What’s on our minds

Help us to understand what spontaneous leaders in COVID-19 need

If you have insights on the needs of grassroots organizing, or are involved in a community effort for COVID-19, we want to hear from you! If you are willing to participate in a 60-minute phone interview with a member of our team, please let us know here

Additionally, we hope you might help us to find others who understand their needs, including organizers themselves. If there is somebody else you feel we might speak to, please forward this message, or let us know how we can reach them.

We’re particularly interested in efforts where the answer is “yes” to all of the following questions:

  • Is the effort responding to a need that has come up because of COVID-19?
  • Is it significantly different from what the group was doing before the pandemic?
  • Is it being organized by people who had not worked together in any serious way before?

For example:

  • A group of professional coaches got to talking over professional networks, and are now coordinating volunteers to offer free support sessions to frontline medical workers and their families.
  • Dog owners who knew each other from the local dog park are organizing pet visits to shut-ins and vulnerable members in their community.
  • Concerned parents have developed a free food pantry where community members can drop off or “shop” for canned goods and other packaged foods.


Be well, be smart ______ stay apart!

The case for taking disaster seriously

Major disasters are becoming more frequent, and are impacting more people.

Recently, Amy Feldman of All Good Work challenged me for this vague and unsupported statement. That sent me on an industrious search for clear reliable evidence, and through a rabbit warren of government reports, scientific discussions, and disaster data sets.

What I found was that some disasters are indeed becoming more frequent and strike with greater force, more people are at risk for being in harm’s way of all types of hazards, and more of the people in harm’s way are more vulnerable to damaging effects. These increases are driven by environmental changes, population expansion, and greater technological dependencies.


Unpacking the claims

Before we look at the numbers, let’s be a little more specific about what the indicators say.

Some disasters are becoming more frequent and strike with greater force

  • Globally, in the US, and in California, wildfires and floods are becoming more frequent and affecting larger areas [GAR19, CRS 2019, LAO 2019].
  • Globally and in the US, major storms and hurricanes becoming more frequent, and catastrophic storms are becoming even larger [GAR19, CRS 2019].
  • Globally, new biological hazards are emerging constantly, and have increased opportunities to spread [GAR19].
  • Cascading and compound effects are creating new types of disasters. For instance, NATECH events are incidents where side effects of natural hazards causes cascading technological accidents [GAR19].

More people are at risk for being in harm’s way

  • Throughout the world, as populations expand, more people are settling, and more capital development is placed, in risk-prone areas [GAR19, CRS 2017].

More of the people in harm’s way are more vulnerable to damaging effects

  • Globally and in the US, risk-prone areas have not been settled earlier precisely because they are risk-prone, and the people who are settling there are typically those with fewer economic resources [GAR19, CRS 2017].
  • Generally, modern populations are increasingly dependent on technical infrastructure and public services that are more likely to be disrupted in risk-prone areas [GAR19].

A few points of interest

  • The numbers of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are relatively stable, but they frequently affect larger populations when they occur [GAR19, LAO 2019].
  • Globally, while the number of people affected by disaster is increasing, the number of disaster-related deaths is decreasing [GAR19].


So, what support did I find for these claims?

Alas, I didn’t find simple hard proof. Disaster is not only a very complex concept, but, by its very nature, chaotic and incoherent. It’s easy to specify measures such as “number of incidents,” “number of people affected,” and “economic costs,” but defining metrics for measurement is far more challenging, and collecting reliable data comprehensively is yet more challenging.

So, while it’s easy to find a smoking gun, there are always questions about why it went off.

That said, let’s take a look at some numbers.



According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), “3.9 billion people, or about half the worldwide population, were potentially exposed to natural disasters in 2018. When counting if a region was affected by multiple disasters, this number jumps to 10.7 billion people.” [CRED 2019].

The same source recorded reports of 315 natural disaster events, affecting over 68 million people, and incurring US$131.7 billion in economic losses. Flooding accounted for 50% of the total affected, followed by storms which accounted for 28%. Earthquakes were the deadliest, accounting for 45% of deaths, followed by flooding at 24%.

