responsibility for risk assessment and hazard mitigation lies primarily with local governments in Australia, local councils engaged consultants, and established advisory groups that were often drawn from within their own organisations. Both the general community and private sector enterprises in particular were significantly neglected. There is an inherent danger in not being more inclusive. Communities and the individuals within them have resources and strategies for dealing with events, and there will never be enough resources provided by agencies to deal with particularly large scale events. The lack of inclusion of the broader community is not necessarily a fault of either the AS/NZ standard or the guides and manuals that were produced to assist local government. To a large extent the narrow evaluation and treatment of risk were a consequence of limited resources (Centre for Disaster Studies, 2006). Local governments targeted those areas over which they had control. Thus the structure of the standard was followed, but anticipation of the complexity and extent of hazard risk and disaster impact has been absent from most Natural Disaster Risk Management Studies. Post impact assessment - assessments undertaken in the aftermath of hazardous events provide a starting point for understanding possible future directions.

This paper reviews the linkages between social assessments as pre-event activities, post-disaster impact assessments as post event activities, the types of variables that need to be considered, and the different types of methodologies that might be used. The linkage to pre-event assessments and the role of planning in disaster mitigation is also made. A classification of disaster impacts is presented that identifies different timescales and methodologies of impact studies. From this an approach to social assessment for disasters is identified that may guide both the methodology and the assessments within the context of pre-existing vulnerability and mitigation strategies.

Impact assessment

In the emergency management context, both Emergency Management Australia [EMA] (2001) and Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] (1995) have guidelines about conducting disaster impact assessments. These assessments though have a tendency to focus on damage assessment rather than impact assessment. Damage assessment is the impact on infrastructure, built environment and lifelines, and impact assessment is the social implications of that damage. Although FEMA (1995) suggest that a community profile needs to be constructed prior to an event happening, their view of what constitutes a community profile is quite limited, with a tendency to focus on infrastructure, community facilities, location of potential hazards and daily, weekly, or seasonal shifts in population. Post Impact Assessment studies undertaken by the Centre for Disaster Studies (like similar studies carried out in the USA and accessed at the Natural Hazards Center) take impact assessment further into the social domain to include in more detail the categories of information relevant to the social aspects of disasters, and recovery in particular. The key variables identified by the Centre for Disaster Studies (see Table 1) are derived from the experience of a range of disasters, both those carried out by the centre as well as many that are recorded in the broader literature (King 2002). These variables incorporate social/cultural; economic; environmental; psychological and built environment/infrastructure impacts.

Impact assessments which study experiences that are the result of previous disasters, hazards or crises provide information to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience of individuals, households, and communities (Benson & Twigg, 2004; Berkes, 2007; Buckle, 1999; Buckle, Marsh & Smale, 2001; Comfort, Sungu, Johnson & Dunn, 2001; Dynes, 1994; Handmer, 2003; Keys, 1991). What is learnt and understood becomes incorporated into emergency management, organisational practice and community awareness and preparedness activities. These types of studies, which are often referred to as ‘post-disaster’ studies, can vary in terms of the type of event; the time elapsed since the event; the scale of the event; and the size of the community affected. Many post disaster studies focus on identifying the negative social impacts (which are important) such as loss of homes, employment, injuries and loss of life, forgetting that there may be some positive outcomes such as longer term beneficial redevelopment of individual and community assets, and in so doing, ignoring the resilience that resides in communities. It is important to address all kinds of impacts so that we do not underestimate latent community resources. Post disaster studies are a form of social assessment that can be structured into categories of types of impacts as well as timing of analysis during the various phases of the recovery process and use different methodologies depending on what is appropriate at the time (see Table 1). The more general category of social impact assessment (SIA) warrants further scrutiny in this context.

Table 1 suggests a methodology for assessing the impacts of specific disaster events. The purpose and types of assessments were agreed in a key informant meeting with Bureau of Meteorology personnel, in the context of post disaster studies carried out by the Centre for Disaster Studies and a review of international post disaster studies (King 2002). This Table functions as a prompt list of impacts to be considered and will be modified according to specific events and locations. More types of studies may be added but the argument of this paper is that SIA methodologies will prompt broader consideration.

