A Resilient South: An Action Plan for the Humanities and the Arts

The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, the Center for the Study of the American South, and PLAN!T NOW are in the process of developing an annual workshop that showcases the important role the arts and humanities play in helping to explain the impacts of disasters on communities and vulnerable populations. The study of hazards and disasters by members of the arts and humanities provides an important and unique perspective on the nature of natural hazards and their impact on individuals, groups, communities and the larger society in which we live. While Hurricane Katrina has dramatically shown the role of the arts in helping a community to regain its sense of self during recovery, the value of studying this phenomenon and others like it remains less developed when compared to the physical and social sciences.

We suggest that it is time for the arts and humanities to conduct an assessment of their role in advancing our collective knowledge of hazards and disasters. Disasters often serve as “focusing events,” highlighting issues of community solidarity as well as long-standing problems of neglect. Similarly, there is a long-standing tradition among individuals and groups who use the arts as a means of self expression. Before and after disasters, these stories and works of art tell us a great deal about the makeup of the people impacted by these events, including the social, political and environmental conditions in their communities, and how they cope with them. There is a rich history of musicians, songwriters, storytellers, and artists who have important stories to tell. It is up to us to capture this information in order to understand it and ensure that it is not lost over time or following a disaster.

The means by which we propose to accomplish these aims are different that the traditional meeting of scholars and the publication of a report detailing recommended areas of study. Instead we propose the hosting of an annual workshop titled A Resilient South: An Action Plan for the Humanities and the Arts. The workshop will address the role of the arts and humanities in helping to identify the elements of a disaster resilient community, advance our knowledge of these conditions, and apply this information in practice in order to increase awareness and promote healing following a disaster. Broad themes applied throughout the workshop include teaching, education and outreach; information collection and archiving; research; advocacy and therapy.

Workshop participants will include artists and scholars, brought together on the University of North Carolina campus and the neighboring towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Specific venues will include art and photographic exhibits; film screenings; live music; and oral history, poetry and literature readings. In addition, lectures will be conducted by anthropologists, philosophers, historians, architects and design experts, historic preservationists, and others discussing the significance of workshop venues and describing the impact of the arts and humanities in our understanding of natural hazards and disasters.

Disaster resilience, a key issue framing the workshop, can be defined as the ability to rebound from a shock to the system. Understood in the context of natural hazards and disasters, it refers to actions taken by individuals, groups and institutions to lessen the negative physical, social, economic, and environmental impacts of disasters both before and after an event. Very little is known about the role of the arts and humanities in accomplishing this goal. The workshop will provide an organizational venue to address this gap in our collective understanding.

The annual workshop will address the concept of resilience across the following dimensions: preparedness, response, hazard mitigation and recovery. Each dimension is representative of what is commonly referred to as the four phases of emergency management. Preparedness implies the actions taken to improve one’s readiness for an event. Examples may include creating an evacuation plan, placing materials in the public library about the hazards prevalent in their community, or conducting pre-event exercises. Response refers to the ability of individuals and organizations to take action following an event to assist with the rescue, sheltering and feeding of impacted populations. Hazard mitigation is defined as pre- and post-event actions intended to reduce future injuries, loss of life or damages to property associated with the effects of natural hazards. Examples may include the elevation or relocation of flood-prone properties, the strengthening of public buildings to better withstand the impacts of high winds, earthquakes, wildfire or flooding, and policies that limit development in areas subject to natural hazards. Recovery is the process of restoring, reshaping and reconstructing the physical, social, environmental and economic infrastructure damaged by a disaster. It also provides an opportunity to improve pre-event conditions through grass roots public participation and planning.

Issue-based workshop modules will be comprised of multiple exhibits, screenings, music, readings and lectures. The modules will address the four dimensions noted above and other important themes as identified by the workshop committee. Examples may include collecting and archiving art and historical records, historic preservation, race and class-based topics, disasters as seminal historic events, and the concept of social vulnerability.

The workshop is viewed as part of an ongoing process and will be conducted annually. Workshop products will include more than written papers given by invited scholars and artists. Given the visual and oral nature of the event, the proceedings will also include video and audio recordings as well as donated works of art, film and other media as identified. In the future, the workshop may result in the generation of community organizing manuals and the creation of a journal focused on the topic of hazards, arts and the humanities. Finally, it is expected that additional products and ideas will emerge from the coming together of the group. Examples may include the creation of traveling exhibits, the development of additional collaborative efforts and suggested changes in existing policies impacting the arts and humanities.

As the planning for the workshop evolves over time, additional stories will follow on the P!N website, highlighting speakers, musicians and others involved in this exciting event.

Gavin Smith, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill