European Union
European Union's Flag

Faroe Islands
Faroe Islands' Flag

Iceland's Flag

New Zealand
New Zealand / Aotearoa's Flag

Overseas Territories
United Kingdom
United Kingdom's Flag



Island Vulnerability


Early Participatory Intervention for Catastrophe
to Reduce Island Vulnerability

by Kat Haynes, Ilan Kelman, and Tom Mitchell

This webpage is updated from:

Haynes, K. I. Kelman, and T. Mitchell. 2005. "Early Participatory Intervention for Catastrophe to Reduce Island Vulnerability (EPIC)". International Journal of Island Affairs, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 56-59, full text (711 kb in PDF).

Haynes, K. I. Kelman, and T. Mitchell. 2006. "Early Participatory Intervention for Catastrophe to Reduce Island Vulnerability". Poster in Symposium V "Risk Management" at Cities on Volcanoes 4, Quito, Ecuador, 23-27 January 2006, abstract (9 kb in PDF).


Operational Issues
Case Studies


DEPICT: Deployable EPIC Team.
EPIC: Early Participatory Intervention for Catastrophe to Reduce Island Vulnerability.

Hot Volcano, Cold Stars:  Soufrière Hills, Montserrat.

Hot Volcano, Cold Stars: Soufrière Hills, Montserrat.
Sundi Smith 2003.)


Disasters in small communities and isolated locations, such as islands, can have devastating impact. The small size and isolation of these communities creates a situation where a relatively small hazard event can threaten an entire nation or culture, as seen from the impact of volcanic eruptions and hurricanes in Montserrat and Tristan da Cunha. In many instances, for example volcanism on Montserrat and Ascension Island, generations of inhabitants might have had little or no experience of certain hazards before they cause major disruption while the local authorities might have a low level of preparedness. Building resilience against and reducing vulnerability to extreme events which have never been experienced is especially challenging.

During a rapid-onset catastrophe, specialists from overseas are often drafted in to the disaster location and hastily initiate a top-down approach to the risk awareness campaign, with little cross-discipline collaboration. These campaigns tend to be of limited success due to conflict between (a) the outsiders’ strategies and interests and (b) the local community’s perspectives and decision makers. Little consideration is given to the distinct worldviews of the population at risk, potentially resulting in a negative cycle of distrust and disbelief along with the development of misconceptions. Once initiated, such as situation is difficult to redress.

This proposal hypothesises that the combination of ‘early intervention’ with a ‘participatory approach’ would best reduce island vulnerability to both catastrophic and chronic disasters. The combination could be termed EPIC: Early Participatory Intervention for Catastrophe. EPIC should ideally occur long before a hazard threatens, but would also be essential when a crisis manifests and in the immediate and long-term aftermaths of extreme events.


Catastrophic disasters

Generally sudden-onset, high-impact events which manifest over a relatively short time scale (although exceptions exist). Examples are aeroplane crashes, blizzards, chemical explosions, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist bombs, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions.

Chronic disasters

Generally slow-onset, high-impact events which manifest and perpetuate over a relatively long time scale (although exceptions exist). Most such problems are associated with underdevelopment, violate basic human rights, and preclude sustainability and long-term health for that society. Examples are domestic violence, inequality, poor education or poor access to education, inappropriate waste management, poor water quality and access, and poverty.

Early intervention

Proactive engagement by an interdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners with vulnerable communities before a crisis event occurs. The purposes are to sensitise the researchers to the cultural values of the population, to increase risk awareness, and to set the stage for appropriate vulnerability reduction measures.

Participatory approach

Researchers and practitioners working co-operatively with community members to understand and resolve community problems, to empower community members, and to democratise research and application. The ultimate aim should be a balance of local knowledge with the wider perspective of the outside team. The process should be an exchange, rather than one side dominating.

Rodney Bay, St. Lucia.

Rodney Bay, St. Lucia:
Could EPIC reduce vulnerability to both volcanoes/earthquakes and encroaching development/tourism?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 1998.)

(outcomes needed from work on EPIC)

  1. A detailed description of EPIC, its background, and its uses.

  2. A method for implementing EPIC, especially more details about operationalising the method.

  3. Field guidelines for using EPIC, including a description of the advantages and disadvantages, but focused on specific implementation guidance. Particular attention should be given to how social and physical scientists can most productively collaborate around interdisciplinary problems. In this case, the challenge is creating and maintaining sustainable communities on vulnerable islands.

  4. A set of operational tools, i.e. a toolkit, to be used for EPIC (e.g. assessment, monitoring, participation, and evaluation techniques).

  5. Possibly an operational framework or operational manual for EPIC, but that might not be needed. At this stage, these outcomes appear to be better integrated into the above outcomes.