Table 1: Post Impact Assessment Methodology

Purpose & Timing

Immediate 1 – 2 Weeks

Early Recovery < 3 months

Late Recovery Up To 1 Year

Purpose & Type

Capture Immediate Memories & Experiences

Post Response – Intense Recovery & Doldrums

Reflection – Longer Term Change – Recovery Process

Social /Cultural

Define what is being considered and why – to understand the receipt and understanding of warnings (warnings effectiveness) preparedness behaviour and impact – to support public education – to support development of warnings services

To understand support mechanisms for awareness , preparedness and impact – social support mechanisms

To understand response to warnings and behaviour

Communications –networks formal and informal

Warning effectiveness – timing; what people heard; how they got the message; terminology etc

Response – preparations – expectations (stages); defensive actions; behaviour; immediate post hazard behaviour; evacuation – willingness to evacuate

past experience – household and community

Household demographics

Feelings and emotions; pets


Tourists and tourism

Event specific issues


Lessons learned

Effectiveness of preparations

Community loss & vulnerability

Blockages, bottlenecks & governance

Tourists and tourism

Event specific issues





Social capital

Social change


Tourists and tourism industry



Economic Impact – Loss & Gain

Spatial variability

Economic change

Loss of property and belongings

Loss of income; loss of business; proportional household loss

Spatial – individual; household; community; regional; national

Tourists & tourism

Event specific issues


Loss of property and belongings

Loss of income; loss of business; proportional household loss

Crisis and needs

Spatial – individual; household; community; regional; national

Tourists & tourism

Event specific issues


Loss of property and belongings

Loss of income; loss of business; proportional household loss

Process of recovery – insurance; secondary income opportunities (business surge)

Spatial – individual; household; community; regional; national

Tourists & tourism industry

Land use change

Agricultural change



Short term, long term & permanent environmental change

Hazard assessment

Environmental Intervention strategies


Geomorphic (beaches; river bank; erosion – pollution

Flood level & extent

Event specific issues



Endangered species


Geomorphic (beaches; river bank; erosion –

Soil loss / degradation.

Flood damage, species change

Event specific issues


Vegetation & regrowth

Geomorphic (beaches; river bank; erosion -

Endangered species, watercourse change, species change




Health – mental & physical

Process of post traumatic stress

Vulnerable groups

Workplace/ emergency workers


Post trauma, feelings, emotions during the event


Socio-economic group


Event specific issues


Post trauma – post event

Emergency service personnel


Community psychological hardship


Socio-economic group


Event specific issues


Post trauma – longer term psychological impacts on emergency service personnel & victims – health & illness


Socio-economic group



Built Environment/ Infrastructure

Non economic physical impact




Sheds, houses, roads, belongings & furniture

Hazard specific performance of structures & fastenings

Event specific issues


Fences, culverts & bridges, roads, farm buildings – industrial, commercial, community, public and institutional buildings and related infrastructure

Event specific issues


Rebuilding & reconstruction

Permanent loss – heritage, amenity etc.


QL – Qualitative survey. QY – Quantitative survey. Brackets indicate lesser component or minority questions.

Conducting Social Assessment in the context of disasters

Both EMA (2001) and FEMA (1995) suggest that a baseline understanding of the community under consideration needs to be constructed. Indeed, systematic and purposive social research in the disaster context has an extensive and well established foundation. The Disaster Research Center in Delaware, and the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colorado, boast an ardent fieldwork tradition and associated literature base which span over five decades. In Australia, relevant research material, resources and training has been primarily established through Emergency Management Australia. Evidence of complementary research efforts however also exist within a diversity of professional and academic disciplines including: anthropology, economics, medicine, psychology, development sociology, human geography and humanitarian aid. Operating within both the public and private domain, areas of the insurance industry specialise in processes of comprehensive disaster risk assessment and recovery appraisal. Demonstrating such variability of research agendas, practices and contexts, it becomes rapidly apparent that there is no constant or universal methodology for social disaster assessment, data collection and analysis (Benson & Twigg, 2004; Maguire & Hagan, 2007; Marsh et al., 2004; Morrow, 1999; Rozakis, 2007). Indeed, Drabek (cited in Britton 1986:14, see also King, 2002, 2006) contends, “there is neither a special set of strategies which might be referred to as disaster methodology, nor a separate set of techniques which might be labelled disaster research methods”. Where information is available, longitudinal studies can however offer researchers the opportunity to separate pre-and post-disaster community trends (Britton, 1986:15) and the extent to which organisational learning is adopted. Such case studies by Britton, Drabek and King clearly demonstrate that effective decision making and recovery service provision is facilitated through the availability of quality, consistent, and timely information. This approach is consistent with that of SIA.

