Narratives of Disaster: Sensemaking in Crisis
Part 1: Historical Disasters
Part 2: Contemporary Disasters
By Dr’s Peter Timmerman and David Etkin , York University

Storytelling as a way of understanding the world around us, both literally and metaphorically, is a powerful tool. Disasters come in many shapes, sizes and forms, but have in common the need for people to make sense of tragic events that disrupt their perception of normalcy, and perhaps even their worldview. The process of sensemaking is not limited to times of crisis; it occurs continually throughout our lives, but is particularly active and important during times of crisis. Part of what makes disasters disasters is the potential for bewilderment: what is going on? What are the threats? What do I have to do? Will we survive? And so on. Trying to make sense of things throws us into temporary or permanent narratives — storytelling.

These two papers are about disaster narratives: the individual, community, and cultural stories we try to use to place disasters within explicable conceptual, cultural, and emotional frameworks. Disaster narratives do not arrive from a single damaging event, but rather can be seen as pre-existing constructs that people tap into when explanatory frameworks are needed. They then form the basis of personal stories, media reporting, institutional analyses, and after-action reports. These narratives are usually heavily imbued with ethical judgements, political and cultural weightings, and descriptions of our relationship to the world around us; though they are often more implicit in the language, tone and metaphors used rather than explicitly stated

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