The Disasters of the 21st Century: A Mixture of New, Old, and Mixed Types

Quarantelli, E. L.
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Disaster Research Center
Disasters are as old as when human beings started to live in groups. Initially the hazards, which created the possibility for disasters, were primarily natural hazards such as earthquake and floods. But through time, technological risks were added to the natural ones. For example, the development of synthetic chemicals in the 19th Century and nuclear power in the 20th Century, created the possibility of toxic chemical disasters and radiation fallout crises. This paper suggests we are at another historical juncture with the appearance of a new category of disasters, what we call trans-system social ruptures (TSSR). The label tries to indicate that these kinds of disasters jump to or cut across different social systems. Using examples such as the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory (SARS) and the SoBig computer F virus, both in 2003, we describe in ideal type terms the primary characteristics of TSSR. We also discuss examples of future TSSR especially those rooted in biotechnological advances and the spread of globalization that create new social networks. The paper concludes with an effort to place TSSR within the full range of disasters, including old and traditional manifestations as well as ones with mixed old and new characteristics.
Computer Technology , Disaster Research