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Rethinking Readiness

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Rethinking Readiness

A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters

Columbia UP,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

How communities and nations can prepare for five major 21st-century threats.

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  • Applicable
  • Overview
  • Concrete Examples


Disaster-preparedness expert Jeff Schlegelmilch offers an introduction to disaster preparedness for those in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Following a foreword by Irwin Redlener, whom the author says inspired the book, Schlegelmilch outlines five major 21st-century threats – climate change, cyberattacks, infrastructure failure, nuclear weapons and infectious disease (writing before the COVID-19 pandemic) – and describes best practices for reducing community and national vulnerability and for disaster response. He illustrates how the emerging field of disaster science helps societies cultivate what the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calls a “culture of preparedness.”


Most of the world lacks disaster preparedness. 

Disasters can devastate a community, bringing death, destruction and chaos while they happen, and leaving years of persistent physical and mental health problems in their wake. In the direct aftermath of a disaster, state and non-state responses often include donations from the public as well as from governments and nonprofit organizations.

The United States and other nations do not prioritize preparedness. Today, the world faces potential “megadisasters,” enormous catastrophes on the scale of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Modern factors including climate change, a highly interconnected society and advances in military technology, which increases the potency of possible threats while heightening communities’ vulnerabilities.

The danger of infectious disease is growing.

“Biothreats” – outbreaks of infectious diseases – are becoming more frequent and more destructive. Many characteristics of contemporary civilization make it easier for disease to spread. These include:

  • Urbanization – More people are crowding into cities...

About the Authors

Jeff Schlegelmilch is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Irwin Redlener is director and founder of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

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