Edited Version of October 21, 1998
EIIP Classroom Online Presentation

"Popular Culture of Disasters"

Gary Webb, Ph.D.
Disaster Research Center
University of Delaware

The original transcript of the October 21, 1998 online Virtual Classroom presentation is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussions, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Classroom! We are pleased that our topic today, Popular Culture of Disasters, gave us the opportunity to invite subscribers to a mail list that has been set up for a discussion of the same topic.


Gary Webb, Ph.D., is here to lead our discussion --- Gary is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware. He recently completed his Ph.D. specializing in disaster research and collective behavior.

His dissertation looked at individual and organizational response to natural disasters, technological emergencies, and civil disturbances. Currently, he is focusing his research interests on the popular culture of disaster.

After Gary completes his remarks, we will give you brief instructions for keeping order for Q&A. Gary, we are pleased to have you with us today. I will turn the floor to you now.


Gary Webb: Thanks, Avagene. Good morning and welcome again to our Round Table discussion. Today, we're going to talk about the popular culture of disaster, an area which I think is very interesting and important, but not well understood. In fact, I'm not even sure what exactly the popular culture of disaster is, but hopefully by the end of today's session we'll all have a clearer sense of what it means.

Let me begin by talking very briefly about how today's session will be organized. Basically, I'll talk for about fifteen minutes, providing a fairly broad overview of the topic, then I'd like to open the room for a lively discussion.

During the discussion portion of today's session, please feel free to ask me (or others) questions about the topic, offer any thoughts you have on it, or share some of your experiences with the popular culture of disaster. Because very little has been done on this topic, at this stage we're simply trying to get a handle on what all is out there. Therefore, any experiences you can share will help us do that.

Now, I'd like to tell you a little bit about how I'm going to organize my remarks today. SLIDE 1, please.

[Slide 1]

Gary Webb: As you can see on slide 1, I'll cover four areas in today's discussion.

First, I'll talk generally about what the popular culture of disaster is. Although I won't offer a precise definition, I will give you some sense of what's thought (tentatively) to be included under the term.

Then, I'll discuss some of the reasons why the popular culture of disaster exists. As we'll see, however, explaining why it exists depends to a great extent on how we define it.

Third, I'll talk very briefly about why I think this is an important topic to consider.

And finally, I'll briefly describe some of the things we're doing to generate interest and solicit input on the topic-- this discussion being one of those activities.

What is the popular culture of disaster?

On the surface, this might seem like a fairly simple or straightforward question, but as with most things, it's not quite that simple. First, by answering this question, we're assuming we know the answers to two related questions: 1) what is popular culture? and 2) what is a disaster?

In terms of the latter, at a recent conference, twelve researchers from six different countries were asked to respond to the question, what is a disaster? The diversity of answers given was quite interesting and quite confusing!

Although we're not completely sure at this point what all falls under the popular culture of disaster, I think many of us have had enough experience with it to have at least a general understanding of what it means.

For example, some of you may have seen, in the field or in the media, the slogans that people in disaster-stricken communities spray paint on their homes or businesses, which convey messages of hope or promises to eliminate looters! SLIDES 2 and 3, please.

Avagene Moore: Should have told our new people that you can click on the live URLs and see Gary's slides in your browser window.

[Slide 2]

[Slide 3]

Gary Webb: As another illustration, take a look at the cartoons in slides 2 and 3. Notice how each cartoon blends images of disasters with other popular themes. As a youngster growing up in Texas, I remember wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed proudly, "I survived the Texas heat wave!"

And I'm sure that many of you have seen at least some of those classic (and recent) disaster movies-- Earthquake, Twister, Volcano, Dante's Peak, Deep Impact, etc. (For a list and reviews of some of these cinema not-so-greats, check out the links on the background page for this session.)

While we can't define precisely what the popular culture of disaster is, we can say with some confidence that certain things are included in it. SLIDE 4, please.

[Slide 4]

Gary Webb: Slide 4 provides a preliminary list of things that should be considered under the popular culture of disaster, at least for now.

