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The Rhetoric of Disaster Planning- Max O. Archer

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The record of disasters in American culture provides evidence of the high stakes in planning response procedures. In the United States alone, over 1700 disasters have been declared since 1953 (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2007). The tragic losses experienced in events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina reveal the extent to which communities have suffered from inadequate responses. These losses have been effected by disaster planning documents, most notably among them, the National Response Plan drafted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2004. Because these planning documents influence the public thinking and actions of a diverse audience, critically examining these documents as rhetorical texts is a significant social assignment for communication scholars.

This paper performs a fantasy theme analysis of the rhetoric of disaster planning in order to determine how rhetors situate their audience(s) around particular ideas and motives. The critic reveals that the arguments surrounding the National Response Plan structure the way citizens and officials manage disasters. By using fantasy themes to dramatize the collective experience of its audience, the Department of Homeland Security creates a rhetorical vision that disaster response agencies are rational, capable actors, worthy of the public’s trust and authority to implement the necessary emergency response procedures for crises in the United States.

Disasters and their responses afterwards arise within an “eminently social” context worthy of rhetorical analysis (Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 2002, p. 12). The planning documents for such events are rhetorical texts which are laden with messages used to describe what constitutes a disaster and the procedures used to respond. First Responders such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement officers use disaster planning documents as a map to guide their responsibilities on the ground when a disaster breaks out. Elected officials use disaster plans and the testimony of emergency management agencies as evidence of the government’s forethought (or lack thereof) in catastrophic events since these officials often have very little practical experience in handling crises on the scale described by theses plans (Rodriguez & Dynes, 2006). And ordinary citizens recognize the plan as a “badge of rationality” (Clarke, 1999, p. 16), proof that “the powers that be” have our interests and safety in mind. Each of these audience members develops their understanding of how disasters should unfold and how the nation should respond through the rhetorical content of the disaster plan. More work must be done to examine the arguments used by these texts to motivate these audiences to act in ways consistent with the disaster response plan.

Clarke (1999, p. 136) and this critic argue that the assumptions and vocabularies used by organizations in disaster planning need to be rethought since those assumptions play an important role in how responses unfold. A rhetorical focus on disasters is warranted by a glance at the past collaboration between FEMA, the lead federal disaster response agency within DHS, and the scholarly field of communication. In FEMA’s

Disciplines, Disasters and Emergency Management textbook, provided free of charge to teach courses in a variety of disciplines (McEntire, 2006, preface), Richardson and Byers argue that our discipline’s contribution to emergency management lies in the call to “consider communication’s symbolic functions particularly within disasters contexts” (p. 19). This critic makes this contribution by offering a critique which draws attention to the rhetorical dimensions of the National Response Plan and disaster planning in general.

Now that it is understood what is at stake in the study of communication issues in disaster response, the remainder of this paper will describe and evaluate the rhetoric of disaster planning through fantasy theme analysis. The next section builds the case for focusing on the symbolic dimensions of disaster planning by describing the rhetorical artifact in question and the method of rhetorical criticism performed by this paper. The critic will then analyze of the rhetorical features contained by the specific artifact, describing and evaluating the use of fantasy themes which contribute to the creation of a rhetorical vision put forth by the rhetor to the audience. A discussion of the implications of this study on communication as a discipline and fantasy theme analysis as a method will conclude the critique.

Artifact & Methodology

Lee Clarke’s (1999) analysis shows how disaster plans function symbolically to communicate about the capacity for disaster response organizations to act responsibly when a disaster strikes. Plans are a language, a rhetoric directed at bringing the audience into a relationship with the rhetor where the symbolic meaning of reality is shared (Clarke, 1999, p. 13). Obviously disaster plans also have some functional application; they direct responsibilities to specific actors and provide guidelines for resource acquisition, resource use and scenario planning. But, because of the ever-present threat of danger, disaster plans have become mere “fantasy documents” put forth to signal the rhetor’s ability to control danger (Clarke, 1999, p. 16). While the specifics of any one catastrophic event may be different in terms of location, scope of impact, number of deaths and injuries, etc., disaster plans function as fantasy documents by communicating the forethought and expertise of the officials who create them. By ratifying the plan through a willingness to accept the procedures as described rhetorically, the audience comes into symbolic agreement with the rhetor about the nature of risks and the responses used by a community. Because these fantasy documents have symbolic content taken for granted in their functional implementation, this paper chooses fantasy theme analysis to unpack the baggage contained in the discourse of disaster planning.

The National Response Plan is the playbook created by the federal government to coordinate multi-agency response to disasters that may break out in the United States. The 426 page document details the responsibilities, actions and activities of all federal agencies involved in the response to a catastrophic event. The National Response Framework, the upcoming successor to the National Response Plan, is currently under consideration (DHS, 2007), so careful, critical analysis may help us know what to expect from the new document and give us insight as to where we have been in regards to disaster planning. Because the Plan i itself is far beyond the scope of the present assignment, this critic focuses on the Plan’s accompanying “Fact Sheet,” the document used as a summary and quick reference point for any interested party not desiring to read the entire plan itself.

The Fact Sheet (artifact) was released on January 6, 2005 by the Department’s Press Office. While the entire Plan is signed off by each agency involved in federal response to disasters, for the purposes of the present analysis, the rhetor is identified as the Department of Homeland Security because its press office released the text undergoing criticism. The 3 page summary of the Plan describes the emphasis on protocols, coordination and objectives of the federal agencies, an “all-hazards” set of priorities continuously updated to meet new challenges that may arise. Any one of the Capital “P” is used to distinguish the actual National Response Plan from the abstract idea of a plan audience members who has even an inkling of interest in the National Response Plan would likely encounter the arguments put forth by the Fact Sheet. The present analysis is interested in what the rhetoric contained in the artifact has to say about the National Response Plan specifically and disaster planning in general. Analyzing the Fact Sheet assists the critic in identifying fantasy themes and the rhetorical vision communicated by disaster response agencies through planning documents.

Fantasy theme analysis is a method of rhetorical criticism that looks at the way rhetors link audiences with motives presupposed by the rhetor. Rhetorical analysis of text searches for fantasy themes that create a rhetorical vision which brings the audience into symbolic convergence over some aspect of social reality (Bormann, 1982). The critic is concerned with how rhetors use the manifest content of their artifacts to connect the audience members with some past experience that the group has shared and/or a future ideal world that the group hopes to create (Bormann, 1972). To put it another way, fantasy theme analysis looks at how ideas of what is true, appropriate or reasonable are rhetorically woven into texts that aim to bring outsiders to some level of symbolic agreement about the nature of whatever it is the rhetor is communicating about, whether that communication is a description of social reality, the limits of permissible behaviors under such a reality or some other mode of action.

The proper selection of fantasy themes allows the rhetor to dramatize values and attitudes in order to create and sustain an audience’s sense of community, petitioning them to act by providing a rhetorical vision that sparks a common response amongst the group members (Bormann, 1972). An effective use of dramatization makes the rhetorical vision seem like a coping mechanism that protects the group members from “anxieties aroused by times of trouble” (Bormann, 1982, p. 292). A common set of assumptions about social reality must be created for the rhetor to bring the audience on board for whatever motive the rhetor has in mind, so that the audience understands reality from the perspective of the rhetor and acts in ways the rhetor desires. Such assumptions are revealed by cataloging, describing and evaluating the fantasy themes contained within the artifact. The accumulation of such fantasy themes weaves itself throughout the text to create a rhetorical vision that the audience is invited to take part in through the action motivated by the speaker.

The study of the rhetoric of disaster planning through the lens provided by fantasy theme analysis is important since “communication is the means by which the community makes and implements plans and interprets [the plans'] success and failure” (Bormann, 1982, p. 292). Contained within the text of the National Response Plan and its Fact Sheet are fantasy themes, ideas used to structure the way that the public and officials understand and respond to disasters. Using fantasy theme analysis

to map the rhetorical vision contained within the artifact is particularly significant since the artifact is said to represent the procedures that federal agencies will follow when disaster strikes.


