Pray for the true survivors: Identification and rhetorical agency in Hurricane Katrina survivor narratives



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When the levees broke in August 2005, New Orleans changed, as did the United States’ approach to disaster management: to victims of natural disasters and to programs designed to help during tragedy. Katrina’s legacy has been far reaching, but frequently those most affected by the event had the least say in how their experiences were presented. Mainstream media, politicians, researchers, filmmakers, and others determined how these stories should be represented. One resource offered an opportunity for Katrina survivors to share their own stories: The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB). Through this archive, thousands of digital objects, including written and audio narratives, photographs, poetry, videos, and other texts have been collected.

This study uses the theory of rhetorical listening, centering on concepts of identification, disidentification, and non-identification, to evaluate the rhetorical agency afforded narrators through the HDMB. Sampling a collection of narratives from the archive, I determined the identifications that narrators selected for themselves, finding themes that centered on evacuation, loss, recovery, and the media. Although these identifications are reflected in the stories created by Katrina survivors, I argue that these identifications are both internally and externally influenced, complicating the notion of rhetorical agency for trauma survivors. One influencing factor is the archive itself which, intentionally or unintentionally, constrains the narratives that are shared.



Hurricane Katrina, Digital archives, Rhetorical agency, Identity, Identification