When Disaster Strikes: Women’s Particular Vulnerabilities and Amazing Strengths

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

November 10, 2010

Disasters, whether triggered by natural hazards or human behavior or by the interaction between the two, affect millions of people for long periods of time. Often the effects last for decades after the disaster has long disappeared from our headlines and evening news. This presentation explores some of the particular issues affecting women in disasters — both the specific vulnerabilities they face but also the amazing strengths which they bring to recovery efforts. And since we’re in New Orleans, I’m going to make reference to Hurricane Katrina, but also to the current disasters in Haiti and Pakistan.

First, let me say that there’s a bit of a controversy about using the term ‘natural disasters’ because it’s always a combination of natural hazards and human action that cause a disaster which is usually defined as: “the consequences of events triggered by natural hazards that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region.”[1] 

The number and severity of disasters (particularly hydrometeorological disasters which includes cyclones, floods, hurricanes, etc) is increasing as a result of climate change. In the course of 2009, there were 335 natural disasters worldwide which killed 10,655 persons, affected more than 119 million others and caused over US$ 41.3 billion economic damages.[2] This was considered a relatively quiet year in comparison with recent years. For example, in 2008, disasters took the lives of more than 235,000 people, affected 214 million and resulted in economic losses of over $190 billion.[3] And we know that 2010 is going to go down as a particularly bad year with the megadisasters of Haiti and Pakistan.

As Margareta Wahlström pointed out in 2007, “over the past 30 years, climate-related disasters – storms, floods and droughts – have increased threefold according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).”[4] Some of these disasters are large, high-profile disasters which are well-covered by the media and attract significant amounts of international assistance, but most are much smaller in scale and never make it to the front pages of international newspapers. The cumulative impact of smaller-scale disasters can be as devastating to a community as a large one-time catastrophic event and yet generate far less response. Often the news coverage of a particular disaster is determined by what other news events are taking place at the same time. Thus, “…when Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala roughly a month after Hurricane Katrina, it resulted in a similar number of fatalities but generated only a fraction of the media coverage and subsequent aid response.”[5] 

[1] Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Protecting Persons affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters,  Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006

[2] Vos, Rodriguez, Below, Guha-Sapir. “Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2009: The numbers and Trends,” p. 1. Centre for research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, World Health Organization, Université Catholique de Louvain, available at:

[3] Vos, Rodriguez, Below, Guha-Sapir. “Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2008: The numbers and Trends,” p. 1. Centre for research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, World Health Organizatio, Université Catholique de Louvain, available at:

[4] Margareta Wahlström, “The Humanitarian Impact of Climate Change,” UN Chronicle Online Edition,available at:

[5] IFRC, World Disasters Report, 2006, p. 168.