Why Do We Turn to Stories
in the Midst of a Disaster?

On Narrative and Trauma in Mexico City

By  Madeleine Wattenbarger

Most people I know consider themselves sophisticated enough to pay no heed to end-times prophets, but catastrophe montage always evokes, for me, the evangelical camp counselors who haunted my childhood summers with apocalyptic Left Behind-esque visions. In the last several months, however, I have seen even the most worldly around me prickled with portents of apocalypse. The disasters have accumulated, from Houston to Mexico City to Puerto Rico to California to Iraq, into what feels like a meta-disaster. In the United States, 2017 was the most expensive year on record for disaster response.

Save the moments when it touches us directly—more frequently, perhaps, for someone living in the Gulf or on a fault line, but once in a lifetime for people like myself from the northeast US—we nearly always experience natural disaster as mediated by narrative. And the media coverage follows familiar patterns and tropes: If it’s a storm or a spreading fire or another more-or-less foreseeable event, we’re shown, first, the people pouring into grocery stores to stock for the apocalypse, the hastily loaded cars brimming with supplies and, inevitably, those standing their ground because of stubbornness or disbelief or simply the lack of resources to flee. For a day or two, news programs dedicate themselves to footage of the real-time horror: vignettes of rooves blown off or property destroyed or people left bereaved. Then comes the postmortem, the elegy, and the satisfying glimpse of hope in recovery. The case is deemed closed, save the occasional checking-in epilogue weeks, months or years later. In this version of the story, a disaster has a beginning, middle, and end, a narrative arc. It enters the scene like a villain and, though it leaves destruction in its wake, it eventually exits, not to be heard of again. There comes a denouement.

In the communities where disaster strikes, however, disaster narratives are rarely so neat. Maybe the villain isn’t nature’s unpredictability, but human error; maybe there is no denouement, just a slow adjustment to a newly grim life. Narrative provides a way for us to arrange the smell of death, which we must do, but it is just that: an arrangement.

In the midst of disaster itself, however, a different kind of storytelling can become a crucial coping device. Victims’ narratives may not resemble the ones put forth by outsiders, but after surviving a natural disaster, storytelling becomes a way to situate one’s self in time and space. It allows communities to locate themselves in relationship to devastation outside of immediate human control, and it can provide a powerful counter to media narratives that obscure their lived reality.

 

“In this version of the story, a disaster has a beginning, middle, and end, a narrative arc.”

 

Storytelling requires a listener, and post-disaster storytelling tends to take place in the context of communities, as Rebecca Solnit examines in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. “A major loss usually isolates us from the community, where no one else has suffered thus, and we are alone in being bereft of beloved or home or security or health,” she writes. “When the loss is general, one is not cast out by suffering but finds fellowship in it.” To an extent, communities are always held together by shared narratives—the Scriptures that undergird a religious community, or the histories that fraternity pledges commit to memory, or the origin stories that shape a nation. But Solnit argues that the shared experience of a disaster tends to create a new, momentary utopian community out of its victims. “[Disaster] drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors,” she writes. The suspension of everyday routine brings, if only briefly, a new social order.

On September 19, I became a member of one of these post-disaster communities when a 7.1 earthquake struck my current home of Mexico City. Early on a Tuesday afternoon, the earth shook, and it hasn’t stopped shaking since. I bend over a café table and write in a notebook; the motion of my hand shakes the table and I start. I cross the raised platform above the subway tracks; it pounds with the motion of an oncoming train. I’ve discovered a fear I never knew I had, and it is everywhere. Months later, the city remains on edge. We collectively flinch when a heavy truck rumbles by, because that’s how, at first, it felt.

After the earthquake, we couldn’t stop telling our stories, at parties or chatting with taxi drivers or in line at the grocery store. Time split into before and after. We don’t even have to specify it—“dónde te tocó?” everyone asks—“where did it get you?” Some walked out of buildings moments before they collapsed. Others looked out their panoramic 16th-story office windows and saw one tower after another rise into a cloud of dust. Still others walked through their neighborhood with apartments collapsing by their sides. I listened to my friends’ stories over and over until I memorized them.

For weeks, I couldn’t figure out why I felt so compelled to tell my story. It was unremarkable; I am fine. But the immediate experience of fear brings out a primal sense of isolation, and storytelling is a way to undo that. And so I recounted over and over:

I am alone when it happens, entering in the lobby of a corporate high-rise where I am fifteen minutes late to teach an English class. I hand my ID to the security guard, as usual, and as I sign my name on the register, I feel a pounding through the floor. It can’t be, I think; I want permission to react, and I make eye contact with the security guard. His face doesn’t change, but seconds later I hear the voice intoning, alarma sismica. I cross the lobby; I see the aluminum overhang trembling; I look up to the elevated highway across the way and watch the streetlights oscillating. A man and a woman stand near me on the sidewalk. I clutch my chest and hyperventilate and half-wonder why they don’t hold me. I tell myself, this will end. I repeat to myself the Psalm that a friend had sent on WhatsApp after the last quake: though the earth shake and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though the earth shake, though the earth shake.

