Rescue efforts in Ishinamaki, Miyagi, Japan.The 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Honshu, Japan, on 11 March 2011, was the fourth largest earthquake recorded during the last 100 years. It was the source of a particularly destructive tsunami, followed by the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

The direct impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake resulted in more than 15,000 deaths and almost 6,000 injuries alone; however, hundreds of thousands of people were affected and continue to suffer the consequences of the radioactive contamination. If not for the work of dedicated responders, this event could have been as devastating as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Many international experts have qualified this disaster as “unprecedented,” signifying a level of destruction that was never before recorded and therefore unexpected. But was it? The 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and many other mega-disasters have been similarly characterized. Can we categorize the earthquakes impacting Japan, Banda Aceh, or Haiti as unforeseen? Basic knowledge of seismology suffices to acknowledge that these events could be expected. What was unexpected was the combination of hazards of high magnitude in one specific geographic area.

The approach to risk, in most countries, is still too specific to a particular hazard. Managers take into account the possibility of earthquakes, tsunamis and the collapse of the security system, but separately. However, the reason for the Fukushima failure was not due exclusively to one of these natural hazards or the issue of security. Rather, it was the combination of the occurrence of several hazards and of equipment and human failures, that resulted in the nuclear accident and the release of dangerous radioactive particles that could be measured thousands of miles away.

The creation of hazard-specific response plans is a common form of operation in institutions around the globe. Every time a new threat is identified, a new agency or group springs up almost automatically. For example, the UN System Influenza Coordination (UNSIC) was created specifically to respond to pandemic crises; organizers of the cricket and soccer World Cups create specific coordination structures; and presidential summits have their own systems for coordination in emergencies. Although each of these scenarios requires a specific response, the creation of expert groups outside of the main national coordinating institutions requires a lot of energy and is doomed to fail in the long run. As soon as political or media interest disappears, the group or institution created for that purpose disappears too, with the exception of Civil Protection institutions that remain long after the disaster.

A similar problem exists in how the response is organized. Most institutions only have contingency plans for a specific hazard, allowing staff to focus on a plan based on a tangible scenario. Furthermore, each disaster poses specific problems: following an earthquake there are victims to be rescued from the rubble; a flood or hurricane results in victims who need shelter, etc. However, at large, centralized institutions such as ministries, disaster management is not only characterized by the technical aspects of response to an impact, but rather, in the management of the chaos, uncertainties, immediate political decisions, security issues, coordination, information management, etc., that follow the impact. The specific impact related to the hazard is only one element to be considered.

The threat of a global radiological event following the explosions in the Fukushima plant highlights serious concerns regarding the level of preparedness in Latin America and the Caribbean. Preparedness for this type of event remains confined mainly to the entity responsible for nuclear accidents and is not part of the national disaster planning. A similar situation exists for other hazards. The H1N1 pandemic received enormous attention from the health sector but too little from national disaster coordination entities. Thus, response was directed at the disease and not at the crisis generated by the declaration of a global pandemic.

The next big disaster will occur in a multi-hazard prone and highly populated area (it is estimated that 60% of the population will live in large cities by 2030). Now, more than ever, we must approach disaster risk in a more comprehensive way, from a multi-hazard perspective. Similarly, response procedures must function for any kind of disaster, regardless of the scenario and magnitude of the hazards it entails. Practically, this means that institutions must embark on training and identifying specialists in crisis management who, regardless of the hazard or combination of hazards generated, will be able to run the operation under the leadership of the institution.

The methodology proposed by the incident command or incident management system establishes an institutional response regardless of the type of hazard or event. Although there are different definitions of this system, the main principle is that a specific person is designated to lead the operation under the highest authority within the institution. This individual is a specialist in managing crisis and not necessarily an expert in a specific hazard. For institutions to successfully implement the incident command system, they must define levels of severity of a crisis as well as the essential functions that must remain fully operational during the response.

Although the Japan earthquake, compounded by the tsunami and radiological accident, shocked the world, more of these types of scenarios are to be expected around the globe. There will be less “unanticipated” risk when planning is based on maximum possible hazards that may occur in combination in one geographical area. By moving from a single hazard approach to more comprehensive risk analysis and incident management regardless of the hazard, institutions will significantly improve their ability to manage a disaster, reduce the impact, and control the chaos.