Natural Disasters: What Causes Them? How Do We Respond?

December 13, 2013

When disaster strikes, we want to help. But how? In this lesson, students learn about the factors that contribute to natural disasters, and consider what we might do about them. 


Students will 

  • Read a short history of natural disasters
  • Consider both the natural and human-made causes of disasters
  • Review a recent disaster and international aid responses
  • Consider and discuss guidelines for giving in times of disaster
  • Discuss different points of view about international aid
  • Discuss and debate their own responses to a disaster


  • Research
  • Critical thinking
  • Negotiation
  • Planning and Organization

Materials needed: 



 Ask students to share a time when they've helped someone who needed it.  This can be anything from helping a younger child tie a shoelace to sharing food with someone who was hungry. 

Check agenda and objectives

Web: Responding to natural disasters

Write the words "Natural Disasters" on the board or chart paper.
Explain to students that at least once or twice a year, we hear about (or perhaps even experience) a natural disaster somewhere in the world, such as a drought, cyclone, hurricane, flood, earthquake, tornado, or landslide. 
Ask students: Why are these events called "natural"?
Elicit or explain that although "natural" disasters are supposedly caused by nature, not human beings, very often natural disasters are at least partly human-made. 



Student Reading:
A Short History of ‘Natural' Disasters

We know from scientific evidence that there were natural disasters long before human beings were writing history, but most people trace the first written description of a natural disaster to the flood described in the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Almost every culture has some version of the flood story, and in many cases, the story is that it was divine punishment for human sinfulness.
The idea that natural disasters are a punishment has faded over time, but is still held by some people.  In Western culture, the turning point in attitude may have come with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed much of the city and killed 10,000 to 100,000 people. At the time, some people blamed the earthquake on the sinfulness of heretics, and called for them to be burned. The well-known French philosopher Voltaire wrote "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster," in which he asked if the people of Lisbon were more sinful than in other cities.
 What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
 That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother's breast?
 Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
 Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
But another philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, pointed out that if the people of Lisbon hadn't lived in such tall buildings (buildings that were seven or eight stories were then considered very tall), they wouldn't have suffered so much. When Portugal rebuilt, all buildings had to meet a strict building code. Deaths during earthquakes decreased significantly.
The same was true in our own country.  The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 led to a fire that burned for three days. An estimated 3,000 people died. The city rebuilt with safer buildings, and when a similarly severe earthquake hit in 1989, an estimated 67 people died, although there was enormous property damage.
Other human-made decisions can affect the severity of "natural" disasters. When the levees burst in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, engineers found out that the levees had not been built to be strong enough.  What's more, budget cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other political decisions had left the government poorly prepared to help Katrina's victims, leading to more death and destruction in the hurricane's wake.
Fortunately, the experience with Katrina led federal and local governments to better prepare for disasters. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, the damage was enormous, but the death toll was small compared to that in New Orleans. (Over 1,800 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina; Sandy had fewer than 300 direct victims spread throughout seven countries.)

Not completely natural?

 Ask the students to call out places in our own country or other countries where natural disasters have occurred, recently, or long ago.  Point to the locations on the map and write down the names of the places on the chart paper along with the event, i.e., "the Philippines—typhoon." Ask if all the students remember or have heard of these, and if there are some that they don't know, ask the person who suggested it to describe it.
Were any of the disasters students named caused or made worse by human decisions?  How? Some generic examples include:

Famines.  In countries affected by war, people may not be able to grow food to feed themselves, or food distribution systems may be disrupted. This can cause or aggravate famine, which then seems like a natural disaster. 

Tornadoes. People who live in fragile structures, such as trailers, often suffer the most in tornadoes. Many people who live in such homes are poor, and poverty is caused or made worse by political decisions.
Floods, drought, hurricanes, and other weather disasters fueled by climate change. Scientists have established that (human-generated) greenhouse gas emissions are causing changes in our climate that lead to an increase in many types of extreme weather. Often, this weather now happens in places where residents are not prepared for it. In addition, the areas that are hardest hit are usually those where land is closer to sea level or less fertile to begin with, which means that the people who live there are often poor.

Ask students: Given what we know about the ways human decisions can cause or exacerbate "natural" disasters, how should government address these disasters?  Clearly, the victims of disasters need short-term aid.  But what other steps can we take or advocate for to lessen the impact of future disasters - or even prevent them?
Next we'll be discussing what kind of disaster aid is really needed - in the short term and the long term.

How do we respond to disasters?

