By Jeff Dodge, as appearing in SOURCE
Two new books by Colorado State University authors about Hurricane Katrina represent half of the special “Katrina Bookshelf” series issued to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the natural disaster, which is Aug. 29.
CSU anthropology professor Katherine Browne’s book Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina follows a large African-American family over the eight-year ordeal of their recovery from the aftermath of the hurricane, both natural and man-made.
Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology at CSU, co-authored Children of Katrina, a book that explores how children and youth responded to the disaster. It was written with Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont.
They are two of the four books published this summer by the University of Texas Press as part of the Katrina Bookshelf series conceived by distinguished sociologist and series editor Kai Erikson in honor of the storm that hit the Gulf Coast a decade ago.
“Katrina was an unbelievable disaster, unlike anything else we have experienced in our country; it destroyed not just property but also the way of life of everyone in its path,” said Browne. “I wanted to know how large, interconnected families, so common in the area, cope with something like this. How do they rebuild their lives in a place that has been changed forever?”
With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Browne located a family of more than 150 who had fled their bayou home in St. Bernard Parish ahead of Katrina and taken refuge with a relative in Dallas. She recruited a filmmaker and, with colleague Ginny Martin, tracked the family for 20 months as they returned home. The documentary, Still Waiting, was first broadcast on PBS stations in 2007.
“What I observed as members of the family tried to resume life in little bitty FEMA trailers was that no one in what I call the ‘recovery culture’ understood who they were or what they needed to truly recover,” Browne said.
Determined to follow a family she had come to respect, Browne continued her research for six more years after the completion of the film. She learned how recovery proceeds in fits and starts, how people adapt to sweeping change, and how a tattered social fabric can be repaired. Browne also discovered that the years of hardship family members endured were caused less by the storm than by the institutional approach of the recovery effort itself.
“There were ways that the institutions of recovery could have brought comfort by helping restore the cultural vitality of this family, including providing places to gather, cook big meals together, and care for their children,” Browne said.
With her book, Browne offers a partial roadmap for recovery for an entire community, even a nation, whenever and wherever the next disaster strikes.
Peek’s book, Children of Katrina, draws on research that involved about 700 children between the ages of 3 and 18 as well as 100 adults. The authors focus primarily on 25 young people who they followed intensively over the seven years after the storm. In the book, they tell the stories of seven individual children who exemplify the varied experiences of the larger group.
“We think it’s the longest qualitative study of children after a disaster that’s ever been done,” Peek said. “We watched these children grow up and change over time. It was incredible.”
Soon after starting their observations, interviews and focus groups, Fothergill and Peek realized they would have to get creative about getting the youngest survivors of Katrina to open up about how they felt. So they gave them paper and crayons and encouraged them to draw their answers to questions about what Katrina looked like, or what good came out of it, for example. The researchers also made flash cards labeled with topics they wanted to discuss, placed them in front of the children, and let them take turns picking the subject.
When children experience upheaval and trauma, adults often view them as either vulnerable and helpless or resilient and able to “bounce back.” But Peek and Fothergill found a more complex reality.
The two authors’ work demonstrates that outcomes were often worse for children who were vulnerable and living in crisis before the storm. Fothergill and Peek outline what kinds of assistance children need during emergency response and recovery periods, as well as the individual, familial, social and structural factors that aid or hinder children in getting that support.
A launch party for both of their new books will be held at Avogadro’s Number, 605 S. Mason St. in Fort Collins, from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 10. The event will feature live music by the Hazel Miller Band.