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Natural Environment Disaster Survival Experiences:
Narrative Research from Two Communities

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2007-2

Natural Environment Disaster Survival Experiences:
Narrative Research from Two Communities

Melvin Prince, Ph.D., Marketing Department, Southern Connecticut State University, Connecticut, USA. Email: melvinprince@sbcglobal.net
Mark Alexander Phillip Davies, Ph.D., School of Management and Languages, Heriot-Watt University, Scotland. E-Mail: m.a.p.davies@hw.ac.uk
Keywords: tsunami, flood, disaster survivors, culture, narrative research

Melvin Prince, Ph.D.

Marketing Department,
Southern Connecticut State University,
Connecticut, USA

Mark Alexander Phillip Davies, Ph.D.

School of Management and Languages,
Heriot-Watt University,



We develop a model of sequential responses of disaster survivors as they experience natural disaster stages. The disaster response model is based on the confluence of psychological processes with temporal environmental states that are markers of disaster periods. The study analyzes journalistic narratives taken from informants experiencing natural disasters in two culturally diverse communities. Recorded short-term vivid memory traces of survivors are assumed to accurately project their interpretations of events and experiences, reflected in their narratives. Whilst survivors share many similarities in their profiles of natural disaster response, some cultural differences in response are observed between communities, such as religiosity.

Natural Environment Disaster Survival Experiences:
Narrative Research from Two Communities


This paper sets forth a narrative paradigm for codifying basic assumptions, concepts and propositions that describe, integrate and explain experiences of natural disaster survivors. It is based on cross-cultural comparative narrative analysis in two distant, culturally variant communities based on reports of disaster survivors’ experiences. These storied experiences conveyed in the language of everyday life are grounded in the threat, impact and immediate aftermath stages of natural disaster.

The narrative approach in this paper reflects distinctive features of the idea, as specified by Hinchman and Hinchman (1997). That is, the approach is based on discourse that places a collage of individual experiences in an explicit sequential order, with units of analysis that meaningfully connect to one another. That is to say, experiences of narrators are organized and rendered meaningful, offering insights about disaster situations and survivor motives. Narrative theory maintains that narratives are influenced by individual and cultural factors. In the present research we focus on disaster phases and psychological processes which result in experiential outcomes. These specific experiential outcomes are importantly related to cultural similarities and differences between communities. Barton (1970) has used a scheme of time periods and social units involved to classify a wide range of disaster phenomena. The present study focuses exclusively on threat and immediate response periods experienced by individuals.

The present study is part of the qualitative research literature on disaster survivor experience. It makes a unique contribution and goes beyond many other studies in at least two ways. First, it looks at survival experiences under natural disaster conditions in two communities, remote from each other both physically and culturally. This addresses the question of which disaster concepts are fully reflective of human experiences cross-culturally, as noted by Quarantelli (2003). Some cultural values affecting disaster survivor response may be similar and lead to generalizable outcomes. Other variables, such as the impact of secular vs. sacred as well as modern vs. traditional communities have not been systematically explored in disaster studies and may result in variable outcomes.
Second, this study makes use of a qualitative methodology—narrative analysis--that has not been exploited to advantage in previous disaster research. Narrative theory’s application to a wide spectrum of disciplines suggests that it offers a fertile research perspective for studying survival experiences of traumatic environmental events. The present research goes beyond focus groups and unstructured interviews that have been emphasized in the disaster literature.


The paradigm of natural disaster survival experiences presented in this paper outlines the variables and processes involved, as well as intervening mechanisms that enhance the explanation of disaster survival experiences. It develops original concepts from recent in-depth book length accounts of individuals and families that survived Asian history’s deadliest Tsunami (Krauss, 2006) and United Kingdom’s Boscastle flood (Rowe, 2004).

