Reunion Island is a real open-air laboratory of natural hazards. Its inhabitants live under the threat of seven natural perils. Can the memory of past disasters help build true collective resilience? This is the question that Francisca Espinoza, a Doctor of Sociology and Psychosociology and a member of the Institut pour l’histoire et la mémoire de catastrophes (IHMEC), is trying to answer.

What is the memory of disasters?

Francisca Espinoza: The memory of disasters can be understood as a set of representations of the past, composed of individual or shared memories and forgetfulness. It feeds the culture of risk through the teachings of past experiences. However, we know from climate historians that it is short-lived. Often, disaster victims say, ‘We had never seen that before!’ whereas historians simultaneously note that similar events had already occurred in the past in these same places. In my research, I have distinguished three ways of remembering disasters, based on their potential for action in terms of resilience. First, passive memory, which is imposed, is insufficient to change behaviour; it is somehow dormant. Traumatic memory is the one that makes people suffer, that prevents them from recovering and instead pushes them to want to turn the page: it is, in a way, a ‘past that does not pass’. Finally, active memory can be a lever to prepare for and anticipate future crises. Of course, it is when the memory of disasters is active that it can serve the culture of risk and resilience.

How do you explain this capacity for forgetfulness in the face of such significant events?

FE: Maybe it is a psychic defence mechanism. The issue of resilience, the ability to recover from a shock, also deserves critical examination. This is a real injunction: we must recover, rebuild ourselves! Nevertheless, by over-inducing the victim to bounce back quickly and without the appropriate support, we also sidestep the psychological risk, bury the trauma … and that may ultimately be detrimental to the memory of the disaster and therefore to the culture of risk. I was very surprised to learn that no CUMP (Medical-Psychological Emergency Unit) had ever been mobilised during the disasters that struck Reunion Island. The psychological dimension seems to have been ignored, kept at a distance, perhaps even forgotten. The risk is that some victims remain with their suffering, which can disturb them permanently.

What did you observe at Saint-Paul?

FE: Saint-Paul is a municipality in the North-West of Reunion Island that has many natural hazards, including the risk of flooding, landslides, forest fires, swells, tsunamis… Risks that are seldom mentioned, little known, or forgotten by the population I encountered. Indeed, in Saint-Paul, it is the cyclone that occupies the greatest place in the collective memory of disasters. A very special place: the cyclone is represented as a normal phenomenon, sometimes fascinating and even often positive. It is credited with many virtues. It cleans gullies, fills water tables, and even gets rid of miasmas and diseases. This belief can be traced back to a century-old event, when the passage of a cyclone coincided with the end of the Spanish flu. ‘We need a good cyclone…’ or ‘It’s like doing the big spring cleaning, a cyclone, it cleans up…’ are phrases taken from interviews with residents.

These representations can be a strength, since they feed the culture of risk. Generally speaking, the cyclone is a risk that is accepted and integrated by the population, which knows the behaviours to adopt in case of occurrence. There is therefore a relationship of cohabitation between the people of Reunion and the cyclone, where the latter finds a utility, a meaning that probably makes it more acceptable. However, it is also a vulnerability insofar as it leads to an underestimation of the danger of cyclonic events by trivialising them. The ancestors were terrified of cyclones. Today, people from Saint-Paul express a sense of security due to the evolution of habitats, improved weather forecasts, and warning systems. But what would be left of this assurance in the event of a prolonged power outage and a breakdown in communication systems?

How can we make this memory active and useful in preparing for future disasters?

FE : The importance of this collective memory is recognised by the actors of prevention. The Red Cross has done important work with the Paré pas paré project, now in the hands of the Éducation nationale; which will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the culture of risk for future generations.

But this work could be better handled by the public authorities. This might involve the development of memory markers, such as historical media, ruins or flood markers. A destroyed church in Saint-André could, for example, be a place of memory. To this day, it carries only a small commemorative plaque. In order for memory to influence behaviour, it must be alive, updated, staged. The use of artists from the island—visual artists, actors, musicians, photographers or graffiti artists—might be an avenue to explore, because it is essential that these media take creative, innovative forms that appeal to the public, and touch precisely on the sensitive dimension by means of art and culture. It is about creating shared memories. Anniversary commemorations are also conducive to these purposes through, for example, the witness accounts of disaster victims. They promote bonds of solidarity and the construction of a local memory. In contrast to externally imposed models, the memory of disasters has the advantage of contextualising resilience, based on knowledge of the history of the events that have struck the territories. In doing so, it reconciles experts and residents, in a mutual recognition that lays the foundations for a co-constructed, localised and adapted resilience.