When disaster strikes, our hearts go out to the victims.  But what is the best way to help?
Describe the most recent natural disaster that has galvanized international aid.  For instance, in November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) struck the Philippines,  killing almost 6,000 people and affecting 11 million. 
Ask students if they've been following reports of the disaster.  If students have some familiarity with the disaster, have them discuss the questions below in groups of four, giving each person in the group one minute to respond to each question. (If they are not so familiar, ask the same questions of the whole class.)
1. What were your first impressions of the disaster? What did you think and feel about it? 
2. Did you think about whether you might help people affected by the disaster? If so, how?
3.  Do you know anyone who had relatives or friends who might have been affected? Did that influence  how you thought about helping?  If so, in what way?
Reconvene the group and ask for responses to the second question. Then ask if students know of any person or group that provided aid in this disaster or that was affected by it. Write the responses on the board.
Note that each natural disaster is different depending on the country it affects and the nature of the disaster. But there are also common needs. What do the students think people need right away when a disaster strikes? 
Ask students to discuss this question in groups of four and then report back to the whole class. Record the responses on the board or chart paper under the heading "Short-Term Aid."
Responses include:

  • food
  • clean water
  • shelter
  • a way to connect with loved ones

Now ask the small groups to discuss what they think people will need in the long term. Ask for responses and record them under the heading "Long-Term Aid."
Hand out this article about what kinds of disaster relief are most helpful.  The article is based on an interview with a staff member from the Center for International Disaster Information.  Tell students that CIDI is a part of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers much of the U.S.'s foreign aid. CIDI was formed in 1988 after Hurricane Gilbert struck the Caribbean and the Gulf, causing enormous destruction.  So much unasked for aid poured in that it hampered the ability of relief agencies to do their jobs.
 Ask students to read the article. Afterward, ask if students have any questions about what they read, and discuss these. Then elicit from students some of the key recommendations from CIDI about what kind of short-term relief is most effective after a disaster. List these on the board or chart paper. They include:

  • Donating cash to organizations that are providing disaster relief is usually more useful than donating items.
  • Before you give items, confirm that they are needed. Follow instructions from relief organizations about what items to donate and when, where and how to donate them.
  • The need for volunteers is limited. The greatest need is for experienced volunteers with special expertise.


New approaches to disaster  aid

What is the most effective way to provide long-term relief to help disaster victims and reduce the impact of future disasters?
Two huge factors that are creating and worsening "natural" disasters around the world are:

  • climate change
  • the widening gap between rich and poor, both between nations and within nations

Clearly, the nations of the world must take steps to address climate change and cut carbon emissions to lessen the chances of weather disasters. Reducing poverty is also a way to prevent suffering from natural disasters. Some relief organizations are saying that rich nations have to do more to help poor nations.
In every country, poor people always suffer more than rich ones when disaster strikes. Poor people do not have the resources to rebuild, relatives who can take them in, or the money to move somewhere else and start over, if necessary.  Oxfam, a well-known international relief organization has made the following recommendations in a report called "No Accident: Resilience and the Inequality of Risk."
Key recommendations

  • Rich countries must take responsibility for and reduce risks that they disproportionately cause, such as climate change.
  • National governments must tackle underlying inequality and vulnerability through progressive taxation, social protection and social insurance, and giving their poorest citizens a voice in decision-making.

  • Development agencies and national governments must reduce risk and inequality as well as supporting growth - risk and resilience should be incorporated into the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. 

  • Aid agencies must provide more flexible, long-term funding.

Ask students if they have any questions about what the terms used in these recommendations (such as "progressive taxation").
Some people believe that individuals should never give to disaster relief because the help arrives too late and is too little.  They advocate giving to organizations that work on long-term prevention (such as controlling diseases that kill more people every year than any disaster) or on disaster preparedness.  (For more on this, see




Ask students to think of one way that they could help someone this week. They do not have to commit to doing it,  just to think of it.


Suggested follow-up activities

  • Consider having students organize a debate about how (or whether) to provide aid following a past disaster, such as the San Francisco earthquake or the destruction of Pompeii.
  •  Have students decide on a place to which they would like to send aid now, and use some of the ideas from the discussion and from CIDI fact sheets (including those below) to decide on what form their support should take.
  •  Have students publish a newsletter for others in the school on how to provide effective aid after a disaster and on the need for long-term aid, not just emergency aid. 

Additional resources

Oxfam's report, No Accident: Resilience and Inequality Risk , described above, includes a downloadable pdf as well as a short video describing why Haiti suffered so much more from an earthquake than Chile did from an even more severe earthquake.

Fundraising ideas from CIDI: includes a downloadable pdf with 100 ways that students in both suburban and urban settings can raise money for disaster relief,  from a simple bake sale to a more complicated community fair. 

Repurposing ideas from CIDI: Contains a downloadable pdf of ideas to make money from unusable donations and offers students a way to educate the larger community.

The USAID website has a calculator that estimates the true costs of misguided aid, such as clothing or bottled water.