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. Continue reading ‘The Rhetoric of Disaster Planning- Max O. Archer’ »