Narrative analysis of these texts was conducted by the academic researchers responsible for the present work. The particular method used to elucidate the topic was a form of structural analysis, storytelling. Storytelling is a natural way of describing experiences with the aim of bringing structure, order and understanding to events (Moen, 2006). Applied to natural disasters, narratives of survivors are used to seek meaning from their extraordinary chain of events and experiences. The basic structure of story grammar involves a setting and a plot. The setting introduces the central figure and locates the story in time and space. The plot is a temporal series of episodes or events with a beginning, development and an end. Episodes in the development phase delineate protagonists’ reactions, their goals and the means to achieve them (Mandler, 1984).

The qualitative methodology employed captured survivors’ oral accounts of a series of events and actions, chronologically presented. The research method of data collection employed by each author was to collect narratives from small samples of survivors in two culturally contrasting communities during the immediate aftermath phase of their disasters. Many survivors were found to willingly share their harrowing experiences, without much apparent persuasion or elicitation by reporters. In each case, book authors simply provided descriptive reporting with copious references to “in their own words.”

Study data were the individual survivor histories of the disaster and its immediate aftermath as told to book authors. This was chronicled in books containing copious quotations from survivors and their experiences as documented by the authors. The substantive accounts were derived from informal conversations and open-ended questioning between authors and survivors.

The books were based on leisurely accounts from extended conversations between survivors and the book authors—Krauss on the Nam Khem tsunami, and Rowe on the Boscastle flood. Krauss’ Nam Khem conversations in temporary camp housing took place in the month following the tsunami. These conversations took place among surviving husbands and wives from Nam Khem families. Nam Khem informants were hard working manual laborers, agricultural and service workers. Rowe’s Boscastle conversations in the month following the flood were with families who had undergone the ordeal of the flood. Rowe’s conversations were conducted in a ‘roving reporter’ manner, at a variety of convenient places. In Boscastle, informants interviewed were differentiated in their occupations which included professionals, clergy, shopkeepers, farmers, artists and others. In sum, the samples from the two communities reflected the differences in their respective social structures. The advantages of such documentary accounts have been outlined by Lincoln and Guba (1985). These advantages include (a) availability of previously collected protocols, (b) stability of the information, (c) contextual richness of the discourse, and (d) non-reactivity to the investigator’s inquiry.

The study’s methodology is narrative analysis. According to Polkinghorne (1988): “Narrative recognizes the meaningfulness of individual experiences by noting how they function as parts and in a whole. Its particular subject matter is human actions and events that affect human beings, which it configures into wholes, according to the roles these actions and events play in bringing about a conclusion. Because narrative is particularly sensitive to the temporal dimension of human existence, it brings special attention to the sequence in which actions and events occur.”

Since narrative theory requires researchers to study events in their natural settings, stories must be not only socially and culturally constructed but interpreted. This relates to the characters and settings surrounding the disaster, in order to make sense as to how survivors interpreted their exposure to the events unfolding (Denzin, 1989; Moen, 2006). Using the narrative of what was said verbatim as the unit of analysis reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation by the authors in attaching their own feelings to the events (Wertsch, 1998). The use of metaphor in the narrative also helps to create a strong visual image and poignant meaning that is easily shared with others.

Accounts of disaster survivors from Nam Khem, Thailand and from Boscastle, UK are primary, solicited, comprehensive, edited, signed and intentional. Furthermore, the analytical process specified analytical categories a posteriori, and the documentation of individual cases is constrained to be similar, in reporting experiences of collective stress in personally confronting extreme natural disaster situations. The method also addressed comparisons of accounts from sharply different cultural communities.

Nam Khem had a large subsistence level population of fisherman, devout in their Buddhist religion and spiritualist convictions who were self-reliant and self-interested. In contrast, Boscastle was differentiated in representation of class strata, secular-oriented, with the people looking to outside agencies for their own welfare, and being altruistic (DeGraaf and Need, 2002; Kitiarsa, 2005). These differences between communities permitted illumination of expected cultural manifestations of survivors’ responses, as well as unexpected discoveries of culturally-induced patterns of behavior.

Two Disasters

NAM KHEM, THAILAND, December 26, 2004:
A powerful earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean floor bed. This event set off a devastating tsunami that reached and devastated the coastlines around the ocean. Over a quarter of a million people are estimated to have lost their lives in this tsunami, with many more injured. Nam Khem, Thailand, one of hundreds of coastal villages, was swept away from the earth in a matter of hours (Perel, 2004).

