Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Julie M. Novak


Companion animals (also referred to as “pets”) are omnipresent in society and, increasingly, many companion animals are considered members of the family unit. However, crisis planning, preparedness, and communication efforts are sparse in including pets and their owners/guardians. This study investigates the disaster experience(s) and sense-making process(es) of pet owners (POs) and animal guardians (AGs) that were affected by the 2017 Hurricane Harvey. More specifically, examination pays close attention to the role and function of PO/AG identity and crisis and risk communication in individuals’ sense-making of their disaster experience. Importantly, participant experiences provide the means to examine the larger context of disaster sense-making processes, the role of identity in disaster sense-making, and how specific populations are impacted by crisis and risk communication (or lack thereof). This study focuses primarily on the individual PO/AG perspective as a means to assess the effectiveness of official/governmental/organizational crisis and risk communication and determine if such communication truly aids all publics. Sense-making methodology (SMM) and the iterative approach were used to ground this research.

Data were gathered using a multi-stage, largely qualitative approach. A non-representative, cross-sectional, self-reported, mixed-method survey (N = 217) was disseminated to Hurricane Harvey-affected POs/AGs. Based on survey responses, a maximum variation sampling technique was used to recruit participants for qualitative semi-structured interviews (n = 30) and one-year post-Harvey follow-ups were also conducted with interviewees (n = 25). Qualitative data were analyzed using the iterative approach and ATLAS.ti software (version 8.1.3) and quantitative data were analyzed using SPSS (version 24). Participants discussed their experience with Hurricane Harvey, explicating the steps as to what happened, relationships and impacts of power that they saw present within the scene, the value of formal and informal information, and how they bridged communication gaps that they faced. Participants further detailed the role of information and communication, what they considered to be “helps” and “hindrances” to their sense-making, how and why PO/AG identity influenced their informational needs, and their sense-making outcomes. Implications are discussed as related to relevant and timely crisis and risk communication, the importance of micro-level research within the field, the role of identity in disaster sense-making, and the importance of critically examining power and ideology within crisis and risk communication research and practice.

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