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Weathering the Cultural Storm: Recasting the Natural World of Perceived Disaster
by Vankita Brown*

For most of the history of our species we were helpless to understand how nature works. We took every storm, drought, illness and comet personally. We created myths and spirits in an attempt to explain the patterns of nature. Ann Druyan

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

To those who are outside of the study of meteorology, weather can be a mysterious and awe-inspiring phenomenon, to which many people often ascribe an array of personal and culturally specific meanings, beliefs, and social practices. These weather-related dynamics are not casual and fleeting moments in life’s challenging journey but, rather, function as a way of reconciling and resigning the self to the ways that mystical and transcendental forces are seen to operate in a world outside of human understanding and human control. God speaks and seeks to impact human life through naturally occurring events, such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tornadoes, and destructive hurricanes; all are seen as the majesty and providence of almighty God at work. Universally, those natural events in which water, in particular, is the destructive force hold special significance, for water is believed to bring a cleansing power that washes away all the humanly created and lived impurities so that a new beginning might emerge. World religions such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, in addition to many other faiths, have a sustained reverence for water, which is also associated with apocalyptic concepts of life and death, and is often the main component of birth and death rituals. The Judeo-Christian Bible is replete with multiple reminders of water as a primordial spiritual cleansing agent, from the Great Flood to the baptism of the proclaimed savior of the world, Jesus Christ.

This symbolism is also played out in more contemporary events, such as with the Indonesian tsunami, the flood in Pakistan, and, of course, Hurricane Katrina.  For those who are devotees of religious lore, seemingly destructive acts of nature are better understood and appreciated as evidence of God’s power, will, and direct and needed intervention in human affairs. Because this symbolism is grounded in deeply held religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, it serves as a cultural signifier that impacts and directs one’s view of the world and one’s relationship to that world.  Whereas non-believers often dismiss such beliefs and practices as no more than folkloric fancy, it is critical to recognize that how people often “weather the storm” may have more to do with perceptions of what’s coming, and it may be more than just water, but what’s in the water, and what’s coming through the water, and why it’s coming for me.

Many cultures are taught to cultivate powerful affective sentiments in forging a relationship with nature that is grounded in love, respect, and adoration, and consuming awe. With the understanding that nature is God’s handiwork and responds to celestial command, nature in all its forms is to be appreciated as a venue in which the creator manifests her magnificence.  Given such a foundation, it is no mystery that some people would rather trust nature over frail humanity’s feebleness and inability to outwit it or outrun it. Likewise, to turn one’s back on the awesomeness of God’s work would, indeed, be nothing short of blasphemy.

“God is love;
he is merciful and kind;
he moves in mysterious ways;
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps on the sea, and rides on every storm.”

Such a God has the power and foresight to act in ways that puny humanity is powerless to comprehend. What on the surface may seem like destructiveness of disaster where human life and property are concerned, at another level is appreciated as operating for the betterment of humankind, even if that means loss or destruction of some kind.

A recent and poignant illustration of “weathering the storm” was encountered while conducting field research in New Orleans in 2009. I interviewed the Director of Homeland Security and Office of Emergency Preparedness for Plaquemines Parish, Jesse St. Amant, who was one of the first to call for evacuation in the area. He told me a story of a senior couple that was adamant about not “evacuating” (his term), but rather not “abandoning” (their term) their home in anticipation of the imminent arrival of Hurricane Katrina. St. Amant explained to the couple that there would be no emergency services available, and pleaded with them to leave as soon as possible. They explained to him that they had survived other hurricanes that preceded Katrina, and if God was willing, they would also survive Katrina. St. Amant said that he reluctantly left the couple in their home, since he had no choice other than to acquiesce to their decision to stay. “I tried to get them to leave, but this is America, and you have the right to live and die where you want,” he told me. When he and his team re-entered Plaquemines Parish after the storm, he found the same couple two doors down from their house, deceased.

Although the sentiments of the couple may sound irrational to some, many people contemplate the possibility that a natural event could be their God reaching out to them, calling them home. And for them, given their belief in a post-death celestial home, there is no other place they would rather be than their earthly home in serene preparation for the final journey to their home in paradise. The decision to accept God’s call transcends fear or the petty thought of impending disaster! Indeed, what Hurricane Katrina did and other natural “calamities” do is invite persons to ponder the meaning of life and the pivotal question of a community’s relationship with its creator. Psychologically and spiritually, people make conscious choices to ready themselves during such occurrences for the possibility of a renewal or re-birth of life in physical death.

This is what social scientists mean when they say that risk and disaster are socially constructed concepts.  Perceptions of risk and disaster are relative to a specific population, at a particular time and place, and under certain conditions. The interpretation of “risk” must be recast as relative to who is threatened, and what is considered to be the source of the threat. Neither the God of love and mercy, nor her mystical and wondrous work, is ever devalued and blasphemed as a threat, but rather acts of love, mercy, and sacrifice.  Therefore, when viewing the world through this cultural lens, it is critical to recognize and process the significance for the way others interpret the universe around them and, subsequently, how they view their location and relationship to and in that universe.

This is not a discussion primarily about religion or spirituality, but more about a community’s understanding and interpretation of the world that they inhabit, their relationship to that world, and how their cultural beliefs—folkloric or otherwise—inform a significant part of their behavior. When community and cultural traditions are relegated to the periphery while trying to assess behavior with regard to perceived natural disasters, all the components necessary to conduct a comprehensive analysis are not being considered. What scientists, academicians, and public officials have come to consider as logical behavior must not be the only barometer that is used to analyze what are often culturally-based ways of being, knowing, and acting in the world. 

Additionally, the scholarly community, in particular, must re-assess and, perhaps, challenge its established academic leanings. Scholars are trained to subscribe to a set of epistemological protocols that guide their investigations of and approaches to knowledge, which, ultimately, colors what counts as knowledge, and what is dismissed as fancy. Yet, in order to make real progress in understanding the complex world in which we live, it is critical that a people’s ontology (way of understanding what is) be recognized and appreciated for its role in shaping their minds, spirits, and actions.

If we are dedicated to understanding the world and, more specifically, the potential implications and social consequences of weather, we must be about the business of entrenching ourselves into the diverse cultural worlds of the many communities that enrich this nation. 

*Vankita Brown (vybrown@bison.howard.edu) is a Ph.D. student in communication at Howard University in Washington D.C. and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) graduate scientist fellow. She currently works with the National Weather Service (NWS) in the Office of Communications and Executive Affairs. Her research in risk communication focuses on the impacts of social and cultural factors on evacuation decisions.




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