BOSCASTLE, UK, August 16 2004.
Some of the worst floods ever seen in Britain devastated Boscastle, a Cornish village and surrounding areas of North Cornwall in August 2004. There are steep valleys, in which heavy rainfall can lead to rivers rising rapidly, leading to potential flooding. Boscastle has been regularly affected by flooding over the centuries, with a small chance of a disaster re-occurring in any one year. The floods affected over 100 homes, destroying cars, roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure.

Both of these events are natural disasters, a subset of collective stress situations (Barton, 1970). These situations involve sudden and violent changes in the physical environment, threatening life and property. Barton (1970) has defined collective stress as a circumstance where many members of a social system fail to receive expected conditions of life from the system. He also developed a system for classifying disasters, which shows parallels between the cases of natural disasters under study.

The disastrous events in Nam Khem and Boscastle are similar in that they both involved (a) communities that experienced (b) a sudden onset of violent environmental change, (c) which—though extremely destructive--was of a short duration, and where (d) the level of preparedness was low. They are different in terms of the diversity of cultural contexts associated with these two communities.

The Paradigm

The organization of the remainder of this paper represents an explanation of the new paradigm of disaster survival experiences. The paradigm is specified as a matrix with two temporal axes: disaster period and psychological process affecting the survivors that can be reconceptualized as consumers. Survivors consume the experience they are exposed to, and respond psychologically in their reactions to it, but also re-live experiences through the stories they choose to disclose and craft. Whilst much of what is said may be an objective reflection of what informants believe happened, consumer explanations are also crafted from prior experiences (Grayson, 1997). This is embedded in their culture: who they are, what they do, and how they fit in to the exposed community. Survivors make sense of their identities through the stories they tell, reflecting the psychological focus of our paradigm. Thus Sarbin (1983) refers to narrative as the “root metaphor” for psychology because individuals think and interpret their situations and make choices in what they say and how it is said.

The entries in the body of the matrix are measurable experiential variables that may be modeled. In Figure 1, psychological processes that flow from one another are arranged to correspond with the timeline of stages of the disaster survival experience: 1. Threat, 2. Impact, and 3. Immediate aftermath. Entries to the paradigm represent experiential variables that are results of the cross classification. These entries are also conditioned by contextual community variations, a point that will be elaborated on in the analysis.

Psychological Processes
Period Threat
Stream of
Escape Mutual Aid Security


Change of water colour;

Gathering dark clouds


warning cues





Unusual debris floating on water

noise and gutting of structures






flashback phenomenon

emotional states

religious ideation



sense of vulnerability

salience of survival intentions

struggle for survival


survival plans


collective flight


aid between fellow survivors

search for missing persons

rescue of missing persons



abatement of natural fury;

relocation to an unscathed locale



personal injuries

mental anguish

sense of imminent recurrence


family reunion

domicile reconnaissance


Figure 1. Paradigm of Disaster Survivor Response Patterns

Threat Period

Perception of Threat:

Warning cues.
Nam Khem
. The Andaman Sea off coastal Thailand is known for its perilous nature. On December 26, 2004, the Ocean took on a strange look. The water was extremely murky, and the tide had moved far away from the beach.

Boscastle. Eyewitnesses at Boscastle described water levels rising in only seconds. From Rowe’s accounts (2004), extreme rainfall began to fall in parts of North Cornwall by 12 noon.

Increased vigilance. Processing of warning cues heightens the need for understanding changes in the environment. Consequently, attention is riveted and focused on the cues—observing any change in intensity and prevalence. Interpretations are given to explain the phenomena.

Surveillance. New information is sought on a continuing basis. All information is integrated to assess and forecast emergent conditions and the threat level. For example, surveillance might include the increasing size and distance of an approaching ocean wave. Additionally, surveillance might register the destruction or disappearance of land or physical structures in the wake of an ocean wave.