This study examines the Fact Sheet for evidence of two types of fantasy themes Bormann (1972) identifies in his seminal work: fantasy themes which connect audience members with a shared past experience and fantasy themes that connect the audience with the dream of an ideal future (p. 243). The designers of disaster plans aim to convince the public that response agencies are capable of taming the wild and unforeseen risks which threaten communities, thus asking the audience to buy into a shared fantasy centered around the rhetor’s interpretation of shared past experiences and future probabilities. The only way these agencies can portray themselves as legitimate public servants is by creating a world of certainty, where access to credible information creates better theories to build plans, policies and procedures (Clarke, 1999, p. 3). Analyzing the Fact Sheet for fantasy themes helps illuminate the rhetorical vision of disaster planning by examining the public basis used by the DHS to communicate about the risk of disasters and the responses involved at the federal level.

Reading the text for fantasy themes which express an interpretation of a shared past experience yields many insightful results. This is not surprising given the tendency for planning organizations to create “apparent affinities,” rhetorical mechanisms used to express theories that assume a catastrophic possibility is sufficiently like something we already know (Clarke, 1999, p. 14). Searching for fantasy themes that connect the audience with a shared past experience, this critic uses the term “apparent affinities” to critique from Bormann’s (1982) “place for programs of research in which teams of scholars explore issues on a broad front from the same theoretical perspective and that requires that they use the same technical vocabulary” (p. 300). Weaving together Clarke and Bormann, the critic uses the same technical vocabulary as the previous work on disaster discourse which sees apparent affinities as fantasy themes of a shared past experience.

The opening paragraph of the artifact provides evidence of such an apparent affinity by identifying the National Response Plan as a “comprehensive all-hazards approach” (para. 1). Identifying the Plan in in this way allows the rhetor to transform the uncertainty of any particular disaster event into a generic risk that can be controlled and managed by disaster response agencies with authority and certainty. This paradigm, Clarke points out (1999, p. 74), may “normalize danger” by creating the illusion of an organization’s actual capacity to act effectively, when in reality planners lack the required knowledge to act with certainty. This is because, even if there are twenty wildfires in the spread of two weeks, each of fire, while somewhat similar based on Santa Ana wind conditions, will actually be radically different based on the location where the fire breaks out, the resources in that community and a variety of other conditions that dictate the fire’s behavior. The “all-hazards” label in this text communicates the rational basis DHS uses for its disaster planning documents: by framing its purview and management capacity as inclusive of all possible risks, DHS invites the audience’s emotional ratification of the Plan. Sharing the expectation that the Plan, the play book, has accounted for all possibilities is designed to make the audience feel confident that disaster planners have considered everything from the worst-case scenario down to everyday occurrences.

The artifact goes on to state that the Plan is “updated…based on lessons learned from exercises and actual events” (para. Maintaining). This apparent affinity appeals to a shared past experience by allowing DHS to call upon the audience’s perception of successes and failures and reshaping as learning opportunities. Whereas the lessons we have learned from 9/11 and Katrina might well be that disaster response techniques are an utter failure, the artifact’s declaration that the play book will be maintained by the capable hands of DHS, FEMA and other disaster response agencies gives the Plan a scent of authority that is seductive and potentially overpowering. The audience is led to believe that everything that they know, saw or experienced in disaster situations has been noted by “the powers that be” and that planning has been or will be tweaked to prevent those “freak” occurrences from ever happening again.

The claim to incorporate the “best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines” (para. 1) connects the audience with a shared image of credible expertise. Though arrived at through very different standards for judgment, this convergence of opinion contributes to a construction of authority that is significant from a rhetorical perspective because Bormann (1982) notes that “discursive argument requires a common set of assumptions about the nature of reality” (p. 292). The fact that DHS is able to represent its Plan as the ultimate symbol of inter-subjective agreement makes the document appear of the utmost perfection in terms of precision and credibility. We have all been there watching continuous media coverage of a disaster event. Expert after expert appears on the screen, giving their take on what is unfolding. The seismologist has a different perspective from the geologist, who disagrees with the geographer, who agrees to some extent with the city planner. Each of these takes, in a time of chaos, is laden with different graphics, vocabularies and experiences, but somehow, in the case of this Plan, the audience is led to believe all of these differences have been organized to fit into a neat little package of 426 pages. This inter-subjective convergence, built upon what the audience considers to be credible sources of information, contributes towards the artifact’s rhetorical vision.

