Monday, August 24, 2015

Nine Scholars on the Lessons of Katrina

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast and precipitated the flooding of New Orleans. It was a towering catastrophe by any standard. Some 1,800 persons were killed outright. More than a million were forced to relocate, many for the remainder of their lives. A city of five hundred thousand was nearly emptied of life. The storm stripped away the surface of our social structure and showed us what lies beneath—a grim look at race, class, and gender in these United States. 
It is crucial to get this story straight so that we may learn from it and be ready for that stark inevitability, the next time. When seen through a social science lens, Katrina informs us of the real human costs of a disaster and helps prepare us for the blows that we know are lurking just over the horizon. The Katrina Bookshelf is the result of a national effort to bring experts together in a collaborative program of research on the human costs of the disaster. The program was supported by the Ford, Gates, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage Foundations and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. This is the most comprehensive social science coverage of a disaster to be found anywhere in the literature. It is also a deeply human story. 
— Kai Erikson, editor of The Katrina Bookshelf
The Katrina Bookshelf will contain ten volumes to be published through the year 2017. To highlight the important work contained within each work published thus far, we asked our authors to comment on what they hope we as a nation will take away from marking the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Below are important, evidence-based lessons gleaned from years of research.


Disasters of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina reveal the deep-seated, taken-for-granted inequities that structure our everyday lives. Typically, the actions of both government and business elites in the response and recovery after a disaster reproduce and even enhance those inequities.

In the immediate chaos and sense of urgency after a massive disaster, new resourcesmonetary as well as human—rush in, and the regulations and processes for spending public funds that normally require responsible oversight and accountability are washed away. Priorities are set and programs implemented that most often leave out the voices, experiences, and needs of the most vulnerable—single mothers and their children, low-moderate income people, renters, the aged, the disabled, people of color—while benefitting the already privileged.

To achieve true recovery for everyone, not just gains for a few, we must include vulnerable populations and their advocates in our decision making. Listening to the stories and observing the experiences of more than 500 displaced persons and dozens of first responders, service providers, community organizers, government officials, and residents, for example, our research group, 12 scholars in 13 different receiving communities across the country, found that the central need both in the disaster area and in the diaspora was for housing. In addition to the immediate need for safe, temporary housing, people needed long-term, affordable housing that enabled them to live in community and provided transportation to employment and access to social services, health care, and schools.

Recovery for everyone depends on developing housing policy that provides faster and more effective rebuilding assistance to rental property owners –especially to those with fewer than 6 units, prioritizes consolidating kin/community networks, includes incentives for rebuilders to hire returning residents, and offers access to employment and community services.
At a more structural/political level, we must uncouple disaster-resource prioritization, allocation, and distribution processes from unchecked control by government/corporate elites. And we must include significant input from the least powerful yet most affected people in local communities and require transparency and long-term accountability in the use of public funds.
— Lynn Weber
Evacuation, Displacement, and Prolonged Recovery
I think one of the most important lessons of Katrina is related to the enduring nature of the disruption that this terrible disaster caused. “Evacuation” suggests the movement of persons from a threatened location to a temporary safe haven. That was, indeed, the experience of many residents who had to leave New Orleans but were able find safe haven, locate secure shelter, and establish a sense of routine relatively quickly. 
But for tens of thousands of other survivors, Katrina’s aftermath was radically different and the disruption in their lives is ongoing. These individuals and households often made several moves in the weeks, months, and years following Katrina. They were the survivors who often bounced from a shelter, to a family member’s home, back to a shelter, to a trailer, to a motel, to temporary housing, to different temporary housing, to a homeless shelter, back to temporary housing… and on, and on, and on.
Those who experienced the most instability were also the ones who were often living in the most precarious circumstances before the storm. For them, Katrina has come to represent the disaster with no end. There is no thinking of it as a discrete event, bounded in time and space. Instead, this is the ongoing disaster that continues to ripple through their lives.
Anyone who has visited New Orleans and the rest of the battered Gulf Coast in the years since the storm would likely acknowledge that much progress has been made in restoring particular places that were badly damaged. Just as that work of rebuilding the physical infrastructure is ongoing, however, I would argue that we also need to continue to restore the lives of the people who were most affected. So on this tenth anniversary of Katrina, my hope is that we continue to focus on and invest in those most affected by the storm—both those who have returned to their former homes as well as those who permanently relocated elsewhere. If we do this, and we do it right, we will need to continue dedicating time, care, and resources to the systems that help people function effectively and live happier, healthier, more prosperous lives.
— Lori Peek

More info
Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora
Through an extensive research network, Displaced features the work of 12 scholars who interviewed 562 displaced adults and children; 104 first responders, service providers, and community organizers; and 101 other residents in the communities where Katrina survivors landed.