Aspects of threat perception are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:
1. Warning cues were observed in the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004 by a man on a boat who squinted and saw something strange about the water:

It had been clear all morning, but now it had gone murky. He scooted forward and looked overboard. He saw rocks below the surface. Even when the water was crystal clear, he could not see the bottom, not this far out. As he tried to figure out what was going on, he suddenly got the sensation of movement. He looked inland and saw that the beach had grown five times in size. The tide had gone way out (Krauss, 2006, p. 83).

2. Warning cues were observed midday during the August 16 2004 Boscastle flood when a woman observed a big black cloud:
It was frightening. We were on a bright, sunlit beach and the sky was as blue as blue. It was a beautiful day. We had hot sunshine. And then there was this great big wedge of cloud. It was extraordinary. I have never seen a cloud like this before. I said to my daughter “Somebody’s going to get a downpour.” (Rowe, 2006, p.6).

Impact Period

Impact Experience:

Observation of Impact. Destruction by a gigantic wave would be evidenced by its carrying of debris, including remains of sea craft. In crashing onto the shore it would suddenly submerge and drown masses of victims. There would probably be a fraction of people engulfed who would miraculously survive. The impact will recur with multiple waves that cumulatively cause death and destruction to initial survivors and their communities. Aspects of impact experience are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:

1. A woman was sitting under a tree during Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004.
She went face-first into the soil and then her body got ripped up and tossed mercilessly around and around. Something large bashed into her side so she wrapped her arms over her head to protect it. Her best estimate was that she got tumbled and beaten beneath the water for two minutes (Krauss, 2006, p. 119).

2. A woman who oversaw a museum in Boscastle on August 16, 2004 had this to say:
I had a booth full of people waiting to come in because of the rain and I heard a noise like a really fierce kettle suddenly boiling, like a roaring noise in the click of a finger. I went outside. The river was running black and very fast. I’ve never seen it look like that before. A man standing on the bridge said there had been a big wave coming down the river (Rowe, 2006, p. 9).

1. As she clutched a baby to her, a woman from Nam Khem was exposed to this experience, as narrated by the author: The wave crashed down, pinning her to the bed of the truck. Completely submerged under water, Nang saw something dark, which she assumed was the longtail boat pass over her. That was the last thing she saw before the world around her became too painful and confusing to watch. She shut her eyes. Her mind instructed her to fight, but she didn’t know how, so she lay there, frozen. The metal beneath her began to shake and tremble as the truck got pushed across the road (Kraus, 2006, pp. 110-111).

2. After the flood struck, a man in Boscastle took to the road by car, as the author describes: College reversed his car up the hill part of the way home until it was pushed to the side of the road by cascading water. The hilly streets had turned into rivers. He got out and started running. He was hit by debris and a week later his shins would still show the cuts he sustained that day (Rowe, 2006, p. 14).

3. Life-threatening conditions can facilitate re-evaluation of previous behavior, such as in close-knit relationships.
Trapped in the tiny space of the Visitor Centre, six adults and their children eventually climbed onto the roof for survival. Melanie thought: “If we ever get out of this alive, I’m never going to shout at the children again.” (Rowe, ibid, page 24).

Psychologically, informants develop coping strategies to deal with unfamiliar circumstances that can be passive or active. In the first scenario, a state of denial was shown by the woman passively closing her eyes. In the second scenario, College resorts to flight – to reach a point of safety. In the third scenario, activity (climbing onto the roof) is followed by a re-evaluation of what’s important (the value of life), leading to tolerance (reflected by no shouting).

Stream Of Consciousness:

Flashback phenomenon. While embroiled in the impact situation, thoughts race through survivors’ minds. These thoughts include flashback thinking and imagery about previously experienced disasters – especially those caused by rain, wind or flooding.

Emotional states. Survivors in the midst of impact will express their emotional states by screaming or crying. Terror will grip each survivor.

Religious ideation. In Thailand, survivors who feel they are beyond dire threat may thank Buddha for delivering them. Buddha will be appreciated for inspiring them to make the right decision, leading to survival. They will thank Buddha for providing necessary conditions for their avoidance of the threat.