For me, it ended there. I stood outside and texted everyone I knew as workers slowly streamed out of the surrounding buildings. People started responding: I just saw a building collapse; so-and-so’s apartment just collapsed; there are people trapped where I am. I read Twitter until my phone died and then walked through chaotic streets for several hours to get home to my cat. Everyone was on the phone. Here and there someone sobbed.

The structure of disaster stories reminds me most closely of the conversations around 9/11, or even celebrity deaths. For those who weren’t there, we ask, where were you when you found out? We read it on a screen; we overheard it from a stranger on the subway; we saw it on a headline on a news stand. The shock was dispersed across time and space; it reached each one of us in distinct moments and media. The mediation dilutes our shock. The earthquake, though, struck as a simultaneous physical terror. All at once, for all of us, from deep beneath our feet, the ground began pounding. The structures around us convulsed. Panic seized us in real-time. There are 22 million people in the Mexico City metropolitan area, and at 1:14pm on September 19, there were 22 million simultaneous gut-drops and lurching steps and horrors dawning.

While my community in Mexico City turned to post-trauma storytelling as a spontaneous response, both crisis responders and affected communities around the world use it as a tool, both impromptu and programmatic, after natural disasters. Christy Delafield, the Senior Global Communications Officer for the aid organization Mercy Corps, has witnessed storytelling used as a response tool in numerous crisis scenarios, including the 2016 mudslides that killed dozens in Colombia to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. “When you suffer a traumatizing experience, the likelihood of developing PTSD is affected by a number of things, but one is how you are received by the first people you encounter,” she says. “Meeting someone who listens to you, hears your story about what happened, believes you, validates you and says, you’re still here, you’re still safe, this terrible thing happened to you but you’re okay now, can bring healing.” Telling a story can be grounding. During a crisis, Delafield notes, “the logical brain kind of goes out the window and you’re just acting on instinct, and you sort of separate it from a lot of those logical processes. Telling a story is a way to bring yourself back: yes, this happened, but it’s over now. I’m still here. I’m still safe.”

In the midst of disaster, I also became viscerally aware of the disjunction inherent in reading about a disaster as reported from afar. Media reports lay down the facts: so many people killed and buildings collapsed, the telephone lines down, all normal activity suspended. They don’t convey, though, the shroud of horror that continued to blanket the city. In the minutes and hours after the earthquake, I texted my family and updates. I told them that I’m all fine, unscathed. It was harder to convey that, despite my physical integrity, I felt hollow with fear. News reports seemed to describe a city impossibly more orderly than the place I inhabited.

 

“When you suffer a traumatizing experience, the likelihood of developing PTSD is affected by a number of things, but one is how you are received by the first people you encounter.”

 

Somehow, the spectacular WhatsApp chain messages I began to receive felt more fitting to the horror. They were, in general, absurd claims: a woman in Puebla dreamed about the quake before it happened; scientists have known about this for years; Peña Nieto orchestrated everything. Outsized as the claims were, the viral messages seem to capture something that the news reports didn’t. Collectively disseminated, anonymously composed, they manifested a collective panic. Their absurdity equaled the scale of our terror. I read them, and knew they were apocryphal, and yet something made me want, horribly, to believe them. I realize this is one impulse behind fake news: the most absurd of these narratives substantiate our most irrational fears. They show the world with all the caricatured horrors that we perceive in it. There is a dark side to the disaster stories we tell: they feed each other and grow; they snowball into myths that affirm our worst fears.

In Mexico City, the earthquake’s surrealism and horror was compounded by its eerie timing. Thirty-two years before, to the day, an 8.2-degree earthquake had shaken Mexico City. Tens of thousands were killed and thousands more disappeared. The 1985 earthquake dramatically reshaped the city politically, geographically, and physically, and it left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness. Mexico City residents have faithfully retold stories of the 1985 earthquake, and a generation grew up hearing stories about it from their elders. When I first moved to the city, outings with locals were punctuated by pointing out where buildings had been collapsed or been rebuilt after ‘85.

One Sunday night, I stood with a friend in the historic center’s Plaza de la Solidaridad, where people gather every weekend to dance cumbia to the tune of tinny speakers. An older man struck up a conversation with us; he said the plaza was so named in memory of victims who died when the Hotel Regis, previously at the square’s site, collapsed in the 1985 quake. He had been a topo, he told us—one of the brigade of short-statured rescue workers that self-organized in 1985 to burrow into ruins like topos, moles.

