Of all the people whom I’ve interviewed in my research, nobody ever volunteered that the government helped me. No one. I’ve found no one who said FEMA helped me. They might have said they got FEMA money, but not that FEMA helped them. What I did hear people say was ‘people on the corner helped me; people I didn’t know helped me.’ But they didn’t see the government as help. They saw the government as a problem. And I think we really need to think about what that means.
— Pamela Jenkins
When Jenkins, a professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans, spoke about Katrina victims getting help from other people rather than from government agencies or relief organizations, she was not just drawing on information from her research subjects. She was remembering her own experience as well. She and her family were still living temporarily in Baton Rouge while waiting to rebuild their New Orleans house, Jenkins recalled, “and friends of ours came up and said don’t pay to gut your house; we’ll gut your house with you.” From that grew a tradition of “people showing up every Sunday at my house and gutting it. And when I say gutting it I mean gutting it. We took everything out but the roof, the outside walls and the weight-bearing studs. So all our house ended up on the curb. What happened out of that was we built a community of people who came to show up on Sunday. And then Sundays at Pam and Eric’s transitioned to football season where every football game was watched at our house. It turned to Treme Sunday nights. And the strength of that community of family, I have to tell you, became incredible to us.”
As reflected in Jenkins’ interviews, the evidence is strong that many New Orleanians did not regard government agencies as very helpful in the crisis or in its aftermath. In one poll a few months after Katrina, 24 percent of respondents in New Orleans said federal authorities handled the storm well, while nearly twice as many — 47 percent — described the government’s response as poor. Another survey nearly five years later reported that only about half of the city’s residents were positive about the progress that had been made on such public-sector needs as affordable housing, medical services, and public safety.
A research report by the Community and Regional Resilience Institute pointed out that the government response to Katrina was not just inadequate, but sometimes actually impeded other efforts. “‘Emergent’ individuals or organizations that respond to unaddressed needs are characteristic of all disaster responses,” the authors wrote. “In responding to Katrina, they were sometimes refused or poorly used by government officials.” They added, echoing Jenkins’ observations: “These ‘shadow responders’ often emerge from households, friends and family, neighborhoods, non-governmental and voluntary organizations, businesses, and industry. In New Orleans, we estimate that they provided most of the initial evacuation capacity, sheltering, feeding, health care, and rebuilding, and much of the search and rescue, cleanup, and post-Katrina funding. These individuals and organizations would have been able to do more if the tri-level system (city, state, federal) of emergency response was able to effectively use, collaborate with, and coordinate the combined public and private efforts.” Emergency planners, the report concluded, should learn from Katrina that preparing that collaboration and coordination in advance of a disaster “is a central task of enhancing community resilience.”[i]
If the recovery effort showed weaknesses in the “public” zone of the city’s life — “the bureaucracy, government, utilities and so on,” as Virginia Tech sociologist John Ryan defines it — those were also magnified because large-scale displacement weakened those other structures that are also important in rebuilding after a disaster. Ryan and his colleague James Hawdon call it the “parochial” zone: the relationships and networks formed in and among local businesses, churches, schools, neighborhood associations and other voluntary organizations, and other formal and informal groups that bring people together in social or civic activity. To a large extent, it is in the parochial zone where people develop an attachment to their community: sentiment, Ryan and Hawdon call it. “The sense of community, not the functioning of community in some practical way, but how you feel about your community,” Ryan explained. “Do you feel like a true New Orleanian? Do you feel like a true Hokie, if you’re at Virginia Tech?… That’s extremely important for community recovery.”
Sometimes, Ryan noted, “high public involvement actually suppresses parochial involvement. The public realm takes over from the local and dictates this and that and doesn’t let the local act the way it might normally act. In those cases you’re going to have very slow recovery like we have seen in the aftermath of Katrina. Because you don’t have those local resources. The people have been moved away, the local institutions have been damaged.” In that respect Katrina could be viewed as “the polar opposite” of the Virginia Tech tragedy, where displacement was not long-lasting, so the community was able to reassemble fairly swiftly, and there was little physical damage, so the need for resources and action from the public realm was not great. The result, Ryan said, in contrast to New Orleans after the hurricane, was “low public involvement and high parochial involvement — high levels of sentiment and very quick recovery, although I must say that the recovery in a situation like that may not be about space but psychologically; culturally that event is very much lodged into the identity of the community, and so on.”