These numbers are of country-level events.

In 2018, the US had had 66 federally declared major disasters, that is, state-level events. Storms were the most common cause (26), followed by floods (19), and hurricanes (13). Total damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (CPI-adjusted) in 14 of the 66 events. Storms again topped the list with 7 events, followed by tornado (3), hurricanes (2), fire (1), and drought (1) [FEMA].


2018 in perspective

Globally, 2018 was a good year. Compared to the previous decade (2008-2017), there were 33 fewer disasters than the annual average of 348, 130.8 million fewer people affected than the annual average of 198.8 million, and US$35 billion less in economic losses than the annual average of US$166.7 [CRED 2019].

In contrast, it was not a good year for the US. There were 30.2 more major disaster declarations than the annual average of 35.8 for the years 1953-2016 [CRS 2017], and 7.8 more billion-dollar events than the annual average of 6.2 for the 1980-2018 period [Smith 2019].

Looking at the data collected by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) for country-level events, it is clear that 2018 was not an anomaly, either globally or for the US. Visual inspection reveals that disasters started increasing in frequency and impact around 1960 and that the rate of increase may have  started to slow around 2000. It also shows that the increased numbers of events lies predominately from hazards that are amplified by environmental factors such as climate changes and land use. All types of events show increased impact and costs [EM-DAT].

Total (Global) Earthquakes, floods, storms, and epidemics (Global) Total (Americas)
Reported events
TOTAL NUMBER of reported Natural disasters between 1900 and 2019
People affected
Economic damage
in 2016 US$


Charts drawn from the EM-DAT database, accessed 2019-12-09.

While these trends could be explained by changes in reporting, data collection, or other factors not related to actual events, expert analysis indicates that numbers and impacts of disasters truly are rising:

From the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction:

“People and assets around the world are being exposed to a growing mixture of hazards and risks, in places and to an extent previously unrecorded.” [GAR19]

“Simply put, the concentration of individuals and produced capital in hazard-exposed areas today is greater by an order of magnitude than it was 40 years ago.” [GAR13]

From the US Congressional Research Service:

“Given the variables described in this report that can lead to an increase in the number of declarations, including trends in severe weather patterns, population growth, and development, the upward trend of declarations will likely continue if declarations policies remain unchanged.” [LAO 2019]

Finally, the data also reveal much greater variability in number of disasters from year to year, suggesting greater unpredictability and uncertainty, and a growing need for flexibility in response capacity.

From the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction:

“What is evident, is that change is happening more quickly and surprisingly across multiple dimensions and scales than we ever thought possible. This means that although modelling and metrics are important, we can no longer use the past as a reliable indicator of the future.” [GAR19]



[CRED 2019] CRED. Natural Disasters 2018. Brussels: CRED; 2019.

[CRS 2017] Congressional Research Service. Stafford Act Declarations 1953-2016: Trends, Analyses, and Implications for Congress (R42702), 2017.

[EM-DAT] CRED. EM-DAT database. Accessed 2019-12-09.

[FEMA] FEMA. Disaster Declarations Summary. Accessed 2019-12-06.

[GAR13] UNISDR. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. 2013.

[GAR19] UNDRR. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. 2019.

[LAO 2019] CA Legislative Analyst’s Office, Main Types of Disasters and Associated Trends, 10 Jan 2019. Accessed 20 Nov 2019.

[SMITH 2019] Smith, Adam. (2019-02-07]. 2018’s Billion Dollar Disasters in Context [Blog post].


Related articles

Coronese, Matteo, Francesco Lamperti, Klaus Keller, Francesca Chiaromonte, and Andrea Roventini. “Evidence for sharp increase in the economic damages of extreme natural disasters.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 43 (2019): 21450-21455.

Than, Ker. (2005-10-17). Scientists: Natural Disasters Becoming More Common [News article].

Zagorsky, Jay L. (2017-09-08). Are catastrophic disasters striking more often? [Blog post].