Lynn Weber is Professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, has for thirty years been a leader in developing the field of intersectionality—examining the nexus between race, class, gender, and other dimensions of social inequality. Her current work focuses on revealing inequalities in the process of recovery from disaster and in health outcomes.

Lori Peek is associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. She is author of the award-winning book Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11, co-author of Children of Katrina, and co-editor of Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.


I think Katrina was a national disgrace, but one that also presented an opportunity. As many in the mass media pointed out at the time, Katrina exposed the dark side of the United States, its poverty and historically and institutionally-rooted racism to full public view. Katrina made public what Michael Harrington famously called 'the other America'. 
Amid all the suffering and hand-wringing there was the possibility to refocus a national political agenda to acknowledge and to deal with these two foundational issues in a nation that prides itself on its moral goodness, as well as its wealth and ingenuity. That opportunity was never taken and while New Orleans, the site of so much attention during the storm, may have recovered to a degree and its flood protection system strengthened, the poverty and racism remain in place. 
This is a national issue, not merely a regional one and it is this issue that I would hope the current commemorations and discussion would tackle. There is a direct line to be drawn from Katrina to the current Black Lives Matter movement and with this mass movement, a new opportunity.
— Ron Eyerman
More info

Using cultural trauma theory, Is This America? explores how a wide range of media and popular culture producers have challenged the meaning of Katrina, in which the massive failure of government officials to uphold the American social contract exposed the foundational racial cleavage in our society.

Ronald Eyerman is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. His previous books include Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity and Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering.

Cultural Communication

Katrina swept away the contents of every home in St. Bernard Parish, the worst hit area, where 67,000 structures were damaged or destroyed including all of those belonging to the 300-plus members of the Johnson-Fernandez family. Now, ten years later, we wonder: what does such unexpected loss and suffering have to teach us?

For nearly nine years after the storm, I researched this African-American family from the bayou outside the city of New Orleans. The central insight of this work is unmistakeable: suffering among family members was not primarily about material loss. It was about the loss of control, a hardship imposed by outsiders who took charge of a world they intended to help but knew nothing about.

These outsiders were ignorant of local styles of communication, local forms of personal initiative and self-reliance, local types of family, and local ways of expressing community. At a time of dire distress for the entire kinship network, the template for recovery left family members feeling invisible, without agency or recourse to their cultural sources of strength and without the ear of anyone who would listen. Rather than providing relief, recovery institutions piled on hardships and ignored what could have empowered people to help themselves. The people representing these institutions meant to help, but paving the road to recovery with good intentions did unintended harm. A lack of attention to the cultural gaps that separated recovery authorities from local residents created real damage. 
And so, among Katrina’s many lessons, the one I believe offers the most potential to speed recovery and lessen suffering involves attention to the fundamental role of culture. Disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. Irrespective of our progress to mitigate their occurrence, large numbers of people around the world will be forced to confront unexpected ruin every year. That’s why the stakes of this insight are big. 
— Katherine E. Browne
More info
Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort, and Coming Home after Katrina is a long-term ethnographic study of how the Katrina disaster and recovery affected an African American extended family.

Katherine E. Browne is a professor of anthropology at Colorado State University. She has published two previous books and produced two documentary films, including Still Waiting: Life After Katrina, which also portrays the family in this book. It has been broadcast on PBS stations in the United States and Canada.

