“The Response” Passes the Microphone to Disaster-Affected Communities

It isn’t easy to provide nuanced and descriptive reports on natural disasters without taking up a huge amount of time, but The Response manages, with apparent ease, to consider one angle to each of three natural disasters in the United States and thus create a small, tightly edited first season. The Stories to Action Project, a joint effort between Shareable, Transition US, New Stories, and Post Carbon Institute, launched The Response as part of their goal to shine a spotlight on collective, grassroots, community efforts and to counter the dominant narrative that portrays those caught in crisis as only victims. This is powerful, impactful journalism and storytelling that knows this is not just feel-good material, but a statement of hope for those who must bring themselves together in order to survive and thrive and a condemnation of the unwillingness to radically adapt in the face of climate change.

(Disclaimer: I am Puerto Rican and my immediate family was affected by both Hurricane Maria and the subsequent lack of official, governmental aid.)

The Response is a new podcast documentary series exploring the remarkable communities that arise in the aftermath of natural disasters. Spanning the globe, each episode takes a deep dive into a unique location to uncover the remarkable stories that are hidden just beneath the surface of extraordinary events.

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The three episodes cover Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaway Peninsula, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, and all of them angle inward on under-reported grassroots campaigns and community driven aid programs that went ignored by major media. Each episode begins with a segment of a field recording with a storyteller or event who discusses their moment of personal impact from the disaster, be it when they found out or after it had already begun. Host Tom Llewellyn never speculates on their experience, but goes on to explain the disaster’s timeline and some biographical details of the person speaking. The episodes progress from there in a linear timeline, talking about what inspired the campaign, how it got off the ground or increased its reach, and what’s happening with those interviewed people in the present.

I’ll be upfront about this: getting through the episode about Puerto Rico was rough. Natural disasters, especially ones of the magnitude like those discussed in this podcast, have long-lasting and deeply embedded effects on the psyche of affected people and their families, not just on the physical landscape or access to utilities.

Which is why the most important question when approaching The Response is this: is this podcast just disaster porn?

It isn’t.

Derived from Stella Young’s term inspiration porn, a phenomenon where disabled people’s ordinary activities are considered extraordinary simply because of their disability, ‘disaster porn’ exploits the suffering of natural and human-made disaster-affected communities to support a lengthy news cycle, without examining the underlying chronic issues that left them unprepared or underserved. It results in news reportage that is vicariously traumatic. This style of reportage includes talking about people in the community going without basic necessities so, for example, their neighbor can power their dialysis machine, or other similar “feel-good” stories that don’t react to the deeply embedded reasons why that is happening and that often fall prey to internalized racist bias. It can be seen in the 24-hour news cycle, in investigative journalism podcasts and documentaries, and even in the disaster films made in Hollywood—a conspicuous and unexamined consumption of other people’s suffering.

The Response is a respectful, honest look into what communities affected heavily by natural disasters have done to lift each other up and create long-lasting stable change to their infrastructure and government, while also calling out the problems in governmental and official responses to these disasters and keeping to the forefront the voices of the impacted community members. That’s a lot of work to be doing in half-hour episodes, but between experienced field recording and clean and careful interview editing, they provide a thorough and consistent look at these events and responses. Additionally, having only 30-minute episodes, across different disasters, which focus on the response rather than the suffering endured, means cutting down on vicarious trauma and exploitative journalism.

Perhaps most importantly, this season is linked not just in the strength of these organized responses, but by the valid mistrust of and frustration with official services like the Red Cross and FEMA. It cannot be understated how necessary it is to be vocal about the gaps in these services, especially in areas populated densely by people of color or communities of undocumented immigrants. This is a dangerous ground to tread: expecting those impacted to be the only ones to call out the faults in official responses places more burden on them. The Response doesn’t do that; Llewellyn always make sure to validate their commentary or expound on it, as he can, and any clips of actual disaster footage are kept to only a few seconds.

In fact, Llewellyn’s turns between field and interview recordings are uplifting and well-researched the entire way through. Lead writer Robert Raymond has a wonderful turn of phrase that, coupled with Llewellyn’s engaging delivery, keeps The Response both calm and poetic. Take, for instance, part of the opening to the first episode, one of the immediate reasons I knew that I would love listening to Llewellyn and these scripted portions:

It’s […] kind of like what the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen once wrote: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This is a show about those cracks, and the light that shines into them. It’s a show about rupture, about disaster — I mean, literally about disasters, like hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. What can they teach us? What can they reveal?

Occasionally, the bed music to the host segments feels dissonant to his topic or becomes repetitive in noticeable ways. It breaks the immersion of the space they’ve created with field recordings, and sometimes grates if the impression is that something a tad less upbeat is needed, or at least the levels and loop need to be edited so that it doesn’t overshadow Llewellyn’s narration.

Overall, The Response is an answer in and of itself, to mainstream media and to governmental responses to disasters, and it is an answer filled with hope. This is key: it is not a groundless and unrealistic hope, but something rooted in the reality of people’s strengths and determination. The Response is an emotionally moving picture of what humans can accomplish as a community if we care for one another not just at a level of immediate need, but in a structural and long-term relationship, willing to take risks for the more vulnerable. They do not shy away from talking about failure, but equally so, they do not shy away from giving credit exactly where it is due and passing the microphone to voices often silenced in the search for aid.

a drawn image; a man with a clipboard stands in front of a sign that says Occupy Sandy, and behind him, a building that has a sign "you are never alone". A woman is bringing a water pump into the building, and beyond them, a flooded city, up past the wheel wells of a car.

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