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Post-crisis: Using Narratives to Rebuild After a Disaster

Friday, March 16th, 2018

What Stories Should You Tell After a Crisis?

Emergency managers, public relations professionals and organizational leaders know they need to inform workers and nearby citizens when a crisis occurs and perhaps provide updates throughout. But what messages need to be sent after the crisis? After the crisis, they need to tell hero narratives and narratives of renewal.  Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath provided great examples we can learn from.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey broke Texas’ rainfall record with 51.88 inches of rain from Aug. 25 to 30, according to a rain gauge in Cedar Bayou. About a week after disaster struck, officials estimated 70 lives had been lost as a result of the devastating storm. The hurricane also destroyed more than 15,500 homes and damaged 273,276 more.

“No matter how the destruction rode in, how different the damage was, the devastation was deep and severe,” Mallory Simon writes for CNN. Simon detailed the stories of various Texas residents, including restaurant owner Ed Zielger, who says he lost $2 million in the storm but considers himself lucky to be alive.

Following this devastating crisis, every communication channel was exploding with stories detailing the damages and destruction so many people faced because of Hurricane Harvey. Telling the story of the crisis is crucial to help people rebuild, move past the disaster and prepare for a similar crisis in the future, Matt Seeger and Tim Sellnow write in their book Narratives of crisis: Stories of ruin and renewal. In particular, finding positive narratives is important, especially in the immediately aftermath of a crisis.

Hero Narratives and Narratives of Renewal

1. Hero narratives tell the story of an individual or group who performs an unusual act of heroism to help others. This act generally involves personal risk and sacrifice. Many of these stories are about firefighters and police officers—people who are trained to respond during these types of situations—but an ordinary citizen can also become a hero in the midst of a disaster. For example, during Hurricane Harvey, 13-year-old Virgil Smith rescued 13 people from drowning by bringing them to safety on a floating air mattress. Among those he saved were a baby, a person who couldn’t swim and an individual who used a wheelchair to get around. “He can rescue; he can swim, and I just had faith in the Lord that everything was gonna be all right,” said Lisa Wallace, Virgil’s mother, Aaron Bandler writes for the Daily Wire.

Hero narratives can take a variety of forms. At a hospital, it might mean publishing a story in the company newsletter about an off-duty doctor’s saving a man who had a heart attack in a restaurant. At a chemical plant, relaying a hero narrative might involve finding out who discovered a potential chemical leak and prevented it from happening—possibly saving millions of dollars of assets and keeping people at the site safe—and sharing it at a department meeting. Sharing these stories not only raises morale but also teaches people what to do in case of a similar emergency.

2. Narratives of renewal. While hero narratives celebrate was has already happened, narratives of renewal discuss the future and help pave the way to rebuild—both literally and figuratively. Often these types of stories detail positive outcomes of the tragedy. Hurricane Harvey necessitated the relocation of thousands of inmates to higher ground. Following the storm, 600 of them, who were previously living in extremely hot conditions, now have air conditioning. The former conditions were allegedly responsible for at least 23 prisoner deaths. Another article describes Houston resilience officer Stephen Costello’s efforts to improve the city’s drainage system, which could help curb damages in future floods.

When humans are confronted with a negative, unexpected phenomenon—a crisis—they seek information about how to navigate the new territory, Seeger and Sellow write. Telling stories of renewal is a great way to turn disasters into opportunities to do better in the future.

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