We're Not Telling the Full Story of Natural Disasters

We need to believe everything will be OK, but survivors have a different take.

Posted Oct 17, 2017

Patricia Prijatel
The East Spanish Peak, in Southern Colorado, four years after a forest fire.
Source: Patricia Prijatel

The photo of the clear ocean off Key West's coast caught my eye. “The azure waters are returning,” wrote the person who posted the shot on Facebook a week after Hurricane Irma. That image has stuck with me, an image of hope and revival. I know from personal experience that such hope in the face of a natural disaster is essential, a bit of blue sky popping out of black clouds.

But I now believe we sometimes go too far and send the message that things are healing nicely when they simply aren’t. In so doing we normalize tragedy and allow those not affected to shrug it off and get back to their coffee or wine or orange juice, or whatever crop hasn't yet been decimated.

Telling only the good news can create an incomplete and misleading story: that this was just a little aberration, nothing to worry about here. Just move on. The people in California will rebuild. Elon Musk will create a new electric grid for Puerto Rico. It will be better than new.

I don't think so, but I do think it’s much easier for us to believe that than to face the fact that huge swaths of the American landscape have been destroyed and the land and its people are hurting and will be for years, perhaps forever.

I have juggled this good-news-versus-real-news world for more than four years after a forest fire devastated our beautiful mountain valley in southern Colorado. Nearly 70 percent of the trees on our 200 family-owned acres burned, and the fire was so hot the soil itself turned waxy and water-repellant. Foresters call this hydrophobic soil, literally meaning “afraid of water.” Before the fire, we’d had a drought; after, we had floods. The blackened earth was a magnet for torrential rains that saturated our phobic soil and, with no trees and bushes to slow down the water, our tiny creek became a wild river full of burned husks of trees, clumps of grass, mud, even rocks.

In subsequent years, the giant weeds came, eight to nine feet tall, invasive species conquering the denuded land. And then there were hungry, orphaned animals. The bears with whom we’d coexisted became pesky, even dangerous—one tried multiple times to get into our cabin, and you don't want to get in the way of a bear looking for food after berries and acorns are burned away. The forest service caught the bear and it paid for its hunger with its life.

Our ridges were so scorched that the pinecones and roots that start new evergreens were incinerated. In the four years since the fire, we have no new evergreens in the burn area, except for those we have planted. The forest is not coming back on its own anytime soon.

Yet, even though I compulsively share photos of our valley with my Facebook friends, I tend to focus on the new aspen groves, the colorful wildflowers, the verdant meadow, the remaining pines and firs and spruces. It’s part of the happy Facebook narrative I’ve created about the beauty of nature. My shots seldom show the tens of acres of blackened trees or the fields of weeds. Nor do I talk about the sadness and depression that’s hit all who live here as we face the loss of the beauty we once shared, the hiking trails a mess of downed trees and prickly weeds, the people overwhelmed and focused on how to recover, the orphaned animals still confused.

The aftermath of natural disasters creates a complex natural, economic, social, and psychological ecosystem. Some parts of the system can rebound beautifully and miraculously. But this rebirth comes in a landscape that is often scarred for decades. How do we tell this story? How do we show that day in, day out, the destruction continues and even worsens? Who wants to listen to that? It’s basically a beginning—the disaster—and a muddle of middles, with no real end. And very little front-page material after the initial breaking news. It’s the same thing over and over and over—the land is hurting, the animals are hurting, the people are hurting.

A hurricane, forest fire, earthquake, flood, or other attack of nature is just the first phase of the chaos. Sure, we rebuild some of what we lost, but much is gone forever, changed in life-altering ways—the fish and seafood industry is damaged because of loss of habitat in a hurricane; the air, water, and soil are polluted from toxins brought in by anything from burning chemical plants to overflowing sewers; forest fires like those in California now devour cities and wipe away the histories and livelihoods of generations of families; residents suffer from PTSD; two-legged and four-legged creatures are stressed and depressed as the original disaster builds on itself.

But sharing all this, making this our story, frankly turns people off, turns the audience the other way. We’re spunky Americans; we build up, we fight adversity, we forge ahead. Otherwise, we're whiners, and that’s no good.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her classic essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” about her breast cancer diagnosis, calls this attitude “relentless bright-siding” and says it tends to normalize breast cancer, to make it a simple rite of passage rather than something that should outrage us. And, she says, the result is that “cheerfulness has become mandatory.” I’m a big fan of Ehrenreich’s writing, but when I read this essay after I was diagnosed five years after she wrote it, I was mildly turned off. What is wrong with a positive outlook, I wondered? I even named my blog “Positives About Negative,” to demonstrate that I was not going to be a doomsayer about the type of breast cancer I had, triple-negative, which can be more aggressive than other forms and, therefore, terrifies women, even though most women survive it nicely. I thought then and still think, women needed some good news.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that having a positive outlook can help us fight a disease, but in the larger context and in the broader world of fighting disease in general, we can end up expecting women who are going through a trauma to do so as ridiculously happy warriors. This, of course, is an added burden when they’re throwing up from chemo, living in a body disfigured by surgery, worrying about the costs of it all, and trying to maintain a job while being a wife, mother, daughter, friend.

I finally get Ehrenreich’s point. Basically, we’re telling the story wrong.

As a consequence of my chirpy posts about our forest fire, of my assiduous avoidance of the dark side of my story, my friends assume things are pretty ducky on the mountain.

“So your land is coming back to normal?” a friend asked recently.

“It’s looking better, but it has a long way to go,” I answered.

“Maybe another year or two,” he said.

“No, it will be at least several decades,” I answered. He turned and went to talk to somebody else. Somebody more interesting and fun.

Each time a disaster strikes, its immediate effects make the news for a while then disappear when things are theoretically controlled and, supposedly, the story is over. Mass communications scholars call this the Issue-Attention Cycle, a phenomenon in which a story saturates the airways and the consciousness of the public and then is just as quickly replaced with a new and fresh story, as though the first one had never happened. 

Those of us in the middle of the aftereffects, though, know that when the cameras and reporters pack up and head out, we’re left with a quiet drama of loss. And that should be at least part of the story we tell. Our stories deserve the freedom to breathe unbound by our friends’ expectations, interests, or attention spans or by our own eternal search for Facebook likes.

Sharing our full human tale of sadness, hope, chaos, confusion, gratitude, and truth might actually bring us together and give more urgency to the need to protect our planet. It can certainly remind us that our natural disasters are increasing and are darkening the American landscape with frightening speed and power. That, yes, we are all about rebirth, but it’s just not that simple. And maybe we ought to do something to stem the destruction.