It is now generally appreciated that what constitutes vulnerability to one person is not necessarily perceived as such by the next. Different actors ‘see’ disasters as different types of events and as a result they prepare for, manage and record them in very different ways. This paper explores what different perceptions of vulnerability mean in terms of the understanding and practices of two significant sets of actors and stakeholders involved in disaster preparedness and management in the Philippines: the state and NGOs. Approaches to disaster are not just a function of people's perceptions of disaster risk but also of their understanding of the prevailing social order and social relations. Despite a shared vocabulary—which increasingly presents disasters as processes rather than events, takes a proactive rather than a reactive approach, and favours the inclusion of stakeholders rather than solely relying on technocratic management—different realities continue to make for different responses.