Nothing Consistent about Disaster

By Susan Kim*

USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman talks about telling the stories of disaster survivors as RCC board member Jeff Huett looks on. Photo by Cherilyn Crowe.

June 26, 2012 — When writing about disaster after disaster, USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman said it's a challenge for her to stay involved and interested. Speaking to members of the Religion Communicators Council in Washington, DC, Grossman said, no matter what the type of disaster, readers continually seek the answer to an age-old question: "Why do bad things happen at the hands of a good God?"

Whether she's writing about Hurricane Katrina or a tsunami in Japan, Grossman said she tries to remind herself that the stories of disaster survivors aren't all the same. "I can enjoy finding a new way to tell a disaster story," she said.

The news media can put a formula on almost any topic, reflected Christy Smith, an UMCOR consultant who specializes in case management training. Smith is also a former journalist. "To a national reporter, it might seem like the same story that's been told a thousand different ways. Disasters do have a similar thread because something bad has happened."

But even if national news stories tend to be formulaic about disasters, Smith is adamant that there is absolutely nothing consistent about the predicament of any given disaster survivor.

"I don't see people going through the same recovery process – ever," she said. "At UMCOR, it is our strong belief that every disaster is local."

This philosophy is the foundation underlying UMCOR's case management process, a specialty for which UMCOR is known within the ecumenical circle of disaster response and recovery organizations.

In Alabama, where more than 20,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by 2011 tornadoes, there is an individual story behind every person affected, agreed Nancy Cole, North Alabama Conference disaster recovery coordinator.

"The human trials that people go through are what make disaster recovery so compelling," she said.

When the public sees, through the media, images of tornado rubble, it all does tend to look the same, said Cole. "But what you realize, when you start working with individuals, is that God has uniquely made every one of us."

That's why UMCOR's case management approach is holistic. It tries to take into account a person's physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Cole recounted the story of one family in Alabama who lost everything. Their son had taught himself to repair and refurbish old organs, learning from experts across the country.

"Their house was only partially rebuilt but his organ had survived. He put the organ into the half-built house just to hear the acoustics."

He sat and played classical music and, for those few minutes, Cole was struck by how much the restored organ represented restored hope for this family and others.

"To me, the music symbolized the rebirth of beauty in the midst of destruction. If reporters want to find the real story, they can. They just have to be there and talk to people."

Help UMCOR put a human face on the aftermath of disasters. Give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670

*Susan Kim, member of RCC, is a journalist and a regular contributor to This story was originally published by UMCOR in June 2012.

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