Identifying the objective of “reduc[ing]…disruptions to the American way of life” (para. 1) forms another critical connection to the past, as Bormann (1972, p. 244) notes that “dramatis personae and typical plot lines that can be alluded to” with ease are important fantasy themes because of the common cultural presumption of priority. Here DHS dramatizes the values of the typical American life around myths the audience member holds near and dear to heart. While reading the artifact’s rhetorical arguments, the audience member is led to believe that the American way of life is being alive and safe from terrorism and disasters, having a strong state of physical and mental health, possessing property in a sustainable environment, based on the objectives listed prior to the identifier “American way of life.” Themes which allude to the ideal American dream of safety and security draw the audience into a shared vision of what it means to be American. Such a broad brush is: Cutter (2005) argues that while the organizational failures of Katrina may be rectified by quick reforms (such as the forthcoming National Response Framework), addressing the “failures of the social support systems of America’s impoverished…requires much more time, resources and the political will to redress social inequities” (para. 2). Cutter’s argument supports the case that the rhetoric of disaster planning is grounded in such fantasy themes which allude to a shared past in order to bring the audience into symbolic convergence with the rhetor.

Finally, the way the Fact Sheet identifies events that fit within the purview of the Plan says something unique about the past experience this audience is urged to deploy. Defining “catastrophic incidents as high-impact, low-probability

incidents” (para. Timely) measures the play book’s intentions in relation to what we already know about disasters. High-impact in relation to what? Low-probability based on what data? This interpretation of what must happen before the Plan goes into effect is a critical rhetorical decision. As seen in the case of Katrina, whether or not to get the federal ball rolling in disaster response has substantial material and social consequences. Seeing how the rhetor views what is and what is not a disaster is important to mapping out the rhetorical vision contained in a disaster planning text since the rhetor’s view determines the entire subject matter of the procedures described by the plan.

The fantasy themes contained by constructing the Plan as an “all-hazards approach” that builds upon “lessons learned from exercises and actual events” by the best and brightest experts in the “incident management disciplines” in order to protect the “American way of life” from “catastrophic events” constructs a rhetorical vision that disasters are isolated phenomena that break out in predictable ways. Though fundamentally different from crisis to crisis, this artifact leads the audience to believe that the government is capable of saying with certainty what is a disaster, what is needed to respond and what the end point of that response will be by drawing upon the shared past experiences alluded to by these apparent affinities. DHS is able to claim its authority to respond by pointing to the past, claiming it has changed and moving on into the future. The remaining sets of fantasy themes aid the last part of this rhetorical vision: moving on to bigger and better things.

The expressed purpose, that the Plan is meant to “enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents,” is a fantasy theme which connects the audience with the dream of an ideal future. Here the artifact communicates that DHS and its agencies have an ability that can be enhanced. Because we have learned from previous analysis that the disaster response community has given its input based on the most credible evidence possible, Americans are led to believe past failures can be avoided. Such a belief can be dangerously misleading, as Rodriguez and Dynes (2006) point out that “the idea that this is the location of someone who is commanding those organizations in their activities and is in control of the incident is out of touch with reality and the events that are taking place” (para. 20). Enhancement of America’s capability to respond is distinguished here from eliminating all possibilities for disaster, so that the audience sees itself as a participant in a process of continued growth, progress and improvement towards a more efficient and organized response.

The claim to integrate the knowledge of a variety of incident management approaches under a “unified structure” (para. 1) is another attempt to present the Plan as a cohesive unit backed by sound experience and judgment. Unification of resources is equated with efficient operation, an essential characteristic DHS must display to maintain face in light of past responses that suffered operational difficulties. Coordinating the response with local, state, tribal and private sector parties makes the future look radically different from the days immediately following Katrina, when every level of government seemed hell-bent on passing the buck and looking the other way as millions suffered along the Gulf Coast. In the case of Katrina, Rodriguez and Dynes (2006) show out that “there was also an initial tendency to describe FEMA as the organizational location for a national 911 phone number,” a “misunderstanding…[which] added to the perception of the lack of help” (para. 14). In the case of the Fact Sheet, the assumption that the government will coordinate its response on the basis of the procedures in the Plan may give the audience a false sense of security when the worst case actually materializes. Portraying the response as coordinated is an important means of constructing an ideal future for the audience by making the audience feel as if it has a place in this “unified structure” through the simple vocalization of a demand for coordination.

