- Post-disaster reconstruction and recovery are effective for different people at different paces.
- Returning to “normal” after a disaster is not always feasible or desirable.
- Supporting disaster-affected people might mean recovering slowly, through slow healing or "shealing".
After a disaster, a strong impulse might be to rebuild, recover, and move on. Is it really that easy? Within psychosocial support and recovery, a major role exists in taking time to process and understand what happened, even if post-disaster work then takes longer.
Led by my colleague Kasia Mika, we term this longer process “shealing,” as a contraction of “show healing.” The core idea is that disaster recovery ought to proceed at the pace of disaster-affected people, not according to an arbitrary or idealised timeline or framework. This baseline of post-disaster work being a long-term process mirrors the fact that disasters themselves are not events, but are long-term processes.
Disasters do not result from environmental phenomena such as tornadoes and earthquakes. In some places, the ground shaking or a storm is merely an inconvenience and the world hardly notices. Japan’s massive earthquake on Sept. 26, 2003, exemplifies this. The country’s north shook, but with few casualties and with limited damage.
Elsewhere, a moderate shaking leads to catastrophe. Exactly four months after northern Japan’s 2003 tremor, southern Iran felt an earthquake around 40 times less intense. Over 25,000 people died and the World Heritage City of Bam was devastated. Why the difference?
The difference is the long-term process of where we live, how we live, the resources we have to live with the environment, and the options and opportunities we have to improve our situations. Examples are building codes, planning regulations, quality education for everyone, and choices for livelihoods and careers.
All these social and infrastructural characteristics of society take a long time to build up. Northern Japan did not become earthquake-resistant overnight and southern Iran did not become earthquake-vulnerable overnight. This long-term disaster process results from human decisions, by those with power, not from nature’s properties. Since the disaster process is not from nature, all disasters are social and the phrase “natural disaster” is a misnomer.
Traits that make people and places more vulnerable or less vulnerable to the environment, and so create or avert disasters, can affect post-disaster recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. The more resources and power someone has, the more choices and opportunities they have to set some of their own post-disaster pathways. But never all pathways. People cannot be brought back to life, some injuries are life-changing, shattered heritage might be gone forever, and mental stress can accumulate.
Consequently, some pathways are mourning those who died while cleaning up right away in order to seek a swift, post-disaster re-invigoration of life. Active forgetting or semi-forgetting of trauma can be a healing mechanism for some. Not everyone can or wishes to do so.
Some people can recover better by remembering. They might desire time to process the destruction and harm. Reliving experiences and forming tangible memories of the aftermath—visual, olfactory, tactile, and more—can support them in accepting what happened. This is slow healing and later recovery, or shealing.
The word “shealing” (or “shieling”) derives from the Scottish term for a cattle-grazing field, also referring to a rudimentary hut or structure by this pasture. It links to Scandinavian words for a covering or shelter. Shealing thus means sheltering or a shelter.
Consequently, post-disaster slow healing and later recovery connote a process of working to shelter survivors so that they can understand and work through the disaster’s impacts on their own terms in their own ways at their own speeds. This variable process does not match neat phrases within a colourful diagram of a “disaster cycle.” Imposing a pace or sequence of “disaster recovery,” whether fast or slow, can hurt.
When families have died and homes are transformed into ruins, a “return to normal”—that is, a return to earlier circumstances—is fanciful. Why should we aspire to “bouncing back” to the way it was before? The disaster was caused by chronic conditions that permitted a typical environmental phenomenon to render losses. Returning to those conditions rebuilds the vulnerability process that caused the disaster process in the first place.
Shealing preempts this ruinous presumption that rebuilding wreckage means disaster-affected people pick up where they were before. Instead, it aims to break disaster processes and disaster cycles by not reconstructing disastrous circumstances.
Operational challenges must be overcome. Since people have different healing needs, what should be done to support everyone collectively? As consensus might not be possible, people could be left out when decisions must be made for everyone.
The key is to avoid assuming that only a narrow range of options exists, that everything can be perfect, or that the fastest rate of action is the best rate of action. People with different needs or disagreeing with collective decisions still require and deserve their own supports. Shealing is one mechanism.
Davis, I. and D. Alexander. 2015. Recovery from Disaster. Routledge, Abingdon.
Kelman, I. 2021. Pandemic and post-pandemic islandness: Building and wrecking resilience. Chapter 4, pp. 105-126 in J.E. Randall (ed.), Annual Report on Global Islands 2020, Island Studies Press at the University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Mika, K. 2019. Disasters, vulnerability, and narratives: Writing Haiti's futures. Routledge, Abingdon.
Mika, K. and I. Kelman. 2020. Shealing: Post-disaster slow healing and later recovery. Area, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 646-653.