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Un/Natural Disaster: Katrina-Kashmir

Sunday, February 4, 2007 , 7:00 pm
General admission $5 (no turned away)
DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, Houston , TX 77002

VBB went up against the Super Bowl on February 4 to present Un/Natural Disaster: Katrina Kashmir, even so many community members defied popular culture and came out to attend the show.

Overall, everyone left telling us that the show was powerful and some asked VBB to re-present the show. Below are some emails that we received from audience members:

“I wanted to let you know how grateful I am to you for organizing an event like this and represent the less represented Kashmir. I wish there was more about Kashmir and the suffering that those ppl are still going through due to the earthquake…. I so agree with the idea that we never talk about the emotional and psychological effects of such disasters and once a headline is old, media does not cover it. I really appreciate your effort to bring these issues up.”

Thanks for everything. That was an awesome program. Sunni and Alafia [Baba Ifaldade] blew me away, and Renee's segments were very informative. I thought the interplay and reversal of paradigms -- such as in the theater piece Sehba [Sarwar] and [Osunbunmi Gaidi] were also poignant. The mix of media and performance styles made for a wonderfully woven tapestry, and helped drive home the points made .

Although all pieces of the show were strong, there were few kinks. Due to a poor telephone connection, we were not able to hear the comments of Dr. Siddharth Shah, so we’re adding those for you to read below. Additionally Autumn Leonard’s documentary After the Storm was not shown due to technical problems.

Psychological trauma is made up of physiologic responses to extreme danger, reminders of horror, grief from sudden loss, and the nagging apprehension that you are insecure.   In Kashmir, a mental health coordinator with the World Health Organisation estimated up to 180,000 victims had serious mental disorders, including severe depression, psychosis and crippling anxiety. Half a million face moderate mental problems, such as stress and flashbacks.   

I think part of the reason you've asked me to share my thoughts is my experience with first responders and humanitarian workers in both Kashmir and Katrina disasters.  In my role as director of Psychosocial Assistance Without Borders, I recruited a Pakistani therapist from London and an Indian therapist from New Delhi to train humanitarian aid workers how to deliver psychosocial first aid to the survivors in Bagh, Balakot, Muzaffarbad, and Mansehra.  

Humanitarian workers from the hilly Bagh district woke up at 3:30am in the morning to make the 4 hour journey to attend the training we were giving.   They wanted to know everything possible to serve their populations with psychosocial support because their losses were staggering.      

In the Hurricane Katrina response, I was a consultant to local rescue teams who were assisting the demoralized people of New Orleans.   With NOLA, the pre-disaster neglect of civil society (by which I mean scientists/engineers/politicians) and the differential treatment of poor black residents are emblematic of how marginalized populations are regarded.   The Kashmiris also feel this marginalization from the calculated way in which media glosses over their conditions and the way their governments stonewall relief and assistance.  

Traumatized populations are hindered in their ability to recover and re-build their lives.  A person overcome with trauma cannot execute decisions because of foggy thinking, distrust of the world, and withdrawal.   This is not weak-mindedness or an unwillingness to "just get over it."  The traumatized brain and body are different neurophysiologic entities.   Such a person actually experiences the world and its data differently.  And you can imagine that if high proportions of people are traumatized, then entire families and communities are crippled.    

For marginalized populations, psychological suffering is made even worse in the darkness of neglect and disempowerment.   That nagging apprehension that you are insecure never quite goes away.   

The Katrina period survivors harbor intense depression, alienation, and rage due to the thoughtless complicity of the U.S. government and civil society.    

We know from experience that post-traumatic stress disorder improves dramatically when people can speak about their lives in a forum that listens.   Group interaction and genuine interest are antidotes to the poison of trauma.  In the case of New Orleans and Kashmir, as you can imagine, the neglect pours salt on the psychosocial wounds.   The disempowerment makes rehabilitation a cruel joke.  But an even more bitter truth is that the tragedies of Kashmir and New Orleans were both made worse by human factors and the failure of civil society.  

My colleague Dr. Lareef Zubair, a climate scientist, says "The prevailing meta-narratives of hurricanes and earthquakes are half truths.   The idea that disasters are caused by a faceless, neutral physical force that wipes out unsuspecting populations ignores the human-made factors that worsen the scale of the disaster."  

The vulnerability of New Orleans & Kashmir could have been dramatically reduced if existing laws and policies had been followed and if the lessons learned from past disasters had been heeded. The marginalization of people, the stresses due to poverty, and the cynicism of governments also contributed to the severe death toll.   And now, these very factors deepen the vulnerability to psychosocial dysfunction and mental disorder.  

The meta-narrative of nature's impact being God's will contributes to the vulnerability of the marginalized.  There is little incentive to reduce the vulnerability of those living on the margins; instead, we deprive the poor and rewards failures with funding for governments and relief efforts.  

We as a society must make a plea to enact mechanisms that minimize exposure to such devastation.  This involves mitigation steps such as warning systems, minimum standards of infrastructure, better emergency management systems, adequately funded maintenance, and the need to follow existing procedures.   We also need to empower people with locally relevant science, governance, and social services.  

When I spoke to a fire fighter on the Gulf Coast about working with the victims of Katrina, he simply said "Look, people appreciate us for being here, but they treat us as a scarce resource that could be yanked away from them anytime."   Hearing this, I thought to myself, this is the mindset of a population that doesn't feel it is entitled to minimum services.  This is a population that feels all alone.

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VBB is a multidisciplinary arts organization. Our mission is to
cross borders, sustain dialogue and incite social justice through art.
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