Operational issues

  1. Resources, particularly time and patience, are needed to implement EPIC. Such resources might be scarce. Prior to a disaster, political will is rare for providing support for events which might never arise. During or after a disaster, other actions are generally considered priorities, particularly with the current response culture which favours direct, external intervention. A possible way to overcome this challenge is to use EPIC as a sustainability and development tool, which further reinforces the essential need to place disaster management in those contexts.

  2. EPIC must meld physical and social sciences. Researchers and practitioners in those areas are often reluctant to assist with activities which are not their core focus or interests. Appropriate selection and training of operational field workers could help to overcome such barriers, but the power of mono-disciplinarism should not be underestimated.

  3. A challenge exists in developing and maintaining a Deployable EPIC Team (DEPICT) which could properly depict the situation. Members should include people with backgrounds in anthropology, communications, development (e.g. urban or international development), emergency planning, engineering, law, physical science (e.g. geology, hydrology, or meteorology), planning, psychology, social work, and sociology. Properly encompassing all needed fields and maintaining coherent interdisciplinarism might make the team size untenable. Overall, having the relevant outlook and experience along with a willingness to listen, share, and learn is more important than having a specific background or training. A small group of individuals who have split academic or practitioner personalities would be more suitable than a large but diverse team.

  4. EPIC entails both top-down and bottom-up activities working simultaneously—a difficult reconciliation. From the top-down perspective, strong leadership is needed to guide the process by engaging and connecting with the community, local elites, politicians, and key institutions while fully involving outsiders in the process, rather than through token gestures. Simultaneously, the bottom-up perspective implies that initiatives must emerge from the community to direct the leadership and the EPIC process.

  5. Care must be taken to make EPIC a continual exchange rather than specific individuals or sectors dominating the process or unilaterally directing others with the expectation of obedience.

Interviewing (a Chat) on Montserrat.

Interviewing (a Chat) on Montserrat:
DEPICT members must exchange rather than direct.
(Copyright Kat Haynes 2003.)

Case Studies

Past island case studies which used the EPIC approach or aspects thereof need to be researched. Some possibilities for success or part-success stories:

A contrast would be needed with island examples where significant elements of EPIC were absent producing serious consequences. Some examples:

  • The ongoing volcanic activity on Montserrat.

  • The ongoing volcanic activity on Réunion.

  • The evacuation of British Indian Ocean Territory

  • The forced evacuation of Guadeloupe in 1976/1977.

Other incidents are more challenging to categorise. For example:

  • The 2001 hurricane on Tristan da Cunha.

Some case studies displayed self-help (or self-sustainability) which would be useful to contrast with EPIC:

  • Cyclone Zoe (2002) striking the islands of Tikopia and Anuta in the Solomon Islands.

  • Hurricanes Michelle (2001) and Lili (2002) hitting Cuba.

Once EPIC has been more comprehensively developed, test cases would be needed because empirical evidence would illustrate the aspects of EPIC to emphasise for ensuring success and sustainability. Sensitivity would be needed in field testing because mistakes could cause severe problems for the community and the outside world. At all stages, the community’s needs and long-term sustainability and development processes would need to be factored in to EPIC activities; however, these activities should be part of EPIC’s core anyway.

For EPIC field testing, case studies with relatively high vulnerabilities and relatively little prior investigation are:

  • Ascension Island.

  • Chatham Islands, New Zealand.

  • Easter Island.

  • Falkland Islands.

  • Ulawun Volcano, New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

Roadside Food Seller (Tongatapu, Tonga):  Needed in a DEPICT?

Roadside Food Seller (Tongatapu, Tonga): Needed in a DEPICT?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004.)


The summary of issues to overcome to make EPIC work is:

  • Collaboration amongst diverse fields through DEPICT.

  • Ensuring that DEPICT identifies community perspectives and integrates them into the vulnerability reduction strategies.

  • Encouraging the local population to accept outside information alongside their traditional knowledge.

  • Evaluating progress and actions while maintaining the positive EPIC results after DEPICT’s departure.

Isolation and small size breed vulnerabilities but also provide rewards for those communities. The key challenge is to reap the rewards without letting the vulnerabilities be detrimental. Early intervention and participatory approaches can assist, not only for catastrophe prevention and response, but also for the longer-term development activities necessary for creating and maintaining sustainable communities.

The material on the Island Vulnerability website is provided as only an information source. Neither definitive advice nor recommendations are implied. Each person or organisation accessing the website is responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed and are strongly advised to verify all information. No liability will be accepted for loss or damage incurred as a result of using the material on this website. The appearance of external links on this website does not constitute endorsement of the organisations, information, products, or services contained on that external website.