SIA is an extensive field that developed in the USA in response to the National Environmental Protection Act processes for environmental impact assessment (Taylor, Bryan & Goodrich, 2004; Burdge, 2004; see also the journal Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal). In addition to the physical location, and historical and cultural context of a focus community, Burdge (2004) presents a preliminary list (Table 2) of relevant social assessment variables which forms the basis for much SIA work, including: population impacts; community/institutional arrangements; communities in transition; individual and family level impacts; and community infrastructure needs. Because these variables were identified as key variables for project impacts, their relevance to a hazards context is not necessarily direct. They are identified here for purposes of clarity in the discussion and because they are so widely recognised in the social sciences and more general impact assessment field, but not necessarily in the emergency management arena.

Table 2: Social Impact Assessment Variables
(Source: Burdge, 2004, p. 101)

Population Impacts

  1. Population change
  2. Influx or out flux of temporary workers
  3. Presence of seasonal (leisure) residents
  4. Relocation of individuals and families
  5. Dissimilarity in age, gender, racial or ethnic composition

Community/Institutional Arrangements

  1. Formation of attitudes toward the project
  2. Interest group activity
  3. Alteration in size and structure of local government
  4. Presence of planning and zoning activity
  5. Industrial diversification
  6. Living/Family wage
  7. Enhanced economic inequities
  8. Change in employment equity of minority groups
  9. Change in occupational opportunities

Communities in Transition

  1. Presence of an outside agency
  2. Inter-organizational cooperation
  3. Introduction of new social classes
  4. Change in the commercial/industrial focus of the area
  5. Presence of weekend residents (recreational)

Individual and Family Level Impacts

  1. Disruption in daily living and movement patterns
  2. Dissimilarity in religious and cultural practices
  3. Alteration in family structure
  4. Disruption in social networks
  5. Perceptions of public health and safety
  6. Change in leisure opportunities

Community Infrastructure Needs

  1. Change in community infrastructure
  2. Land acquisition and disposal
  3. Effects on known cultural, historical, sacred and archaeological resources

Conventionally, SIAs are social measures and analyses conducted in advance of any specific hazard or event, while post-disaster studies may investigate any post-event related social impacts. Allied environmental, cultural, hazard and risk management assessments are even considered a legislative requirement in many local planning and/or development activities (Barrow, 2000; Taylor et al., 2004; Burdge, 2004; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2004). Irrespective of the project focus or final report manifestation, each of these research endeavours represents a form of systematic social assessment. Any thorough social research assessment paradigm requires consideration of the following six basic social units of increasing structural complexity (Britton, 1989, p. 3; Dynes, 1994), namely the individual, family or workgroup, organization, community, society, and international systems. It is vitally important to identify the structural networks and social interrelationships that exist within and between each of these basic social units.

The SIA categories used by the Centre for Disaster Studies, the list provided by Burdge, and the EMA (2003, 2004) categories for a holistic, integrated approach to recovery: social/psychological; economic; infrastructure; and environment are all compatible. However, for information to be useful for the emergency management context then it is preferable to align with those categories used for recovery planning because recovery planning is the long term disaster response. The categories are social/psychological, economic, infrastructure and environment. It is important to recognise that the categories identified have extensive fields of research associated with them and that the categories are heuristic; that is they are constructed for the purposes of simplicity and should not be seen as separate in reality.