Obviously, some essential conditions for recovery can only be accomplished by government. “For the community to recover you have to get it functioning again,” Hawdon pointed out. “You have to get the roads open, the electricity flowing” — recreating, in effect, the space in which recovery can take place. “Getting the bridges rebuilt, the electricity on, the water flowing, the houses built” has to be done in the public realm so that organizations in the parochial realm can in turn recreate themselves and resume their activities. “If you think about space, the reconstruction of space in terms of rebuilding,” Hawdon continued, “this is largely a function of government for no other reason than that nobody else has the resources. The amount of money that it takes to get space reconfigured is well beyond the resources of anybody but the government. So the public realm is very important. But that’s not necessarily recovery, or community recovery, because for a community to recover you also need the sentiment. You need that sense of community. You need both of these elements to come back into play.”
Their research on the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy and other critical incidents led Ryan and Hawdon to conclude that “this sense of community, a sense of attachment to a community, is largely a function of the parochial realm.” That happens, Hawdon said, because “the parochial realm, the local aspects of a community, is what makes a community unique.” Government institutions are broadly similar in all U.S. communities, and private relationships within families and among friends or in workplaces do not ordinarily promote togetherness or community feeling in a wider population. So it is the structures in a community’s parochial zone that “gives it a soul, a sense of being special. That’s what builds sentiment. So the parochial realm leads to sentiment and sentiment is what leads to the recovery of the community.”
For many African American New Orleanians, both those who returned after the storm and those who remain displaced, a powerful source of community sentiment has been their church. Pamela Jenkins told the ACIA conference: “The history of the black church reasserted itself in this diaspora and provided a framework for these people that I interviewed to understand what happened to them in a really powerful way. In the interviews, I never asked about God, I never asked about faith, but these interviews are filled with both faith and God.” Her interview subjects, she went on, “looked for home through their connection to congregations. These were all African American congregations, mostly Baptist.”
Rev. Aldon Cotton noted that the loss of familiar church ties is something he hears about often whenever he speaks with Katrina refugees. “They tell me, pastor, I just miss my church. A lot of people just miss their church. They say they miss hearing ‘Amazing Grace’ the way we used to sing it…. People do need something to hold on to,” he added. “People need the connection, they need their church networks.”
Since the storm, a number of New Orleans churches — 15, by Jenkins’ count — have created permanent satellite congregations in other places where their members have resettled. The Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, for example, has rebuilt in New Orleans but also has churches in Baton Rouge and Houston serving New Orleans congregants in those cities. In the early post-disaster period, Jenkins said, many black ministers “became like 19th-century circuit riders. They’d preach in New Orleans, they’d drive up to Baton Rouge to preach, they’d preach in New Orleans, they’d take a plane and go to Houston to preach for Sunday. And the congregants followed them. They’d hear their minister in Baton Rouge in the morning and then they’d drive down to hear them again in New Orleans in the afternoon. So this looking for a home by looking for their congregations became really important to the people that I interviewed.”
What people felt was important about their faith and their church, Jenkins learned, “was not the material things they got from the church. To a person it was not about rental assistance, it wasn’t about clothing. It was what they got from the praying, from their relationship to their God, the sense of belonging to this community. For these folks, their search for their home church allowed them to connect to a community.”
The church is one significant strand in the larger fabric of African American life and history. Katrina survivors’ stories collected by D’Ann Penner evoked others, including traditions of family and personal relations, a culture of “everyday companionability” and mutual help that came down from a difficult past. One of many examples is Rev. Cotton, one of her subjects in Overcoming Katrina who also was a speaker at ACIA’s conference. In her talk, Penner said about him: “Pastor Cotton, who you’ll never forget, recalls being asked to go to the corner store for his mother in the 1980s. He had to make three stops along the way. First he had to stop to see what everyone needed and then he’d bring them their groceries back and he’d have to turn down the obligatory 25 cents they would offer. Because he had to say and I quote, ‘no ma’am, it was my pleasure.’ The etiquette of neighborliness was taught to him by his parents.”
Penner’s interviews were a compelling reminder that there were and are other realities in New Orleans beside the poverty, high crime rate and social disorganization that dominate outsiders’ image of the city. “In pre-Katrina New Orleans,” she said, “people were not neglected in their last days, nor did they die in isolation in distant suburbs.” The loss of social connection and support after the community was scattered by Katrina had a direct impact on people’s physical and emotional well-being, Penner found — in contrast with her narrators’ accounts of an earlier disaster, Hurricane Betsy, which devastated many of the same New Orleans neighborhoods 40 years earlier. Those stories, Penner said, recalled that “the Lower Ninth Ward survivors of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 were able to mourn together, clean up debris together, and rebuild their homes together… These activities enabled Lower Ninth Ward residents the capability to create a redemptive life narrative, and that is something some displaced Katrina survivors have been unable to do.”