What Katrina Represents 

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans it is worth reflecting on a little reported but potent symbolic act. In May of 2006, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) retired the name “Katrina” in recognition of the carnage and ruin she precipitated. 
The WMO based its decision on the widespread loss of life and overwhelming damage to housing, businesses, and surrounding environments. It is far easier, of course, for the WMO to retire the name “Katrina” than it is for survivors and those who care about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to retreat from what she has come to represent: the infuriating incompetence of those who were responsible for responding intelligibly and honestly to this totalizing disaster. 
Take, for example, a sensationalist press more interested in reporting apocryphal tales of murder, rape, and looting than helping the world see the ways shared misery can bring out the best in people. For the plain fact is: in the hurricane that was Katrina, tenderheartedness trumped cruelty. Why, we ask, does the wrong narrative become the dominant story? 
Or, reflect for a moment on the uncounted miscarriages of justice in the administration of the Road Home Program. And we must never forget how a new urban geography was created in part out of the willful wreckage of New Orleans public housing complexes. Brick and iron, they stood strong against the wind and water. But no matter, powerful business and government interests colluded with the fog of disaster to lay claim to these urban spaces that quartered the working poor in a modicum of dignity. And the list goes on. For those of us who care about one another and the spaces we inhabit, “Katrina,” we dare say, will never retire. 
— Steve Kroll-Smith, Vern Baxter, and Pam Jenkins
More info
Left to Chance: Hurricane Katrina and the Story of Two New Orleans Neighborhoods presents vivid, firsthand accounts illuminate the immediate, mid-range, and long-term effects of Katrina in two African American neighborhoods.

Steve Kroll-Smith is currently a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He was formerly a research professor at the University of New Orleans.

Vern Baxter is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of New Orleans.

Pam Jenkins is a research professor of sociology and a faculty member in the women’s studies program at the University of New Orleans.

Children and Trauma

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we would like the nation to think about the children who were affected by that terrible storm, and the many other children living at risk to hazards. With that in mind, we would like to take this opportunity to share some of what we learned about children and their vulnerability in Hurricane Katrina.

We researched children for seven years after Katrina; during that long stretch, one thing was clear: disasters last a long time in the lives of children and youth. There was no magical day when they woke up and declared themselves “recovered.” There is no clear end point. Recovery is a long process.

So, what happened to children in Katrina? What did their post-disaster lives look like?

We studied hundreds of children between the ages of 3 and 18, all of whom were displaced after the storm and flooding that followed. Our work showed that children followed three possible trajectories after Katrina.

In the Declining Trajectory, the children experienced simultaneous and ongoing disruptions in their families, housing, schooling, access to health care, friendships, and other key areas of their lives. These children’s lives were generally characterized by the highest levels of pre-disaster vulnerability. This trajectory reveals how a child’s pre-preexisting disadvantagethe crisis before the crisisand the profound disruption caused by disaster can send children on a downward spiral.

In the Finding Equilibrium Trajectory, after an initial period of disruption and minor decline, these children found stability. These children were most likely to have the greatest resource depth, meaning they had access to the most helpful and supportive resources—financial, social, cultural, educational, and personal. Resources can translate into safe evacuations, short displacements, a return to home, an ease with bureaucracy, a school with training and recovery curriculum, and a social network of support and information. These resources help in a plethora of ways that are often hard to see but are critically important. We also identified some children who came from households with fewer resources, but who were still able to find equilibrium with the help of supportive adults in their lives including parents, teachers, disaster case managers, and individual we refer to as advocates in the book.

Children and youth in the Fluctuating Trajectory experienced a mixed pattern of stable moments followed by unstable periods post-Katrina. They were neither as vulnerable as the children in the Declining Trajectory, nor as secure as the children in the Finding Equilibrium Trajectory. They were sometimes doing well in one critical sphere (like housing) while struggling in another (like family relationships). This lack of alignment across spheres kept these children from achieving full recovery in the disaster aftermath, but the anchors in their lives kept them from going on a precipitous decline. Anchors were the individuals, typically family members such as grandmothers, who were present before the storm and provided resources, support, and consistency to children after the disaster.

Family home in New Orleans ten years later. March 2015. Photo by Alice Fothergill.
As we approach the 10th anniversary, it is important to keep in mind: Disasters are increasing and children are vulnerable. Structural disadvantages—rather than individual characteristics—have the most substantial influence in determining a child’s post-disaster trajectory. A child—regardless of personal traits—cannot recover from a disaster without the necessary resources and social structural support. Many “Katrina kids” are adults now and have children of their own. Let’s make sure those children do not suffer as their parents did. We have the ability to make children and youth a priority and to lessen their vulnerability. 
— Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek
More info
Children of Katrina presents a 7-year study of children after Katrina, looking at family, education, housing, and friendship.

Alice Fothergill is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Heads Above Water: Gender, Class, and Family in the Grand Forks Flood and one of the editors of the first and second editions of Social Vulnerability to Disasters.

Lori Peek is associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. She is author of the award-winning book
Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11
, co-author of Children of Katrinaand co-editor of Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.

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