This category includes many of the elements identified in the list of variables identified by Burdge (2004). Included are the impacts on a community’s functions, social structures and systems following a disaster including the formal and informal social networks that bind communities. Questions that might be asked include: what agencies operate within the area; how well do local institutions and agencies communicate and cooperate; what are the implications of an event for community/institutional arrangements of local government, businesses and community services; is sectoral diversity threatened; are livelihoods threatened by potential job losses; will changes in employment diversity or availability apply only to certain groups within the community; are there implications for future planning and zoning; how prepared was the community (Berkes, 2007; Marsh et al., 2004; Morrow, 1999)

In terms of population impacts there is a need to identify which parts of the community/population are most affected, and in what ways; who needs to be relocated and is this overnight, temporary, or permanent; does the demographic profile of the community in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity and/or religion have implications for response and recovery services; have there been defined social status changes in the community; has the sectoral focus changed in recent times; has there been an influx of new social groupings; what transitory populations are there such as weekend residents, tourists, seasonal workers and the like who might have particular needs unable to be met by the host community (Haque & Etkin, 2007; Morrow, 1999; Paton & Johnston, 2001; Petterson, 1999)

The psychological and social needs of individuals and families as part of a community are important. It is necessary to ensure that an individual’s emotional, spiritual, cultural, psychological, social as well as basic needs (including health) are addressed in the immediate impact, medium and long term recovery following a disaster. It should also be recognised that all those people involved in an event, including rescue workers, support staff and relatives, will have been affected by their experiences. It is necessary to ask what will be the length of disruption to daily activities; will disruption be different for different families and individuals in the community; will family structure be affected in that some people may have to move for employment; will social networks be disrupted and to what extent; and what changes in leisure activities might occur (Paton, 2007; Shaffett, Tucker, Berry & Cosgrove, 2006)

Economic issues are likely to include at the individual (microeconomic) level such factors as employment security, payment of salaries and wages, debt servicing, access to bank accounts and insurance claims. Crucial at the small and medium enterprise level are issues such as a reliance on just-in-time deliveries, an available workforce and customer confidence. At State and Federal government (macroeconomic level) issues include securing confidence of overseas markets and governments and securing confidence of the private sector in the country’s ability to recover at a national level. There is also a need to recognise the different needs of government and the private sector including the use of limited resources, reputation and market confidence and recognition of the requirement to prioritise activities for recovery (Eadie, 2001; Office of Emergency Services California, 2004).

Community infrastructure needs to address aspects of the built environment which are very familiar to the emergency responders, such as the impact on homes, commercial and public buildings along with their supporting structures, systems, logistics and utilities. Reconstruction links back to prevention/reduction planning and as such physical recovery must be based on long term strategies adopting mitigation measures that prevent or reduce the effects of future emergencies. Infrastructure impacts and response and recovery are usually embedded in those agencies which have day to day jurisdiction over them. The impact on essential services, critical infrastructure and lifelines (the normal questions asked in the emergency management context) need to be identified, as do the implications for land acquisition and disposal (EMA, 2003, 2004; FEMA, 1995).

Environmental impacts of a disaster include amenity values, cultural and heritage values, topography, hydrology, waste and pollution management, biodiversity and ecosystems. The impacts on cultural sites and perception of place as a consequence of an event are important considerations. If the event is a technological one, as in the case of an oil spill, these may in fact be the focus of the impact assessment. Additionally there are usually secondary environmental impacts as a consequence of any disaster. These may occur from the short to the long term, but are an indirect or transferred consequence of the initial event. Secondary impacts are particularly related to changes or imbalances in the ecosystem, and may not be observed immediately.

A comprehensive understanding of the complexities of these issues in the context of hazards and disasters can only be achieved by a systematic approach to data collection.