Spiritualism. When the threat of impact appears greatest, dead and dying life forms are in evidence. In Asia, this ghastly scene is attributed to evil spirits. One supposition is that the individual was being hounded, for some reason, by these spirits. Perhaps the catastrophe was caused by evil spirits exacting mass revenge.

Aspects of stream of consciousness are illustrated by the following narrative accounts.
1. Emotional ideation was present in the Nam Khem woman in the Tsunami of December 26 2004, in which flashbacks can be linked to images of those close to them.
Screams now came all around her and she could hear a strange sound off in the distance. She began to pray. The faces of her parents both of whom died years prior appeared in her mind. She could see the wrinkles on their skin and other details of their faces (Krauss, 2006, p. 110).

2. Emotional states were in evidence when a woman was pulled to safety by a man in the Boscastle flood of 2004:
He: She was a bit hysterical. She was crying. I gave her a hug and said “Calm down. Don’t worry about it.” I rolled her a fag and gave her a beer and sat her down. I gave her some towels.
She: I was so panicked I don’t remember what I was doing. I was screaming and shaking and trying to explain to them [rescuers] what had just happened (Rowe, 2006, p. 18).

Survival Motivation:

Sense of vulnerability. Observing others who were imperiled raises doubts about one’s own survival likelihood. Communications include estimates of perishing.

Salience of survival intention. In the light of dire observed threat, the will to survive becomes the forefront of attention. This strong motivation activates goal-directed behaviors to stay alive.

Struggle for immediate survival. This involves behaviors that avoid drowning, and the crushing force of physical objects. This might entail swimming, clinging to stationary objects, and climbing to higher elevations.

Aspects of survival motivation are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:
1. About to give up the struggle, a woman in the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004 renewed her fight to stay alive.
Riding out in front of the waves heading right toward her was the trailer the hotel used as an office. Her fear gave her strength. She reached up again and this time she managed to grab the man’s hand (Krauss, 2006, p. 120).

2. A man saw a woman and child on the slipway nearby, inches from the water. She struggled for her own survival and her child’s. He reported:
I wanted to warn them off. I ran down and as I was going back in the river had burst its banks. There was another woman and her baby trying to walk upstream against the torrent. I told them in no uncertain terms that they were being stupid and to get to the highest ground (Rowe, 2006, p. 10).

Escape From Disaster:

Survival plans. These plans are made on the fly. Plans follow from swift decisions about acting on alternative strategies. As part of the planning process, mental mapping occurs of routes, facilities and resources. Plans are revised, based on surveillance of changing conditions, the fates of other survivors, or non-survivors. Barriers that are encountered, like flooded waterways, lead to split-hair changes in survival plans.

Survivor evacuation. Mobile survivors migrate to what they believe to be a safe haven. This begins with estimates of the best starting point for the evacuation. In some instances, a vehicle or boat may be the means of transport away from threat.

Collective flight. Masses of people suddenly appear. Groups of people can be hastily compacted into limited space, creating tension. Vehicles may be summoned or commandeered. These vehicles will ferry people to higher ground. Unsolicited rescue vehicles may arrive and pick up survivors.

Aspects of escape from disaster experience are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:
1. A husband and wife were fleeing from the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004.
He reached his hands forward and they landed on his wife’s shoulders. Her entire body had gone stiff. He knew what had happened without having to ask. She had frozen just as she had on the day of the car accident in which he had lost his sight. “It’s coming she shouted.” “Then we have to keep running. You mustn’t be scared.” (Krauss, 2006, p. 103).

2. Inside the Spinning Wheel restaurant in Boscastle, evacuation had begun:
Most people had taken their cue from the water that was flowing from the back and started to leave, but one woman insisted on drinking her cup of tea because she had paid for it. She got up from the table and was downing the last half of her cup saying, ‘It’s my cup of tea, so I’m going to drink it.’ Despite her worries about getting value from her 1.25 pounds a pot, she and the rest of the customers were evacuated. (Rowe, 2006, p. 32).

