Just as we were fine-tuning the bells and whistles on this issue, focused on natural disasters, we got word that Oklahoma had been devastated by a tornado. Yesterday, a town called Moore lost two dozen people, nine of them children, to a mile-wide twister.
Schools were crushed. Neighborhoods were flattened. Images like this one, from local TV station KFOR, help us understand the physical scope of the damage. Of the psychological and emotional toll, it’s too early to say anything.
We focused this issue of Acts of Witness, our first under our new name, on natural disasters because our members have covered, and survived, so damn many of them: floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, drought. The communities where we work have been ravaged by nature, by climate change, by sheer whim of the furies. As the news cycle has lately lurched between piqued moments of manmade violence and tragedy, we wanted to take account of survival and healing after loss of a different kind.
This issue is optimistic. Jonathan Katz writes that communities tend to help each other, rather than turn on each other, in moments of crisis. Even as a local TV station reports looting in Oklahoma City, Katz reminds us that in the immediate aftermath of disaster, we almost always get that story wrong. Huascar Robles writes beautifully about confronting his own loss and fear in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. Photographer Al Bello shares images and memories from rebuilding his Queens home not once, but twice, in two years, after two hurricanes. John Moore documents drought, America’s far-reaching, slow-moving disaster. Katie Zezima observes that little things became big losses on the Jersey Shore after Sandy, and Natalie Pompilio rebuilds, literally and figuratively, after Katrina. Kathie Klarreich wonders whether Haitian journalists and their profession will really recover from the earthquake, and Jonathan Katz writes about the strangeness of going on a book tour about your own trauma.
This is also our first issue as Acts of Witness. When we rebranded as the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, to honor our founder, Dr. Frank Ochberg, we thought the magazine should similar draw inspiration from his vision. Frank’s “three acts of trauma” has been a useful model for so many journalists trying to understand not only how to break news, but how to make meaning after tragedy.
Our members do the hard work of Act One journalism – covering traumatic events as those stories develop, while remaining sensitive to the needs of survivors and communities. In this magazine, we focus on Acts Two and Three. Frank writes, “If Act One is about the traumatic event, Act Two is about the victim,” Frank writes. Yet “[s]ometimes there is no healing after horror. … This is Act Three.”
Thankfully, Frank writes, Act Three stories are rare. We won’t shy away from them here, but our territory is largely Act Two. Which is why, in this issue, we’ve found stories not only of tragedy, but of individual and community resilience.
Right now, our members who live in Oklahoma are covering a difficult, painful story. They will live it every day, even as they write about it. Others of our members are on airplanes out there, to bring the images and voices of Moore to a national and international audience concerned about the survivors and the families of the dead. Covering this story will become a story these journalists also live with. Our hearts go out to everyone trying to make meaning after this latest disaster, and we wish our colleagues the same strength and resilience you’ll find in the stories we’ve gathered here.
Thanks for reading.