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How Can Emergency Shelter Design Avoid Secondary Disasters?

The devastation of a disaster event, whether it has natural or man-made causes, is not confined to simply its primary effects, and the true devastation and damage can be caused long after the initial disaster hits.

The design of emergency shelters often needs to be mindful of their ability to mitigate and ideally protect from the effects of a disaster not only in its immediate aftermath but also the short-term and medium-term consequences that can place even more lives at risk.

To understand why, it is important to understand the three stages of disaster, what relief shelters help with at each stage and how this can help towards a long-term recovery.

Primary, Secondary And Tertiary Disasters

Any hazardous event, such as a natural disaster, a military attack or an epidemic, typically consists of three main stages of effects, each roughly following each other chronologically.

The first is the primary disaster, which is any destruction caused by the disaster event itself. For example, the primary effects of a hurricane involve deaths and damage caused directly by the high-speed wind gusts, which can destroy buildings, and send people as well as vehicles flying dangerous distances.

Here, the role of a disaster shelter is to form part of an evacuation plan, if the disaster can be seen ahead of time and there are no mitigation strategies that can be installed to protect the area without displacing people. The shelter gives people a safe option in the absence of alternatives.

Secondary disasters are hazardous effects directly caused by the primary disaster, and this is where a lot of relief plans come into effect and shelters are erected to try and preserve as many lives as possible.

There are a lot of potential second impacts, but the hurricane of the first example could cause damage to power lines, causing a blackout in the area and cutting off vital life-saving electrical equipment.

Earthquakes could damage roads and bridges, making it more difficult to either evacuate to a safe place or for emergency services to arrive promptly and easily.

One of the biggest secondary disaster impacts is exposure to either dangerous heat or freezing cold temperatures, which survivors of a disaster may be more vulnerable to owing to the physical and mental ordeal they have just gone through.

This was the case during the 2023 twin earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, where freezing temperatures risked magnifying the number of deaths as a result of exposure.

Alternatively, injured people could potentially be at risk of dying from their injuries due to a lack of medical facilities, something that a medical shelter could assist with and provide field care to enable them to recover enough to be transported to a medical facility.

The final stage of a disaster is its tertiary effects, which are long-term changes in the area that are caused by the disaster, its secondary effects and the reactions to both. 

Displacement is inherently disruptive, and effective shelters need to be designed with transition and rebuilding in mind if they are going to be part of an effective rebuilding process.

A focus on transition is a relatively recent focus of shelter design and implementation, as temporary shelters were being used far longer than they were intended, so there are several shelter designs which can be gradually developed into a longer-term solution whilst permanent housing is constructed.


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