Mutual Aid:

Aid to or from fellow survivors. Survivors will broadcast to each other the latest developments about threats. They will also provide survival information and direction to one another. Others may be urged to flee or to re-locate to some other specific location. Pleas from others for help may go unaided, when personal or family member survival is at odds with mutual aid motives.

Search for missing. Family members will look for other missing members. They may search for them at their homes or some other logical location. In the search process they will question other survivors for clues about family member whereabouts. As family survivors move about, they will loudly call out names of missing family members, hoping for response.

Rescue of missing. A found family member may be directed to areas of greater safety. The rescued family member will be examined for injury, physical and emotional condition. Being re-united bolsters hope of rescue for the family unit.

Aspects of mutual aid are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:
1. Cooperative behavior for survival in the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004 was evident in the actions of a resort manager.
He had two vans and two trucks that he normally used to shuttle people into the ferryboat to the hotel, and he told his staff members to take them to the front gate and load up the guests. Once he had a full load they were to drive out the front gate, down the dirt road that ran parallel to the beach and then up the slow hill (Krauss, 2006, p. 100).

2. Richard was stationed in a car park in Boscastle, and he escorted some people to safety. He spotted a car where the flood water was covering the tires.
There was a woman with her head out of the sunroof screaming for help. It was a heart-stopping moment. I would have to have crossed the main torrent of water to reach her, and by now there was a larger debris and rubbish skips floating around and crashing into cars. I shouted to the stranded car that we were coming to help. In true British spirit other people had heard my call and realized that this was the time for real action. About three of us linked arms and finally made it to the car (Rowe, 2006, p. 12).

Immediate Aftermath

Security Concerns:

Personal injuries. Injuries may hamper an individual’s effective struggle for survival. In the midst of personal panic, sensations of extreme physical pain may go unnoticed. Attempts to aid injured or dying may succeed or fail.

Mental anguish. Once removed to relative safety, survivors remain private about their personal miseries. They revisit disturbing memories of their struggles for survival, loss of others’ lives, loss of their possessions and possibly their livelihood, and the devastation of their community.

Sense of Imminent recurrence. After surviving the first round of natural fury, survivors are uncertain about short-term recurrences of disaster. Recurrence can be signaled by others arriving on the scene or by electronic communications. Even when a stable calm returns, fears for short-term recurrence remain.

Aspects of security concerns are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:
1. A male caught up in the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26, 2004 was concerned about recurrence of the tidal wave.
He got a call over his walkie-talkie and was informed that a more powerful wave would strike the coast within five minutes. He kissed his wife and daughter and then pushed on. If another big wave was indeed coming their way he feared it might reach the intersection. In his mind the only safe place on the island was Khao Phrapichae Mountain, which lay 12 miles to the north (Krauss, 2006, p. 106).

2. In Boscastle, in a building holding a few survivors, a tree had come into the building, most of which had collapsed:
Those looking on from the banks above the flood could see that the torrent had ripped away two-thirds of the building, right up to the plasterboard front section of the loft, where families were huddling. Part of the slate roof hung down in front of it, and that, as well as the tree, helped deflect some of the water from the crumbling structure (Rowe, 2006, p. 23).


Family reunion. On seeing an apparently lost loved one, family members tenderly embrace for some time. This is as if to relieve their senses of mental anguish, tracing from their ordeals. With respect to family members remaining unaccounted for, the search may continue in hospitals or other treatment shelters. Ultimately, the search continues into body identifications and ceremonial endings.

1. The emotional reunion of a family after the disaster is seen in this account from the Nam Khem Tsunami of December 26 2004.
Her mind gone numb after seeing so much horror, she wouldn’t remember what she saw along this walk or even if she talked to anyone. The only thing she knew for certain was that at some point she saw her husband in the back of a truck, halfway up the highway. He, too, was covered in mud and she would later learn that he had ridden a plastic fuel container for more than half a mile and then climbed a cluster of bamboo trees to reach safety. They embraced each other for what seemed like half an hour, then headed back to Leam Pom to find their children (Krauss, 2006, p. 147).

