Recovering the Story: How Arts Contribute to Emergency Recovery and Resilience

How does storytelling help individuals and communities overcome disaster? East Coast Hurricane Sandy survivors became storytellers through Sandy Storyline, a participatory documentary that collects and shares the impact of Hurricane Sandy on communities. In Chicago, Clemantine Wamariya became a storyteller and human rights advocate after she escaped from the Rwandan Genocide at the age of six. Storytelling can be a means to unite, heal, and educate after a disaster. This is the first story in our disaster relief series; see the second story here

Connecting and Collaborating

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States, resulting in the second-costliest hurricane recorded in U.S. history. In the wake of the disaster and emerging rebuilding efforts, multimedia producer, educator, and storytelling strategist Rachel Falcone founded Sandy Storyline with partner Michael Premo. Sandy Storyline is an online platform that lets residents share their own stories about living through and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy through videos, images, and narrative text. The multimedia website acts as a living history of the community, as told by its members.

Falcone was inspired after observing survivors exchanging cell phone images and stories at communal charging stations. Falcone remembers, “After the storm there is a lot of connection among story; everybody has something to share and there is a process. For us, we wanted to both allow the space for people to share their very personal experiences, but also build connection, understanding, and relevance.” Sandy Storyline served as an outlet for survivors to share stories amongst themselves and with a wider audience.

Falcone’s background in community engagement projects such as StoryCorps and Housing is a Human Right facilitated networking among residents, artists, and community-based groups.  Falcone explains the importance of artists in recovery, stating, “Artists provide so many things. They are supporting the social part of the community. Art strengthens the community’s ability to respond in every way. It brings us together, connects us; it’s a critical piece that would be missing otherwise in how we are thinking about rebuilding.” Artists, she says, play a vital role in both short-term response and long-term recovery.

Activating cross-sector partnerships to engage community members as storytellers contributed to Sandy Storyline receiving The Tribeca Film Festival’s 2013 BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Award for Transmedia. Falcone supports the importance of  “cultivating a networks of artists” at all times. “What is so beautiful about networks is they allow for the capacity for things going forward,” she says. “When it is a crisis moment, the network is what is actually strengthening the community.”

The adaptability of storytelling has also helped keep attention on the changing challenges to the community after the initial rush of support. Falcone notes, “Right now we are at the challenge of two years out. The people we are trying to reach are so sick of the storm because it destroyed their lives for the past two years, so we are continuing to try to create ways to engage people and meet their needs, which are different now than they were one year after the storm.” Artists’ ability to create ongoing methods of engagement throughout phases of recovery helped sustain community connection and inform rebuilding efforts.

Hurricane Sandy, The Story Continues: Make Your Voice Heard from Sandy Storyline on Vimeo.

Health and Healing

Disaster leads to the rise in critical health needs and innovative approaches to address those needs. In 2015, researchers at the Cardiovascular Institute of New Jersey at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School released a study on the increase of health and medical incidences during and after a disaster. Researchers concluded that during the two weeks following Hurricane Sandy, “in eight counties determined to be high-impact areas, there was a 22 percent increase in heart attacks as compared with the same time period in the previous five years.”  Increased stress was found to be one of the major factors impacting the rise of heart attacks, indicating a need for stress-reducing activity. A large portion of government and donated funds for Sandy relief have been dispersed to food and housing-related efforts, leading Falcone to observe, “So much needs to go to physical infrastructure, often little is given to the social and emotional infrastructure.  It’s almost harder to do artistic work because there is less support for the artistic work.”

Artists as storytellers can provide response to emotional and stressful trauma experienced post-disaster. A 2012 article highlights a study that provides insight on how story can help address stress-related health issues. “The power of storytelling: treating the trauma of child soldiers” focused on community-based narrative therapy approaches for former child soldiers living in internally displaced persons camps in Northern Uganda. The study revealed, “About 80% of the former child soldiers treated with narrative exposure therapy showed clinically significant improvements in the severity of their PTSD, compared to about half of the wait-listed control group, and half of the group treated with the academic catch-up program… Therapy involves the detailed documentation of patients’ lives and the reconstruction of fragmented memories of traumatic events.” Storytelling provides opportunities for artists to become responders to emergencies and survivors to become artists.

Clemantine Wamariya’s life and work embodies individual and community empowerment through story. Wamariya’s ability to transform trauma into triumph through art contributes to her work as a storyteller and human rights advocate. In 1994, at the age of six, she and her older sister Claire were separated from their family as they fled the Rwandan Genocide. After six years, seven countries, and five refugee camps, they gained asylum in Chicago, Illinois. Her life is full of remarkable stories including a surprise reunion with her parents after 12 years on Oprah, graduating from Yale with no formal education before becoming a teenager, and receiving an appointment by President Obama to the U.S. Holocaust Museum Council – making her the youngest person and the first born in Africa to serve on the board.

In a TEDxYale Talk, Wamariya expresses the importance of stories in her own recovery: “The stories I surrounded myself with are so important, so important. They inspired me over and over again…The stories my nanny told me became this blanket, became this world I could enter in and become more than just a refugee, become more than just a girl who doesn’t have a family, who no one knows…” Storytelling allows for alternative identities, environments, and perspectives to be developed and shared.  When facing trauma, individuals can live beyond circumstance through story.

Clemantine Wamariya TEDxYale Talk

Reclaiming the Narrative

Disaster-impacted individuals and communities can claim their histories through story. Wamariya’s storytelling helps her focus on the future while reconciling with the past. “The past lives in me…if you survive anything it is not a question if you should forget about it…No matter how much you try to forget it, it comes back. It never goes away, so your duty is to look forward while being friends with your past.” Storytelling can help to process the past, share the stories with others in the present, and work towards a collective future. Wamariya believes, “You have an alternative way to change the future. You have the opportunity to change the story.”  Survivors of natural disasters, genocide, and other emergencies face turmoil, confusion, and a loss of control. One thing that can provide a sense of control is choosing which stories one accepts as well as choosing stories one will share.

Wamariya chooses to be a storyteller. Through this art she can break the stereotype of what it means to be a refugee or survivor, to share her experience of the past and advocate for a better future because, as she proclaims, “History does not repeat itself. We repeat history.” History includes a compilation of stories that shape the way individuals, communities, and nations view themselves, one another, issues, and triumphs. Individuals and communities gain power by sharing their own stories. Wamariya states, “Tell your story. Do not let another person tell your story.” Storytelling creates space for hearing voices that were stifled, seeing faces that were invisible, and feeling hands that were out of reach. “You have to create a story that is going to take over the other story. We are creators at the end of the day.”

In the case of Sandy Storyline, Falcone asserts that, “[It’s not] that mainstream or traditional media can’t tell the story well, but I think often there are often gaps missed.”  Falcone stresses the importance of those impacted by the storm in their own recovery. “The people who are doing the most grassroots work are the one who were the most displaced. The ones who lost their homes are the one handing out the meals and doing coordination of relief.” Those affected most by the depths of trauma, disaster, or emergency can rise to the heights of creative leadership and advocacy.

Artists create projects that provide prospects for changing the central narrative; transforming sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages and creating or rewriting entire stories. The significance of these stories is that the subject of the stories – communities impacted by the storm, the war, or the epidemic – are also the authors. Communities impacted by emergencies can claim these narratives as their own because they are creating the story.  Storytelling can be a tool to process, heal, connect and educate, playing a vital role in individual and community recovery from disasters.

Amelia Brown is an artist and consultant with more than 20 years of community development experience spanning four continents. Emergency Arts is a central resource dedicated to building a cross-sector network, strengthening community resilience, and advancing arts as integral to emergency management.