As you can see, the list of items ranges from disaster jokes and humor to on-site graffiti to disaster movies.

The next step is to begin exploring the similarities and differences between these various cultural products, and trying to develop explanations for why they exist.

Let's turn now for a minute to this last question-- why is there a popular culture of disaster? SLIDE 5, please.

[Slide 5]

Gary Webb: Slide 5 presents some potential explanations, but it seems to me that the answer to this question will largely depend on how we define the topic. For example, if we focus narrowly on jokes, some research suggests that emergency response workers often use humor as a coping strategy. T-shirts and on-site graffiti may serve to enhance solidarity and morale among emergency responders and the broader disaster-impacted community.

Recently, a psychologist interviewed on a local news channel suggested that disaster movies are flourishing because we're all a bunch of thrill-seekers living vicariously through spectacular Hollywood special effects. (Remember the cow flying across the road in Twister!)

Finally, let's not forget that there is a profit motive for at least some aspects of the popular culture of disaster. Having talked generally about what the popular culture of disaster is and why it exists, let's talk briefly about why it's an important topic to consider.

It's interesting that disasters are commonly thought to be unusual and extremely disruptive events, yet images of disaster figure prominently into popular culture. (Though I should underscore here the crucial importance of cross-cultural comparisons as we begin to explore this topic.)

To some extent, popular images of disaster are likely to shape our knowledge about disasters and how we respond to them. It is extremely important, therefore, that we understand how disasters are represented in popular culture and the effects this representation has on people's knowledge and response.


Let me close by saying a few words about what we're doing to generate and sustain interest in this topic. Today's session is an important first step in that direction, so I'd like to thank Avagene and Amy at EIIP for providing us the time and space to talk about this topic.

Also, we've created a Popular Culture of Disaster electronic mailing list. Let me know if you'd like to be included on it (my email is [email protected]). Wolf Dombrowsky, a sociologist in Germany, has offered to create a popular culture of disaster web site-- details forthcoming.

And finally, we're trying to get research sessions at upcoming professional meetings like next summer's Hazards Research and Applications Workshop.

On that note, I'd like to open the room to discussion.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Gary. If you wish to ask a question or make a comment, please submit a question mark (?) to the screen; compose your question or comment and wait to be recognized by the moderator before sending to the chat screen. First question or comment, please.

Audience Questions


Claire Rubin: Are you interested in how accurate the media portray events? Correcting misconceptions?

Gary Webb: That's a very good and important question and certainly that should be one of the more important reasons why we would explore this topic.

Just a brief side note, Recently, some movie screenwriters visited DRC about making a movie about an EQ in New York City!


Clifford Hagen: Is it not more the community and members of the community that create the popular culture of the disaster and, if so, does the media really influence the message?

Gary Webb: Another very good question which highlights the importance of defining what we're looking at. Certainly big Hollywood movies are only one aspect of pop culture but the more localized post-impact products are also important.

Dolores Beaugez: Mr. Webb, I publish <http:///www.horsereview.com> and I would like to publish your materials in our disaster section.

Dave McAllister: I think there's a therapeutic reason for some cultural expressions of disasters, too, such as when children do artwork or write personal stories that are bound in a book and distributed to community members who have experienced a bad disaster, such as a flood or tornado. Kids in Ada, MN, did a great job on this after the 1997 floods.

Gary Webb: Dave, absolutely.

Claire Rubin: Years ago, some work was done on this topic; there is a publication on this topic at University Colorado's Natural Hazards Center.

Gary Webb: Good. We're currently compiling an annotated bibliography on the subject.


Elaine Enarson: Thanks for getting us started, Gary. I'm the organizer of a session on pop culture and disaster for the Hazards conference in July--an organizer in search of presenters. What are the most significant points we'd want to make to practitioners, and how?