The loss is not only that people don’t get help. As Danny Axsom of the Virginia Tech clinical psychology department told ACIA’s 2009 conference, his research in the aftermath of the tragedy there showed that not giving help to others because one is separated from his community is also a loss. “There are a lot of benefits for the givers of help,” he said. “It gives them something to do, it structures their experience in the aftermath. It’s similar to formal rituals like wakes and funerals and memorials. Giving help is one way of addressing the existential threat that’s represented by attacks like 4-16 or 9-11. It highlights the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln said. It can be a way of reasserting control over the meaning of the event.” Helping someone else, Axsom added, can also make it easier to get help, since reciprocal support creates less of the feeling of indebtedness that often keeps people from seeking assistance.
Axsom’s and other post-shooting studies at Virginia Tech indicate that social contacts — having a community and participating in its relationships and ritual gatherings — played a significant role in overcoming the trauma of the event. Ryan’s and Hawdon’s work concluded that picnics, vigils, and other communal events seemed to have more therapeutic value for the campus community than the self-appointed trauma therapists who flocked there after the shootings. Steven Hyman, a Harvard neuropsychiatrist, suggested something similar to New Yorker writer Jerome Groopman. “The way we respond to individual or mass trauma,” Hyman told Groopman,
should be guided by how we behave after the loss of a loved one. “What happens when someone in your family dies?” he said. “People make sure you take care of yourself, get enough sleep, don’t drink too much, have food.” Hyman pointed out the different rituals that various cultures have developed — shiva among Jews, for instance, and wakes among Catholics—which successfully support people through grief…. The traumatized person should share what he wants with people he knows well: close friends, relatives, familiar clergy. “It’s so commonsensical,” Hyman said. “But the power of our social networks — they are what help people create a sense of meaning and safety in their lives.”[ii]
But as the experience of many Katrina refugees shows, when those networks are splintered, that mutual support is gone, and the stronger feeling of comfort and security it creates. Being cut off from their communities can be particularly damaging for the most vulnerable, elderly or frail who became “fragile and disconnected individuals,” as Penner called them, in new and unfamiliar places. “At a time when they most need to work through these multiple losses,” she said, “they are most isolated from the people who understand where they came from and what they have been through…. In being torn from their communities, they lost their opportunities to comfort each other’s emotional wounds.”
Five years after the storm, two-thirds of New Orleans residents say their lives are back or almost back to normal, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey.[iii] But there are still great unmet needs. One of them, Penner noted, is for more attention and more resources for the continuing mental health problems caused by displacement — problems for which many refugees have gotten no help at all. Penner’s other suggestions included a reexamination of FEMA’s and the military’s handling of the New Orleans evacuation, and why their actions were so widely seen by black residents as hostile and threatening rather than helpful. The review, Penner said, should help formulate training programs for National Guard or regular military units that may be involved in rescue operations. It should also develop recommendations for emergency planners so that in any future evacuation, the use of shelters and transfer arenas will not “replicate what happened in the Superdome and the Convention Center and the I-10 cloverleaf” during the Katrina crisis.
Learning from Katrina is all the more important because, as Arnessa Garrett reminded ACIA’s participants, large-scale displacement will continue to occur and may well happen more frequently in the years and decades to come, for both natural and man-made reasons. ACIA’s discussions of the Katrina experience and the testimony it heard from survivors suggest one important lesson for the future: if communities are uprooted by a disaster, rescue and resettlement policies should avoid unnecessarily scattering the displaced or prolonging their displacement. The emotional harm of losing homes and normal life and, for many, loved ones, may not have been avoidable, at least once the storm hit and the levees broke (whether that failure was avoidable is, of course, a different question). But much of the further harm of being dispersed and isolated clearly could have been avoided, if the responsible authorities had tried to do so.
The story of New Orleans Katrina refugees makes clear that they were not just displaced from their homes and past lives. Far too many were displaced from each other, displaced from the opportunity to help rebuild their city, and displaced from participating in decisions about the city’s and their own future. The attitudes, policies and practices that produced those results didn’t only deepen the emotional wounds of the displaced. They wounded the city as well. In future disasters, if official policies are more mindful of the need to preserve community and its networks of mutual support, they will better serve the refugees they are meant to help — and reconstruction and recovery efforts will be better served, too.
[i] C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska, Community Resilience: Lessons From New Orleans
And Hurricane Katrina. Community and Regional Resilience Initiative, Oak Ridge TN: September 2008, p. 22
[ii] Jerome Groopman, “The Grief Industry,” The New Yorker, Jan. 26, 2004
[iii] “New Orleans Five Years After the Storm,” p. 6