Disaster Relief Social Work: A Career Guide

Disaster Relief Social Work: A Career Guide
From wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes to tsunamis, chemical spills, airline crashes, and terrorist attacks, disasters take the form of both natural and human-made phenomena. By definition, they are intermittent and arrive unexpectedly, amplifying their impact. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly September 8, 2020

Ensuring the immediate well-being of people affected by disaster isn't the only goal for social workers in this specialization, but helping them learn to cope with the resulting trauma that such an emergency can create.

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When Hurricane Laura struck the United States in 2020, it delivered an unusually powerful assault to the Gulf Coast. The Category 4 storm came ashore near the Louisiana-Texas state line on August 27, tearing off roofs, causing major flooding, and knocking out power to nearly a million homes and businesses across the south-central United States.

Before gradually weakening to a tropical storm, Laura killed at least six people in Louisiana. It also caused a chemical manufacturing plant fire in Westlake, located in the state’s Calcasieu Parish, prompting shelter-in-place directives for residents in the surrounding communities. Before reaching the United States, the storm wreaked havoc across the Caribbean, killing over 20 in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. It left hundreds of thousands without power and more than a million without clean drinking water.

A storm like that creates a lot of misery and deprivation. Many unfortunate enough to live in its path require assistance with food, shelter, and other necessities in its aftermath. Nonprofits and relief organizations address much of the need, deploying disaster relief social workers and other relief experts focused on the needs of these communities. These professionals not only provide for victims’ immediate needs but also help them cope with the resulting trauma that such emergencies create.

If helping others in their greatest hour of need sounds like the perfect career, read on. Our guide to disaster relief social work answers the following questions:

  • What is a disaster relief social worker?
  • How do you become a disaster relief social worker?
  • What are the best disaster relief social worker certifications?

What is a disaster relief social worker?

In 2002, psychologists from the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) defined a disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously.” From wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes to tsunamis, chemical spills, airline crashes, and terrorist attacks, disasters take the form of both natural and human-made phenomena. By definition, they are intermittent and arrive unexpectedly, amplifying their impact. They cause severe disruptions to daily life—often to the most vulnerable populations—and require external intervention or assistance.

As the United States sees more billion-dollar natural disaster events than ever before and climate scientists forecast an increase in intensity and frequency of these events, the need for social workers trained in disaster relief, planning, and recovery grows greater than ever. Depending on the type, duration, and severity of a traumatic event, as well as the available personnel and resources, the challenges and tasks of disaster social workers can vary significantly. Generally, here’s how their work takes shape across the different phases of the disaster management cycle.

Disaster preparedness

This crisis intervention phase includes planning, training, and educational activities focused on mitigating the risks of a disaster and empowering local communities to act once the disaster happens. During this phase, social workers may educate local communities on the disasters unique to their region and help them develop preparedness plans for what to do, where to go, or who to ask for help. Additionally, they can play an important advocacy role to ensure that early warning and disaster management stays on local, state, and national policymakers’ agendas.

When some advance warning exists—as it does when, say, a hurricane approaches—social services typically focus on limiting the damage of the event through activities like stockpiling equipment and supplies, developing arrangements for evacuation, and coordinating mobilization plans with public health and emergency response workers.

Disaster response

Social workers offer a variety of relief services in the immediate aftermath of disasters. These usually center around their clients’ basic needs, and may include case management methods such as:

  • Arranging health care
  • Assisting in search and rescue aid
  • Helping people qualify for short-term emergency disaster assistance resources such as food programs
  • Identifying and providing additional services as needed

Social workers may work through state offices of emergency services or similar state agencies, as well as through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the primary federal coordinating agency for disasters. FEMA provides benefit programs such as temporary housing assistance, mortgage and rental assistance, emergency home repairs, and critical needs assistance.

Social workers called on for active disaster response also carry out various immediate mental health services to support disaster survivors. Psychological first aid (PFA), based on the premise that disaster survivors experience a broad range of early reactions, is designed to reduce the initial distress that’s typically felt during the initial aftermath of a disaster.

Disaster recovery

Providing relief and helping a community rebuild can take months—and sometimes years—as disaster victims come to grips with their losses and strive to regain a sense of normalcy. Given the challenges, social workers often play an essential role in long-term recovery by facilitating community development and social support, helping restore livelihoods, and providing counseling services that allow clients to share and process their trauma narratives.

Some professionals may also conduct social work research to inform practice in the field. This may involve studying the effectiveness of particular services in meeting peoples’ needs, examining the effects of legislation and policy on an impacted region, or analyzing the lasting consequences of disaster-related trauma.


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How do you become a disaster relief social worker?

Becoming a disaster relief social worker typically requires a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Some programs allow students to specialize in areas like disaster crisis and intervention, emergency management, collective trauma, and other related disciplines. Such programs provide the advanced training, knowledge, and skills necessary to advocate for and support victims of disasters. The online MSW program at Tulane University of Louisiana, for example, offers a certificate in disaster and collective trauma.

Many programs also offer a variety of hands-on fieldwork or placement opportunities. These real-world experiences require students to practice what they learn in the classroom under seasoned professionals’ supervision in the field. During this period, it’s also common for students to participate in a field seminar that allows them to discuss their experience and address any professional, ethical, policy, and practice concerns.

What are the best disaster relief social worker certifications?

There are a variety of professional and continuing education certification options available for social workers who specialize in responding to the emotional needs of people affected by disaster. They include:

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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