Gary Webb: Elaine, that's a very important question. One that will definitely require more attention than my slow typing skills will allow. However, I do think that two points already made should be considered:

1. Media portrayals of disaster are often inaccurate and can have disastrous consequences of their own and,

2. There may be an important therapeutic component to much of this.

Elaine Enarson: More than therapeutic, too. I see women's disaster quilts, for example, as a way of (forgive the tired metaphor) restitching the social fabric. I just saw a terrific quilt from the Red River flood, including humorous and heart-rending quilt blocks, all constructed with fabric donated from other quilting guilds around the nation. Social relationships were reinforced, reinstated, renewed through this creative work.

Gary Webb: Elaine, that's a great example. And also, it points out limitations of words like "therapeutic". I was really thinking something more social along those lines.


Gordon Gow: Another interesting area may be in the popular uptake of scientific knowledge (such as El Nino), and how that forms popular perceptions around disasters. I'm thinking about a book by Andrew Ross called "Strange Weather"; anyone know of it?

Gary Webb: G. Gow, also think about the Iben Browning EQ Prediction in Tennessee.


Dolores Beaugez: Do you have any suggestions for a writer who's been hired to write about a true equine rescue?

Gary Webb: Wow, that's a tough one. Anyone?

Gil Gibbs: I was remembring some TV sequences of actual rescues of animals, and it amazed me that they were just as concerned about them as people who were in just as great a danger!


Bruce C Hildebrand: What about the consideration of the role of people with disabilities in disaster? That is, the effects of disasters on them, their contributions to preparing for disasters, and finally how this all is reflected in popular cultures?

Gary Webb: Bruce, you raise an excellent issue and I would argue that not just in this area but most disaster research excludes (to a great extent) consideration of those with disabilities.


Amy Sebring: It may be a whole other research question, but I think ideas about disaster are deeply ingrained into the major religions as well, and understanding that aspect may also be useful.

Gary Webb: Amy, that's a good question and one that a Professor at DRC, Russell Dynes, is considering.


Marilyn Barker: Wanted clarification on Amy's comment on religious views & disasters.

Amy Sebring: We may need to set up another session on that topic perhaps, Marilyn.


Clifford Hagen: Along the same lines as Elaine's statement, we have found in our research that the use of popular culture, although be it on a larger level than community, was an avenue to regain the ethos and bonds of pre-disaster community so the means of distribution was broad but the end product was used intimately by the community itself.

Gary Webb: Clifford, I'd like to hear more about your research.

Clifford Hagen: Gary, we have conducted research on graffiti after the flood of the Red River in Grand Forks and east Grand Forks. We also are doing a paper on flood T-Shirts.


Elaine Enarson: I'm glad you see the point, which escaped my teenage son. He thinks pop culture can only be 'plastic or shiny' and from the east or west coast. Is there any point in narrowly defining our subject at this point? I'd like to add clothing to your list and graffiti.

Gary Webb: Elaine, indeed we are advocating a very general or broad definition at this point and indeed one of my examples was my old, "I survived the Texas heat wave" T-shirt!


Tom Thornton: I see this preoccupation with disaster as nothing "new", it's our technology that propels it deeper into our lives. Stories of shipwrecks were all the rage, tales of famine in the Bible, it is our own culture’s desensitization as a whole that gives us this. Any comment?

Gil Gibbs: I can't help but wonder if our society has to have a "Barnum & Bailey" approach to emergencies anymore due to the media reporting?

Avagene Moore: Any comments on Tom's statement? Good point, I would say.

Clifford Hagen: I would say to Tom's statement that it may well be desensitized in the way it is produced but the meanings held by the messages are anything but numbed. They represent true meanings and emotions for the victims, it is their voice and their interpretations that are central to the disaster.

Gary Webb: Avagene, in response to Tom's comment, I think we definitely need to consider the role of new technology in transmitting knowledge of disaster.

Marilyn Barker: I agree with Tom. Look how the media blasted the Vietnam War and the Gulf War into our living rooms.

Gil Gibbs: I'll agree with Marilyn --- the Vietnam war deeply affected me and many vets of that era, pushed us into a dark corner.

