The 4 Phases in a Disaster

Ted Esler

As the war unfolds in Ukraine, ministries are responding. It is not hard for me to imagine what is happening right now since I served in the Balkans during the 1990s.

A few years after my service in Bosnia I attended a series of consultations organized by the sending agency I served under. The globally dispersed staff had experienced both small and large-scale disasters. There were floods in Pakistan, a Tsunami in Asia, wars in Central Asia and many other disasters. During the consultation I learned several key ideas that I wish I had known when I was ministering in Bosnia.

One of the more helpful ideas is that a disaster typically has 4 phases. By understanding these, ministry leaders can better assess what they are doing, who they are doing it with, and how appropriate their response might be. The needs of each of these phases are different. Some ministries are laser focused on just one of these areas. This should lead us to deeper collaboration as we understand that our own ministries are not “omni-purpose.”

We need each other.

These were presented from an unpublished paper that was citing Eng Ho. I have edited these for broader usage. These phases overlap and geography may dictate what is happening (the situation in Ukraine right now is different than it is in Poland, for example).

Phase 1: Rescue – acute/emergency phase

Search and Rescue operations – digging for survivors under rubble after an earthquake, rescuing stranded flood and hurricane victims. Rescue personnel need to be highly trained and equipped. Typically done by the military, trained teams of specialists, local police and fire departments, and son on. There are specialized ministries which focus on this area.

Medical teams – providing acute medical care to injured people. This is specialist work and will not be conducted by the typical missionary agency. There are some equipped to assist, but most are not.

Evacuation – getting people away from the danger zone. As I write this, millions have already crossed out of Ukraine and churches have been active in helping people evacuate.

Phase 2: Relief and Refugees – providing food, water, and shelter

Massive human needs – water, shelter, food, clothing, blankets, toiletries, medical needs, sanitation, tracing relatives, trauma counseling

Relief personnel – need not have technical expertise but necessary and essential to have had some preparatory training and coordinated teamwork. Cultural sensitivities are necessary and should be a part of any preparation process.

Fundraising – Relief is massively expensive. Funding these efforts, from culturally appropriate story telling to grant writing are special skills that are needed. Money has ruined many good ministries and relief funding is prone to misuse, waste, and corruption. Special attention must be paid to the management of relief.

Phase 3: Rehabilitation and Return – helping people achieve a new normal

Establishing and providing more durable shelter, digging wells, or installing piped water supply and improved sanitation system, re-starting schools, hospitals, factories, and workplaces, creating employment, and helping people find employment. Some of these solutions will be temporary.

Requires much careful planning with local authorities, community leaders – unless long term development is brought in, such activities often result in permanence. Community health and education strategies (CHE) are common in this phase.

Phase 4: Reconstruction – extended recovery phase

Rebuilding infrastructure of community – roads, buildings, schools, hospitals, factories, community centers. International government funding is often a chief factor in the reconstruction phase.

Educational institutions begin operating again and industries provide employment and economic stability.


Each of these phases requires different skills, a different mindset, and, frankly, different kinds of organizations. This is why partnership and collaboration are so important in a disaster situation.

Relief agencies are good at raising huge piles of money in short order. These kinds of resources are necessary in the early phases of the disaster. Unfortunately, they are not very good at long-term ministry within the disaster arena. Even if they do have longer-term presence, they are typically not engaged in evangelism, discipleship, or church planting. This is where long-term missionary agencies and indigenous churches are better equipped. Whereas we tend to dismiss government and civic authorities as partners, they should also be considered as valuable resources if possible.

By partnering and collaborating through the four phases, the strengths of different partners are more fully realized, people are better served, and the chance that good ministry will happen is more likely.

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