Welcome to the September 2015 issue of the Natural Hazards Observer, dedicated to social memory and disasters.
Perhaps more than before, societies remember disasters. In the past nine months alone, we have commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the fifth anniversary of the Haiti Earthquake, the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. During and after these contemporary disasters, emergency managers, decision makers, and those affected have shared their experiences. Through personal interactions and in the media, they testified—and continue to do so at yearly commemorations—about how the disasters affected them physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Why do we remember and commemorate? And why is it important to have a well-rounded narrative of a disaster that includes both the emotional and physical impacts?
Remembering—and scrutinizing—disasters helps to increase risk awareness and builds resilience to future events. In addition, remembering a disaster and sharing memories is a cathartic experience for survivors. Through memory, disasters become a shared (although not necessarily agreed on) past and can form a group identity. Memories can be expressed through different forms. Storytelling, myth, and dialogue are examples of narrative practices that are crucial for remembering. More formally organized disaster commemorations are coordinated in a number of ways—by museums, archives, memorials, and anniversary events. All are key in creating a shared identity.
But what happens if survivors are not allowed to remember a disaster? Or when they are only allowed to remember certain aspects? These questions are raised in articles by authors Inge Duine and Sandra Fahy.
Duine examines the changing narrative of the Netherland’s North Sea Flood of 1953. Survivors of the tragedy, which killed 1,836 people, were not motivated to discuss the disaster’s emotional impact. Instead, social and political expectations forced them to focus on the future—on rebuilding and improving what had been lost, rather than mourning it. The public memory of the flood in its immediate aftermath focused on an idealistic picture of unity, heroism, and determination, rather than on the very real chaos, sorrow, and desperation survivors endured. This was reflected in upbeat news reports that highlighted efforts to help the disaster-stricken region, rather than investigating causes of the disaster or exploring survivor experiences. The Dutch quietly recovered in a practical sense. In the five decades that followed the flood, they successfully rebuilt and improved their sea defense system. Emotional recovery, however, didn’t begin until the 1990s when researchers—who collected oral histories—were able to disperse the rosy World War II-era depiction of the flood and reconstruct its collective memory.
While the Dutch eventually pieced together a more realistic picture of the North Sea Flood, North Koreans—in the aftermath of the famine of the 1990s—weren’t as fortunate. In fact, they could not piece together any picture at all because people were not allowed to identify the famine for what it was, nor was there any information available about the nature of this disaster that ravaged the country and killed around a million people. As Fahy discovered while interviewing North Korean defectors in Seoul and Tokyo, even the language used to identify the tragedy was subject to restriction. Words such as famine, food shortages, or hunger were forbidden by the state. People who starved to death were said to have died of “pain,” instead. North Koreans who disobeyed these language restrictions were marked as counterrevolutionaries who undermined the socialist state and could be arrested. As a result, people suffered in silence, unable to share their traumatic experiences and create social memory. Nor were they able to congregate and hypothesize about the causes of the famine or possible solutions. The lack of effective practical and emotional coping strategies prolonged the impacts of the situation for many people.
In the Netherlands and North Korea, the contrast between actual disaster and social experience resulted in a delayed or ignored understanding of events. But that’s not always the case. You’ll also find articles in this issue by Hanna Ruszczyck and Alexandra Witze that show something of the opposite—understanding that grows over time and that runs deeper than it appears. In Witze’s article, she analyzes societal lessons learned from volcanic eruptions in Iceland since the 18th century. She argues that each eruption since the devastating Laki eruption in 1783 has added another piece of scientific and societal understanding to the puzzle. Ruszcyck discusses the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal and its impact in the city of Bharatpur. Based on her observations during and after the earthquake, Ruszczyk found that Nepalese people collectively demonstrated tremendous solidarity and support for each other and that individuals proved themselves to be much more resilient and effective in mitigating disaster than suggested in international news reports.
This issue’s articles show the importance of social constructions of disaster—whether they are the forced constructs seen in the Netherlands and North Korea or the more successful and informative interpretations that evolved in Iceland or Nepal. Either way, the way humans view and understand disasters are as important as the physical events themselves.
I hope you’ll enjoy your Observer.