2. Separation of a couple during the flood resulted in movement and signaling the location of a Boscastle woman in anticipation of re-union with her husband: Kerriann was on the other side of the water. Like so many people in Boscastle that day, she and Graham were divided by the flood. She eventually made it home to her cottage on the other side of the river very late that night. As the power was off, she put lighted candles in the window to let Graham know she was safely home (Rowe, 2006, p. 40).

Aspects of reconstruction are illustrated by the following narrative accounts:

Domicile reconnaissance. There are strong motives to re-visit and inspect domiciles that are in a disaster impact area. This may be signaled by the urgency of the need, as well as the acceptance of hardship to achieve the reconnaissance. A re-visit offers an opportunity for deep reflection without the distraction and urgent need for survival. A calculative reflection creates the conditions for better acceptance of what happened, why it happened, what might they have done, and what should be done to prevent a repeat of such a disaster. There is less blame attributable to supportive agencies and more acceptance of an act of nature rather than a tragedy inflicted by man. However, in the case of Boscastle, climate change, caused by man, indirectly affected rainfall and the efficiency of drainage, leading to flooding. In the case of Nam Khem, nobody could have prevented the fault in the earth’s crust from tremoring, but better forecasting and speedier warning systems could have prevented the scale of lost lives. Another rationale for domicile reconnaissance is a reluctance to part with the past. Possessions (including homes) tied to the past reflect not only financial loss but sentimental value. In some cases, a revisit is a chance to mark a division from the past; for others a chance to recollect many fond memories.

1. In Nam Khem, a young man returned home, interested in, among things, retrieving his documents and money: A few times he lost his way, because there were no longer any landmarks to help him. After half an hour of working over and around the debris, he entered his neighborhood and saw that his home still stood; at least, part of it still stood. The front and back walls were gone, and everything on the bottom floor was stripped away, but the roof was still intact, as was the second floor (Krauss, p. 178).

2. A man in Boscastle was interested in the condition of a structure in which he lived: On the day of the flood Scott Roberts of Wellington was left shocked and upset when he managed to drive the long way around from the car park to the other side of the river and found his family’s hotel so badly damaged. Scott’s flat was on the first floor and had collapsed. He was cheered immensely when four jewelry rings turned up in the painstaking search of the three-foot silt at the back of the bar (Rowe, 2006, pp. 54-55).

Community cohesion. The identification with the community, willingness to contribute to the collective welfare, and sense of belonging are evident among disaster survivors. While community cohesion exists in a pre-disaster state, the collective stress associated with the disaster event reinforces and strengthens community cohesion. ‘Life’ may be reconceptualized as delicate, transient, and precious. Hence the ‘value hierarchy’ is reinterpreted with a re-emphasis on people-as family or community-at the expense of worldly goods and possessions. Irrespective of different cultural norms between Thailand and Britain, it is it is the collective responsibility--a kind of civic duty attached to the communities to help each other that is manifested when traumas are shared visibly and publicly, such as found in a natural disaster. Private traumas--not visible to the public--will have less opportunity for raising community cohesion. In the aftermath of the Boscastle disaster, many personal cheques were sent to survivors, indicating how the public mood had been engaged by the experience through the media.

1. Survivors were living in a makeshift camp in Nam Khem, led by a woman named Dang: They began the morning just like they would every morning to come—with a community meeting. Dang told everyone that they were now more of a family than they had ever been. If anyone had a problem, they could come to her day or night. Then they broke off to fulfill their appointed duties (Krauss, 2006, pp. 231-232).

2. Gay Truswell was airlifted from a friend’s roof in Boscastle. Her motor home floated away in the flood, with just about everything she owned:
She told the Nottingham Evening Post, ‘To see it dancing backwards down the river was incredible. It was as if it had no weight at all.’ She added, ‘I’ve lost my mobility, my home and I’ve lost my treasured family photographs and sentimental things, but the spirit of this village is phenomenal.’ (Rowe, 2006, p. 55).