The past 20 years offer some striking numbers

The five years with most billion-dollar events in the US

The five costliest US hurricanes on record

The majority of the largest and most destructive wildfires in California


Empowered by co-working

Working alone is hard. Working alone from home and out of coffee shops is hard. Even in Silicon Valley where a million others are doing the same.

So we are thrilled to announce that Creative Crisis Leadership now has another place to work: Thanks to the generous donation of Satellite Inc and the enthusiastic efforts of All Good Work, we have a seat at the Satellite co-working center in Sunnyvale CA.

It’s quiet, bright, right next to the train station, and populated with friendly hard-working people. In other words, a great place to develop that theoretical understanding of improvised leadership we need to move forward with some solid learning experiences.

Thank you,

and you,


We don’t tell people what to do

We put discovery at the center of our learning experiences. That’s a bit different from what others do.

Conventional drill- or exercise-based disaster preparedness efforts start by telling people what they should do. Then they give them a chance to practice doing it “right.” They might give them some classroom instruction first, and provide them with checklists.

We throw them in at the deep end, and let them figure out what they know and what they need to know. Then we discuss their insights, answer their questions, and throw them back in to try again. Then we give them checklists.

Of course, we don’t throw them in a random “deep end.” We do a lot of work to ensure that the challenges they run into will lead them to “discover” what we want them to discover. That’s why the research and design we put into crafting learning experiences is so important. And why we take care that learning experiences are adapted to specific communities and participants.

We believe that discovery-based learning1 is appropriate for our audiences for several reasons:

  1. We are targeting adults. Adults already know something about crisis, leadership, and improvisational problem-solving. And they use discovery-based learning in their own lives all the time.
  2. The mindsets and skills we want to convey are very amenable to learning by Aha! moments. Besides, we think that people will remember facts better if they asked for them when they needed the answer.
  3. By letting people help direct their learning, we are less likely to waste time on what they already know, or on things that aren’t relevant to their lives.
  4. Letting people discover their own knowledge gaps is more likely to arouse curiosity. If they are curious, they are more likely to be inspired to want to fill them.
  5. It’s just plain more fun.

By letting our participants “figure it out,” we hope that they will react to a real event with, “Oh, here’s what I learned last time I did this…” rather than, “Wait, what was it they said I’m supposed to do?”

1This approach is rooted in constructivist theories of learning and discovery- or inquiry-based educational theories. There is much research on the benefits and drawbacks of such approaches. If you dig into it, you should note that most of the work is in the context of childhood science education.

Thanks to Tom Prussing for inspiring me to clarify these differences.

We couldn’t have said it better!

It’s always satisfying to hear others humming to your beat. The New York Times published an article a few days ago that hums to ours.

In How to Prepare Your Community for a Disaster, New York Times writer Alan Henry summarizes an interview with Mitch Stripling, assistant commissioner of Agency Preparedness and Response for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and co-host of “Dukes of Hazards: The Emergency Management Podcast.”

The main points the article brings out are

  1. Community resilience starts at the neighborhood level. Neighbors need to be acquainted and ready to help each other when things go wrong.
  2. Existing local organizations—coffee shops, parent-teacher associations, book groups, etc.—strengthen community ties, and are great starting points for improving disaster preparedness awareness and planning at the neighborhood level.
  3. Neighbors should develop a plan for how they will communicate and work together in the event of a disaster.

We at Creative Crisis Leadership heartily endorse these points. We’d like to strike a beat of our own, though: It is as important for neighbors to develop the skills needed to improvise a plan in the event as it is to develop one in advance. The article actually hums a bit to that beat as well,

“it’s important to get your group ready to improvise. Building your group into a team that can react to different types of events is more important than being ready to run any one evacuation plan.”

— Mitch Stripling

The hum of the article rests on a bass note of individual initiative:

“However, a lot of the support structures that foster the sense of community that led people to look out for one another have degraded, Mr. Stripling said, and it’s up to individuals to bring them back to life.”

We couldn’t have said it better!