Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Contemporary Sociology on the Impact of The Katrina Bookshelf

A number of studies on Hurricane Katrina have appeared in publications and books over the past several years. Most were brief glances at some fragment of the disaster and not rich, in-depth portraits of the people affected. Many rode the crest of Katrina's news cycle without investing in continued study. The books in our series The Katrina Bookshelf, by contrast, are 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 itself is 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 also presents a deeply human story. The stories told in The Katrina Bookshelf have attracted the attention of scholars and the New York Times.

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In December 2016, Neil Gross cited Ron Eyerman's Is This America? Katrina as Cultural Trauma in a New York Times Sunday Review article, titled “Are Americans Experiencing Collective Trauma?,” tying the collective trauma of our unprecedented 2016 election to the loss of identity associated with the aftermath of natural disaster: "We’re all familiar with the notion of psychological trauma—damage to an individual’s psyche caused by an extremely distressing event. But there’s also another kind of trauma: a collective disturbance that happens to a group of people when their world is suddenly upended."

Additionally, Contemporary Sociology recently published a review essay evaluating the impact of three books from The Katrina Bookshelf. In "The Elusive Recovery: Post-Hurricane Katrina Rebuilding During the First Decade, 2005–2015," Kevin Fox Gotham, professor of sociology at Tulane University, highlights the impact The Katrina Bookshelf has had on disaster discourse so far. Using these multiyear studies, he argues for the need to examine not only the discriminatory and problematic implementation of government aid but also the agency of displaced people in adapting to imperfect systems of recovery. Indeed, these studies are vital because "Katrina is still ongoing, still taking shape, still unfolding along the flow of time."

Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, coauthors of the award-winning Children of Katrina, followed
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the lives of seven representative children and teens over several years, and offer an engrossing, long-term study of how children experience disasters and the personal and structural factors that aid or hinder their recovery. Gotham writes that Children of Katrina provides "new empirical and theoretical insights" and "vivid, engaging, and deeply moving accounts of the post-hurricane life experiences." He continues:

Fothergill and Peek’s contribution is to show us that it is not solely age, poverty, race, or hazard exposure but how these risk factors accumulate over time as “if each ‘piece’ of the vulnerability puzzle connects and then is experienced” by the person impacted by the extreme event. Eschewing a fixed and static conception of vulnerability, Fothergill and Peek show that cumulative vulnerability has both temporal and additive components. Vulnerability develops over time as risk factors accumulate. . . . A major contribution is to show that resource depth and resource mobilization act as shields or protections against the damaging effects of disasters.

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Steve Kroll-Smith, Vern Baxter, and Pam Jenkins, coauthors of Left to Chance: Hurricane Katrina and the Story of Two New Orleans Neighborhoods, offer "an inside perspective on the disaster," having conducted field interviews in their hometown of New Orleans. Left to Chance examines two African American neighborhoods—working-class Hollygrove and middle-class Pontchartrain Park—to learn how their residents experienced “Miss Katrina” and the long road back to normal life. Gotham writes, "The ethnographic detail and evocative interview quotes make for an impressively researched book that provides a welcome alternative to the many decontextualized and overly broad journalistic exposés that came out during the first few years after Katrina devastated New Orleans." Kroll-Smith, Baxter, and Jenkins have delivered "a powerfully complex and nuanced analysis of how issues of neighborhood rebuilding and exile intersect with government policy." Katrina stripped away the outer surface of our social structure and showed us what lies underneath: a grim look at race, class, and gender in these United States.

Katherine Browne's Standing in the Need investigates "how the vocabulary of race infuses people’s narrations of the disaster." She has written an eloquent, detailed account of an extended African American family’s grueling eight-year recovery from Katrina,
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demonstrating how greater cultural understanding would enable disaster recovery organizations to better serve affected communities. "Drawing on the post-storm experience of the St. Bernard family, Browne suggests that recovery agencies could reduce suffering and speed healing by learning about the history, culture, and distinctive customs and needs of disaster-impacted communities. The provision of places to gather, places to cook big meals, and places to care for children could assist in repairing frayed cultural bonds and offer a roadmap for recovery," Gotham notes.

Gotham’s Contemporary Sociology review concludes that: "Taking stock of the contributions these books offer leaves one with a sense of admiration for the nuanced and sophisticated nature of Katrina research and the hope that scholars can bring this developing scholarship to bear on public debates and current urban planning processes and practices."

How does America respond to disaster? It is crucial to be honest about our shortcomings so that we may learn from them and be ready for the next time. When seen through a social science lens, Katrina reveals the real human costs of disaster and helps us prepare for future challenges.

Publishing in Spring 2018, Steve Kroll-Smith’s Recovering Inequality draws comparisons between Katrina and another historically disastrous event in American history, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Kroll-Smith writes, "totalizing urban disasters, like those that occurred in San Francisco and New Orleans, provide an uncommon occasion to inspect the dynamics of social inequality inherent in . . . America's essential dilemma: class and race inequality cloaked in the language of human parity." This appraisal of the kind of society we once were and the kind we have become, and will perhaps inform the society we will be when the next disaster strikes.


In Fall 2018, Kai Erickson's and Lori Peek’s forthcoming The Lessons of Katrina will provide a brief overview of why we need to study disasters and then deliver a treatise on the specific lessons we can learn from a wide-reaching and ongoing trauma like Katrina.

Read also: Nine Scholars on the Lessons of Katrina


Browse all books in The Katrina Bookshelf here, including the inaugural book Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora, edited by Lynn Weber and Lori Peek. Subscribe to our email list to find out when new books in The Katrina Bookself publish.

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