Elaine Enarson: What I'd like to get at are the 'lessons learned' in disaster movies, eg race/gender/class relations, and through disaster songs or T-shirts. These cultural products express emotion and also embody social relationships.

Gary Webb: Elaine, me too!

Bruce C Hildebrand: I wonder if privacy rights and the law come into play at any point where culture and disaster meet.


Dave McAllister: I wonder if kids have a distorted view of disasters (as being "fun" or "exciting" instead of dangerous) after watching "Wizard of Oz" or "Twister" or "Titanic" etc. Are they, therefore, more at risk from a real disaster?

Gary Webb: Dave, that's a great example of the kinds of questions we should be asking.

Gil Gibbs: Good shot, Dave - just the point I was thinking of!

Tom Thornton: It is to our advantage though, we can now educate and prepare more people. No excuses.

Gordon Gow: Re: Dave's question about kids, a group in Ottawa has done a survey on kid's perceptions of hazards and disasters. I believe it's called the Risk and Society Project. If anyone wants more info, let me know.

Gary Webb: G. Gow, definitely want more info!

Dolores Beaugez: I would like more information about the research [email protected]

Clifford Hagen: Maybe my look is different but I think that popular culture of disasters should be seen from a micro community level and its effects on that community rather than a macro view and how it is disseminated.

Gary Webb: Clifford, as defined broadly today, there is definitely room and a need for looking at macro- and micro- aspects.

As an illustration earlier, I spoke about why pop culture of disaster exists. Many of the points you and Elaine have raised were thought about when I suggested that popular culture might enhance solidarity. And of course, by mentioning profits, I was thinking of the movies.

Clifford Hagen: I agree, Gary. Just putting my two cents in.

Dolores Beaugez: I publish a web site and we have a teen section, I would be willing to host questions for teens if someone would provide a list.

Gil Gibbs: I've noticed that too many people have to have personal experience in any danger situation to appreciate it all.

Avagene Moore: This has been fascinating! Gary and all --- thank you for a wonderful discussion. We will take Tricia's question or comment and then close the formal part of our session. We can stay around and talk in the Virtual Forum as long as anyone wants to stay.

Tricia Wachtendorf: Gary, back to your point on profits --- Often the profits from products such as T-shirt, buttons, etc. go to disaster relief. In this way, encouraging solidarity through the popular culture can actually help disaster victims in a monetary sense.

Gary Webb: Tricia, a great point, I hadn't even thought about.


Clifford Hagen: Gary, may I ask where you found your information about Graffiti and disasters, I would like to review it.

Gary Webb: Clifford, I didn't recognize your name at first but the stuff on graffiti came from you!

Clifford Hagen: Sorry Gary, my bag, thought I missed something in my review.

Final Question:

Dolores Beaugez: Gary, what if someone had a book or movie where the majority of profits were to go back into disaster assistance?

Gary Webb: Dolores, great question. Should be experimented with!

Avagene Moore: Thanks to Gary Webb and members of the Pop Culture Mail List. Very good discussion and much more to say on this I am sure.

Thanks to our audience also. Reminder for next week. We will be talking about Risk Management and the ruling that goes into effect in June 99, next Wednesday - 12:00 Noon Eastern time.

Next Tuesday Round Table will be an informal discussion about the ongoing OAS Conference. Stay tuned for more on the upcoming WEBEX on Nov 5. Gary, any last remarks?

Gary Webb: I'd just want to thank the folks at EIIP for putting on this session and everyone in the room for some excellent suggestions and comments.

Avagene Moore: You are more than welcome! Transcript will be available next week. Suggestion for you, Gary. If you would like to have further discussions with your mail list subscribers, we can accommodate those for you.

Gary Webb: Great. Thanks!

Dolores D: Thank you, Gary! Keep up this important work and research.

Gil Gibbs: Great show, Gary, gave me lots of insights!

Elaine Enarson: Thanks, Gary, and let's be in touch.

Avagene Moore: We can talk about that offline. Thanks everyone. Let's now move to the Virtual Forum. We can talk a bit more if you wish and Gary has the time. The Virtual Classroom is adjourned!