Mexican author and journalist Elena Poniatowska collects many similar testimonials in her book Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake. The anthology compiles dozens of stories from survivors, in rough chronological order; the experience of reading the accounts gave me a sense of accumulating horror similar to the one I felt in the wake of this year’s earthquake. One after another, these survivors recount being trapped in rubble for days, or searching through heaps of bodies for their loved ones. Here, too, the aftermath is marked by retelling, despite a government that urged amnesia and return to normalcy. Poniatowska ends her chronicle with the words of Anne Marie Mergier, a French writer residing in Mexico who happened to be in Paris during the earthquake. Upon her return, she found everyone possessed by the desire to retell their stories. “In Mexico, everyone told me their earthquake. Every re-encountered friend stopped me from saying good morning. They told me first about their earthquake. It was a sine qua non condition to restart the dialogue.”

Collective commemoration like this can bring healing beyond the individual level. For the last eight years, Dr. Rebecca Thomley has volunteered as a mental health first-responder after in a number of recent natural disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2015 Nepal earthquake to, more recently, Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The Minnesota-based clinical psychologist notes that recounting stories of a disaster can be crucial for communities healing from disasters. “If you look at something like World War II, initially the idea was to turn your back and forget it, but forgetting is impossible and in fact even harmful,” Thomley says. “We are really intrinsically wired to forget. So we try to deal with those memories through storytelling and collective commemoration or monuments or rituals.”

It’s hard to measure how that retelling has shaped the Mexico City’s process of emotional, psychological or mental recovery, but it certainly had consequences. As civilians responded to the 2017 earthquake, many remembered their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of civilians pulling others out of rubble 32 years earlier. The narratives about the 1985 earthquake also came with political consequences. The government was notoriously absent in the aftermath, and community narratives emphasized the government’s incompetence and corruption. “The State does not have the capacity to govern or to construct; instead of buildings it builds cemeteries,” says one of Poniatowska’s storytellers. “The government is seated on a mountain of ash; a catastrophe arrives and the only official response is miserable, castrated, like the very system.” Solnit also writes about the ‘85quake in A Paradise Built in Hell, and she notes that the narratives around the quake contributed to a political aperture in Mexico, seeding distrust in the PRI, the party which had held the presidency since 1929. People found the government’s stories inadequate and inaccurate. Their retellings—without neat resolutions in normalcy—had political power, in addition to whatever catharsis they provided.

That’s because media reports providing denouement after disaster don’t only erase the experiences of survivors; they often work to obscure the sinister powers of disaster capitalism: the privatization of public services, as in the case of New Orleans after Katrina, or gross government negligence, as continues to happen in Puerto Rico, months after Hurricane Maria. After the September 2017 earthquake, the Mexican state rushed to insist that they’d facilitated a speedy recovery. The city released an official Reconstruction Plan, insisting that the government “works without tiring to attend all the affected people and will continue doing so to create a new city with more and better opportunities for everyone.” An official video claims that the initial needs of shelter, food and electricity have been attended to, and that the city now is ready to move on to the reconstruction phase. Yet because edia coverage ebbed after a month or so as rescue crews cleared away, few are aware that even those displaced victims receiving aid to pay rent receive barely enough to sublet a room in the city’s increasingly pricey rental market. Hundreds of uninhabitable cordoned-off buildings dot the city.

 

“As civilians responded to the 2017 earthquake, many remembered their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of civilians pulling others out of rubble 32 years earlier.”

 

Months after the September 19 earthquake, I returned to the US for a visit, and people asked me what things are like now. I struggled to put together a satisfying answer: the weight of grief has mostly lifted from the streets, but the city is still littered with rubble. I’ve found I can’t provide a resolution, even to my own story. There has been no real denouement, but an ebbing of the ambient anxiety. There has been resilience, yes, but there has also been corruption and death. Retelling can be a form of dealing with trauma, but it’s also an urgent reminder that trauma doesn’t go away. Counternarratives about disaster merely allow us to live with it.

In a world wracked with threats of quasi-apocalyptic mass crisis—be it climate change, nuclear holocaust, geopolitical strife or divine judgment—that need to coexist with disaster, or at least to alleviate the anxiety of its constant presence, feels increasingly urgent. In Mexico City, the threat of future quakes lingers. On a Friday afternoon in mid-February, as I sat in my apartment, talking on the phone with my sister while editing this piece, I heard a siren. Looking out the window, the neighbors flooding down to the street told me this was the seismic alert, and I ran downstairs barefoot. My body performed its own instinctive act of remembrance; it moved on its own, trembling with fear, eyes welling up, my hand instinctively clutching a stranger’s. I turned in the street to watch the trees sway.

When the shaking ended, my phone, as before, flooded with messages from friends affirming their safety: no damage in the city. The alert itself, though, triggered a flood of panic: Friends told me of seeing people passing out, weeping, frozen in silence on the street. Two days later, late on Sunday night, the alert sounded again, and again we found ourselves on the street in pajamas. This time, though, we barely felt it. We waited outside for a bit, mocking each other’s pajamas.

This time, it was not, for us, a disaster. In Mexico City, we went inside and went to sleep. There is no end to the unresolved stories of September 19—just another chapter.

Madeleine Wattenbarger
Madeleine Wattenbarger
Madeleine Wattenbarger is a freelance writer, researcher & translator living in Mexico City. She is originally from Philadelphia.





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