Data collection

The data collected need to answer the following core questions:

Both primary and secondary data are required for impact assessment. This allows for baseline pre-event community data to be synthesised with real-time information. Guidelines for data collection include:

Consistent with good research practice, any data (when available) should be collected, collated and compared from a variety of sources to assess validity and accuracy. While experienced recovery agencies and/or community development staff are often trained to obtain such information, effective social impact and recovery assessment must be grounded through local knowledge. In addition to a direct familiarity with the local community, demographics, networks, interests and resources, inclusion of local community groups and representatives, facilitate the accumulation of the knowledge necessary for impact assessment (Burdge, 2004; Dekens, 2007; Flax, Jackson & Stein, 2002; ISDR 2007; Morrow, 1999; Quarantelli, 1999, 2001; Spoehr, Wilson, Barnett, Toth & Watson-Tran, 2007; Taylor et al., 2004). It is recommended that:

Geisler (1993) suggests that in the case of complex situations, which are particularly relevant to the disaster context, it is preferable for SIA to be an iterative process where information is constantly reviewed and revised. In planning for anticipated social impacts of an event a community profile would be constructed, and risk and vulnerability analyses undertaken. As a disaster event unfolds, the predictions will be revised on the basis of the actual consequences. For emergency managers during the immediate response phase, while impact assessment is expected to be detailed, accurate, accessible and systematic, the speed of reporting is considered more important than precise figures (ideally documented within 36 hours of the trigger event). Effective field sampling and/or a cluster/averaging approach should provide sufficient information to facilitate early decision-making and the formulation of practical solutions. During the response phase, it would be preferable to have people assigned to the task of documenting the social impacts and their implications who are different from those who are on-the-ground responders. Information from direct responders is an important component of assessing immediate social impacts, but other data is also required. As an event unfolds and the situation moves into the longer term and community recovery becomes the focus, again assessments should be reviewed and revised. Disaster planning, response and recovery are dynamic and often complex processes.

In addressing the question of disaster impacts, the fundamental principles of SIA remain important, namely a focus on developing community resilience; promoting social justice; anticipating consequences; making more informed decisions; and minimizing negative outcomes (Vanclay, 2003).

In Europe, Renn (2005) developed a model for risk mitigation that addresses the issues for complex technologically dependent societies. In Australia there are many relatively simple communities and settlements where risk evaluation, analysis and treatments can be carried out in a fairly straightforward manner. However, cities and conurbations in hazard prone coastal locations and floodplains, or with peri-urban areas adjacent to bushfire prone locations, present emergency managers and local governments with scenarios of very great complexity and interdependence. Renn’s model of risk assessment evolves through levels of increasing complexity -- an escalator as he terms it. It is this acknowledgement of complexity, community and infrastructure interdependence and climate change uncertainty that requires new tools in emergency management, especially for city councils in planning effectively for a range of hazard impacts.


Emergency management is not a static process. It exists in the context of dynamic, changing communities, developing technology, and the complexity of the structures and infrastructure of our settlements, alongside the uncertainty of climate change that is predicted to drive an extension of hazard prone locations while at the same time increasing the frequency and severity of hazard events such as flood, tropical cyclones, severe storms and bushfires. Emergency management has evolved from a civil defence role, dominated by response, into a core mainstream governance activity that involves all communities, all levels of government, business organisations and service and infrastructure providers (COAG 2002; Tarrant, 2006). Throughout the last five decades emergency management has moved forward to deal with greater demands from increasing vulnerability, advances in hazard knowledge and expanded community expectations. The role of mitigation -- prevention and preparedness -- has increased in importance against the traditional roles of response and recovery and has been extended to all levels of community. Additionally, emergency management is predicated on multi hazard preparedness for a complex range of scenarios and communities.

It is time that social assessment had a clear role in disaster impact assessment. Determining the potential and the actual social impacts of an emergency or disaster event requires the analysis of a community profile plus damage assessment to ascertain impacts or implications. Community profiles are not just about identifying vulnerabilities, they are also about identifying community capacity to respond to and recover from events. Social assessments can be used at all phases of the emergency management process: planning, immediate response, and the various stages of post impact assessment. Impact assessment is not a final outcome, it is an iterative process which takes into account the evolving circumstances, especially as new information becomes available. It is preferable, indeed essential, that community profiles be conducted on a regular basis so that the data can inform emergency management decisions. Social impact methods provide a tool that may be adapted to a range of hazard scenarios in order to achieve insights and knowledge of community vulnerability and resilience.


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Alison Cottrell & David King © 2010. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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