July 2007
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

This chapter presents a framework for comprehensive analysis of how society can reduce the aggregate loss in social welfare resulting from disasters, identifying five leverage points in which investments in capacity can make a difference. It notes that substantial emphasis is generally placed on two of these leverage points: emergency response at the time of a disaster and preparation for response. In addition, in the wake of a disaster society often commits massive resources to recovery for those individuals and communities directly affected. Less attention is typically paid to prevention and mitigation efforts, which work on reducing the likelihood that a disaster will occur or on reducing the consequences of an event if it does take place. And almost entirely neglected are steps that could be taken in advance that would make recovery quicker, less expensive, or more complete. Society would benefit from developing a more balanced portfolio of investments across these leverage points. Ultimately, this is a problem of “acting in time” – of whether society can foresee hazards, figure out actions to address them, and mobilize itself to take those actions on a timely basis.

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