The two fantasy themes analyzed by this criticism reinforce each other through their recurrent performance (Bormann, 1982). Shared past experience combined with a dream of an ideal future evoke the emotional ratification of the audience, who is led to believe that the rhetor has learned everything possible about past successes and failures and has implemented reforms to overcome all of the previous operational difficulties. The rhetorical vision articulated is marked by the recurring references to authority and certainty. Authority is critical for DHS to gain public support to construct the plans it sees necessary to respond decisively. Certainty is important as well since the assumption DHS know what will happen and how the response will take place is how the rhetor invites the audience into symbolic convergence.

The rhetorical vision articulated by disaster planning “consists of characters, real or fictitious, playing out a dramatic situation in a setting removed in time and space from the here-and-now transactions of the group” (Bormann, 1972, p. 242). The characters of the Plan, disaster response agencies, are portrayed as performing rational acts meant to protect the values and activities that Americans cherish dearly. The setting is far removed from the here-and-now by this rhetoric because the audience is supposed to believe that somehow the future of disaster response will be categorically different from the ways the audience has been betrayed in the past. The end point of such rhetorical vision is not difficult to imagine: the empty promise of better coordination and more informed response turns out to be another pipe dream. While such a value judgment is difficult to render on the basis of this critique alone, the truth may not so far away if critics recognize that the National Response Plan was created nearly a year before the catastrophic failure of federal response experienced during Hurricane Katrina.


This critique fulfills the call of Richardson and Byers (2006, p. 19) to recognize the symbolic functions of communication in the context of disasters. Because the acceptance of risk in a community is “fundamentally…negotiated” (Clarke, 1999, p. 169) around the rhetoric of planning, this critique takes the fantasy out of fantasy documents to reveal how the construction of authority and certainty underlies important decisions made by disaster planning agencies on our behalf. The use of fantasy theme analysis in this paper illuminates a text with important social status because the artifact reveals the arguments used to advance the nation’s highest level of disaster planning. Illuminating the symbols contained within the artifact enables the rhetorical critic to apprehend claims to rational action used in the context of disaster response and beyond by recognizing how fantasy themes mutually reinforce one another to create a vision of certainty and authority which may never be obtainable, given the unpredictability of omnipresent risks in communities.

This critique furthers the goal of Bormann (1982) who claims that a “taxonomy of rhetorical visions makes possible the comparative analysis across visions and is one way to discover recurrent patterns and significant forms” (p. 303). By cataloging, describing and evaluating the themes used in the rhetoric of disaster planning, fantasy theme analysis is able to make comparative judgments about how disasters, which are supposedly uncommon, “freakish,” extraordinary occurrences, relate to the everyday construction of fantasies in public discourse. Discovery of how images of the ideal American life are woven into the fabric of government documents urges caution and skepticism on the part of the audience when such texts are presented under the guise of expertise and legitimacy.


This paper looks at the modern American condition, where catastrophic events are increasingly frequent and severe, to situate a critique of planning discourse which propagates authority and certainty in an unpredictable world of risk. Description of this condition aided the critic in responding to the call of communication scholars to link up with the practical and interdisciplinary discussion of disaster response. By using fantasy theme analysis to reveal the “eminently social” (Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 2002, p. 12) dimension of disaster planning rhetoric, the critic was able to discern how fantasy themes of the past and future mutually constitute a rhetorical vision of certainty and authority that often fails to materialize when the worst case becomes reality. Using arguments from the text of the artifact, literature surrounding the topic of criticism and the cultural context in which the artifact functions, this paper argues for a greater emphasis on the rhetoric of disaster planning as a way to further both the study of communication and the implementation of effective disaster response procedures.


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