What’s the Difference between an Emergency and a Disaster?

Survival planning, contrary to popular depiction, is not just a matter of worrying about a planet-killing asteroid strike, a nuclear war, or other “doomsday” events.

disaster versus emergency

Chances are, quite the opposite, you’ll need a plan for dealing with far more mundane events.

But proper disasters and everyday emergencies will affect you differently, and your response should be likewise tailored for what you are facing.

What is the difference between a disaster and an emergency?

The difference between an emergency and a disaster is in magnitude. A disaster is it bad enough that people do not have the means or resources to deal with it. An emergency is an event that people do have the resources in order to deal with it or avert harm.

ScopeOne person or a few peopleDozens, hundreds or even millions of people
EffectsShort-lasting effectsLong-lasting effects
CauseCan be both natural and man-madeCan be both natural and man-made
Examplescar crashes, house firewar, blackout, flood

Natural disasters and everyday emergencies will both call for good survival planning.

Maybe it is a tornado that wipes out most of your town (disaster), or something like a vehicle breakdown that strands you in a remote and little-traveled part of the country (emergency).

Understanding the differences will help you plan accordingly. We will discuss those differences in the rest of this article!

What is the difference between emergencies and disasters?


Disasters are often of a larger scale, affecting entire communities or regions.

A disaster may devastate part of your hometown, the entirety of your hometown, your region or even an entire part of your country. Disasters may disrupt life well outside of their immediate impact.

Emergencies are generally smaller in scope, confined to one or a few people. An emergency might affect you, your loved ones, your family or a small group of people.

Outside of this small affected group, life goes on normally.

Consider something like a car accident. Car accidents are terrifying, extremely sudden and reap a terrible toll in lives and in property all around the country and the rest of the world.

Sounds a lot like a disaster, yes? They also happen to be extremely common, occurring every single day. Chances are you drive by a car accident regularly.

But car accidents are not disasters outside of calamitous second or third order effects. Car accidents only directly affect the people involved in them, however many vehicles that might be.

Beyond the confines of the accident, life goes on pretty much unimpeded, except perhaps for the traffic pattern in the area.


Disasters have more far-reaching consequences, often causing extensive damage and loss of life.

Severe damage or total destruction of buildings is common, and any person that is directly impacted by their effects is in severe danger of death or, at best, grave injury.

Disasters that may disrupt a local area enough that survival in the aftermath is not guaranteed.

Emergencies may cause minor inconveniences or pose a significant danger to the person or people experiencing them.

They might be immediately hazardous to life and limb, or as a culmination of circumstances result in a threat to life over time.

If a tornado or hurricane devastates a particular city, pretty much everyone in the path of destruction will be facing the same risks, and there is not one thing that anyone can do to mitigate the danger factors.

No one can make the rain stop, push back the tide or stop the wind from blowing.

But in the case of something like being stranded in a wilderness area, having the right skills, supplies and other preps can greatly reduce or even eliminate the danger entirely.

As has been said, the difference between camping and being stranded is just a matter of skills and equipment! If the effects of the event cannot be meaningfully influenced by human endeavor, you are probably dealing with a disaster.


Disasters are usually the result of natural phenomena, such as storms, earthquakes or fires. Certain man-made acts including warfare and terrorism might qualify as a disaster in scope if not strict definition.

Emergencies can be caused by a variety of factors, both natural and man-made.

An emergency can be something as simple and common as a car accident or breakdown, or something as immediately pressing as a heart attack or accident that results in serious injury.

It might also be human-centric in such as a home invasion or mugging.

Most proper disasters are naturally occurring, acts of God that may or may not be predictable, but rarely, if ever can they be properly stopped or the source of the event abated.

Many emergencies, on the other hand, can be avoided or the frequency of the instance reduced through proper action, procedure and preparation.

That being said, emergencies and disasters alike may still occur with frightening speed leaving little time to react in order to avoid them.

Often, it is the speed of your response and remedial action in the aftermath that will dictate whether or not the situation is recoverable.


Disasters often require mass evacuations and outside assistance for relief and recovery.

Cleaning up the damage and getting things back to normal is a sustained effort that can take many months or years. It is possible that things might not go back to normal at all.

Emergencies may only require the person or people dealing with them to take action in order to avoid harm or extricate themselves from it.

The responses might be simple, but they might not be easy, either.

Once the affected people are out of danger things generally go back to normal and society at large remains unaffected.

How Do Your Preparations Differ?

In general, the major difference when it comes to preparing for disasters versus emergencies is one of immediacy.

As alluded to above, disasters and emergencies both can occur with great speed and virtually no warning, but in this regard it is usually the common, everyday emergency that will put your reaction time to the test more than a disaster, particularly many natural disasters.

Let’s consider some of the most common natural disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so forth all entail a significant wind up.

Meaning, thanks to modern forecasting and weather radar we’re capable of detecting the approach of these disasters or the conditions that are likely to result in them with hours or days to spare.

A smart prepper will use this forewarning to get prepared and reduce risk.

Let us contrast these against some of the most common, but no less deadly, everyday emergencies that one is likely to encounter.

Avoiding a car accident may only be done with seconds if you are lucky. A heart attack requires you or someone else to respond within minutes if you want to mitigate damage and save a life.

An accident in the workshop or around the house might likewise produce an injury that could start the death timer ticking with only minutes to spare.

the point is that anything you are going to use to prevent or mitigate most emergencies must be innate or you must have it at hand, literally attached to your body or sitting next to you.

This could take the form of skills and training, or it might be something like a first aid kit that you keep in a pocket or attached to the back of the seat in your vehicle.

Disasters, on the other hand, are usually only survived and though you might need supplies to do that you can have those supplies stored in your home or in another location that you can access in a timely fashion according to the tempo of the event.

For instance, surviving the aftermath of a hurricane or other calamitous natural disaster will be best served with a storeroom of food, a generator with plenty of fuel, a stockpile of medicine, clothing, tools and the like.

Not something you can carry around with you, but something you need nonetheless!

Be Ready for Both!

The bottom line is that you should have a survival plan for both emergencies and disasters. The type of event will dictate the specifics of your plan, but make sure you have all the bases covered.

Having a solid survival plan in place will give you peace of mind in any situation!

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