Top-down, command-and-control approaches to disaster management discourage community involvement, setting up expectations that only those government actors in decision-making positions can tackle the problems (NRC, 2006a). While the role of government agencies is irreplaceable, as a group of Gulf Coast community leaders and responders noted, many of the valuable responses to disaster come from the initiative and resources of individuals and communities (NRC, 2011a). A narrative shift that frames communities as the primary problem solvers and individuals as capable responders recalibrates expectations and spotlights people’s innate resilient capacities (NRC, 2006a).
Norris et al. (2008) identify social linkages and a sense of community—characterized by high concern for community issues, respect for and service to others, and a sense of connection—as attributes of resilience. For example, mixed-race groups in South Africa during Apartheid maintained community resilience in the face of discrimination because of their sense of community and close bonds (Sonn and Fisher, 1998). Members of a group can strengthen their sense of community by embracing narratives that characterize the group as cohesive. Following the tragic mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, Ryan and Hawdon (2008) describe how the faculty at the university accepted the administration’s frame that the shooting had been an attack on the larger university community, and this in turn guided them to assume greater responsibilities in assisting students. In this way, narratives can reinforce social bonds and also establish norms of helping, cooperation, and reciprocity. Alkon (2004) found that residents of one community internalized a narrative of themselves as people who are good at working together and were thus able to make complex policy choices despite competing interests.
Strategies to Keep Social Memory Alive
• Annual or periodic commemoration events held by community organizations, FBOs, schools, and municipalities;
• Collections of oral histories from survivors, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Pandemic Influenza Storybooka” and the “Voices After the Deluge” research by the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;b
• Inclusion of local disaster histories in school curricula;
• “Digital stories” that capture people telling their personal experiences in disasters, captured on video for viewing on YouTube, Vimeo, or other websites; an illustrative example are personal stories about Hurricane Katrina captured in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank;c
• Exhibits at local history and natural history museums and libraries such as museums in Cedar Rapids (Figure);
• Opportunities for intergenerational dialogue and storytelling about experiences with disasters and overcoming hardship
• Storybooks, videos, and other narrative materials that tell the stories of real disasters, such as the Survivor Tales comic books developed by the Seattle-King County Advanced Practice Centerdd