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Humor heals after disasters

Humor can offer post-disaster healing. Many of those dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are seeing that firsthand.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 5, 2006

"A sense of humor is a good sign that people are starting to recover emotionally."

—Jane Yount

Humor can offer post-disaster healing. Hundreds of people along Mississippi's Gulf Coast waited in long lines to buy a copy of the Pascagoula High School choir's parody hit "Downtown Got Run Over by Katrina."

Downtown got run over by Katrina...By a tidal surge you wouldn't believe...You can say there's no such thing as FEMA...But as for us in trailers, we believe...

Christmas is over but the song is still going strong in coastal Mississippi, sung to the tune of Elmo and Patsy's 1979 questionable classic "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

We just bought that brand new sofa...Now it's floating down the street...We lost all our big screen TVs...Now we can walk into the store with bare feet...

In a state with dozens of deaths and tens of thousands of people homeless, not everybody thinks this is funny. In fact, not everybody thinks the original is particularly witty. But enough people are laughing that the choir quickly sold out its supply of about 2,000 CDs - for $5 each - even after imposing a limit of two per person.

Proceeds will help pay for future choir events and help choir members' families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

At least some people in Mississippi are able to laugh in the face of their post-disaster misfortune, said Jane Yount, coordinator of disaster response for the Church of the Brethren's emergency response/service ministries.

"Our teams in Mississippi said they've been hearing it on the radio all the time," said Yount. Like many faith-based groups, Church of the Brethren trains volunteers who repair homes and care for hurricane survivors in other ways.

"A sense of humor is a good sign that people are starting to recover emotionally," theorized Yount.

People on post-disaster sites say they often see humor used as a coping tool. "You see it a lot on the signs that people put on their damaged homes," observed Yount. "Like 'For Sale, Needs TLC' - when there's nothing left but the foundation."

Bill Neely, a Presbyterian pastor who is a trained responder with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said he's also seen humorous signs: "I saw one house after a tornado in Oklahoma. The house was just in shambles and they had that sign out front: 'Looking for Fixer-Upper.' "

What's so funny? There's always a vein of pain - or at least a little grimace - running through post-disaster humor. In one Mississippi yard where the house was completely blown away by Hurricane Katrina, Neely saw another sign: 'Looters will be shot on sight. At least we have some bullets left.'

What's the point of joking around after a disaster? In some ways, it gives you a feeling of control, mused Neely - but only if the jokes come from those affected. "I'm not sure outsiders can come in and make jokes for people," he said. "People in the midst of it have to make their own jokes, they have to find their own humor. Humor is a great way of relieving tension."

Humor as a healing tool is not a new idea, pointed out Melina McLain, a disaster response coordinator for the United Church of Christ.

"People throughout history have used humor, stories, music, dancing to cope with human tragedy," said McLain, who is based in San Francisco. "Tapping into our own creativity makes us feel less powerless. The psychologist Carl Jung said art is the cure for suffering."

McLain also observed that post-disaster humor varies greatly from state to state - and country to country. "If you were in Africa, if there was a disaster, they would dance it out. There were children who had never spoken until they started dancing. But we do less dancing here in the United States."

McLain has been closely monitoring the recent flooding in California. In the wake of that damage, will residents there create a "California Got Run Over by the River" song? McLain doubts it. "The floods up here will produce a different kind of art," she said. "It runs the gamut."

If humor can serve as a healing mechanism, it can also take a hurtful wrong turn following a disaster. A few weeks after the tragic Asian tsunami disaster that killed nearly 300,000 people, a hip-hop radio station in New York - Hot 97 - played a skit with a racist parody song that caused a national public outcry. The disc jockey was fired, and the offensive lyrics seldom show up in print today.

Humor - even when it isn't rife with the racism and bad taste found in the tsunami parody - simply isn't natural or appropriate after every disaster. "There really still is no sense of humor at all around 9/11," mused Peter Gudaitis, executive director of New York Disaster Interfaith Services. "I very much doubt there would be any sense of humor around the Oklahoma City bombing. It's very difficult to say around all disasters that the use of humor will somehow heal wounds."

In fact, humor can take a retaliatory, vengeful flavor, he said. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, not only did hate crimes against Muslims increase - but discriminatory jokes and insults did, too. "That kind of humor would be the tragic byproduct rather than a way of releasing stress," said Gudaitis.

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