3. Cohesion helped in striking new relationships well after the event had passed:
Kim and Melanie have kept in touch since that day. “It helps having someone who went through it and knows how you feel. If we have a bad day we email or phone each other.” (Rowe, ibid, p. 31).

Discussion and Conclusions

A paradigm of disaster survivor response patterns has been advanced. This paradigm is based on the psychological processes that are associated with various periods of disaster experience. The paradigm appears to work reasonably well across diverse cultures, although more testing and refinement needs to be undertaken.

On the other hand, cultural differences between communities seem to manifest themselves in the content of psychological processes. Levels of modernization make a great difference in these respects. In Boscastle, threat perception was conditioned partly on the sophistication of weather forecasts from the Meterological Office broadcast through the media and the attention they received, consistent with a modern community. In Nam Phen, personal observation and the behavior of the familiar ocean shore became relatively more important warning cues since many occupations were close to nature such as fishermen, consistent with a traditional community. The Boscastle network of technological and organized back-up of relief was more dependable, and that led to greater confidence. Nam Phen residents were self-reliant and more anxiety-ridden.

A culture that believes individuals can choose their own destiny is referred to as a culture with a high internal locus of control, whereas one that believes in externalities beyond their control is one of high external locus of control (Rotter, 1966; DeMooij, 2004). We might have expected disasters experienced in a low context culture associated with individualism and high internal locus of control such as the UK would lead to less need for help from others in the community relative to high context cultures associated with their collectivist, high external locus of control, such as Thailand. However, when different cultures share a common life-threatening peril such as a natural disaster, a community spirit generally unfolds. Despite Boscastle’s residents under mortal danger from the disaster, thoughts turned to helping others with the greatest need. Nevertheless, high internal locus of control is also associated with a speedy recovery to a previous psychosocial state and lifestyle, consistent with Boscastle’s rapid recovery, with many flooded businesses back in business by Easter 2005, just over six months later. This reflected the community’s resilience and stoicism, with local people returning to normality with “quiet determination.” Interestingly, tradition and community were powerful values in Boscastle, whereas people were more family-centered in Nan Khem.

We would expect predominantly secular societies such as the UK to be less likely to attribute disasters to religiosity compared to highly religious societies such as Thailand. In Thailand, Buddhism has a strong effect on the philosophy of life, attitudes, and behavior. The largely secular Boscastle community did not display outward signs of relying on religious faith to find solace and deeper meaning during or after their disaster experiences. Arguably this was captured in their determination to bring about their own salvation. Buddhism, salient to Nam Phen people, was shown to be a way of summoning help and explaining survival. The relative power of the media and religion affects recall of events and images in different ways in the two societies. Mass media experience evokes images of disaster films in Boscastle whereas ancestor visions and spirits come to mind for residents of Nam Phen. Our preliminary comparisons between the two country experiences suggest that the role of cross-cultural parameters can be strongly robust for some issues (such as the role of religion) but not for others (with each society displaying a community spirit). We suggest a contingency approach toward studying the cross-cultural effects on disaster studies may be insightful. It is possible that in times of hardship, specific individual psychological processes drive behavior more than cultural ones, stimulating a greater sense of social purpose and unity.

The paradigm advanced in this paper integrates and explains survivors’ experiences in the following ways: (a) it groups experiences according to disaster phases and their attendant psychological processes, and (b) while the axes of the paradigm may be relatively constant, the experiences may be explained by uniformities and variations in cultural values. The conclusions to this study can be linked to existing literature that formalizes disaster periods.

This cross-cultural narrative analysis adds to existing knowledge in that it: (a) shows the variability of physical changes within and between each period, (b) provides a systematic scheme of psychological processes where each element is outcome-embedded i.e., has roots in the preceding element (c) adduces empirical evidence of associations between periods and psychological elements, and (d) classifies and groups experiences by period and psychological processes. The present study should stimulate future research to test its generalizability and refine the paradigm cross-culturally in tandem with other methodologies.


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Melvin Prince & Mark Alexander Phillip Davies © 2007. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author/s also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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