Note to Editors: Downloadable, broadcast-quality audio clips featuring Colorado State disaster researcher Lori Peek are available at http://newsinfo.colostate.edu. Click on the header for this release for access.
Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans-area residents were forced to evacuate their homes because of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina – and one year later, many still find themselves separated from a city that is culturally unique to the United States. Some residents have moved back home, and many would like to, but a lack of resources and feelings of uncertainty prevent them from returning to begin rebuilding.
Colorado State University researchers have found tremendous differences in how individuals from the Gulf Coast region have fared after evacuation based on their proximity to their former social networks. Many evacuees came from New Orleans, a culture based in French Creole roots in which celebration, regional cuisine and extended family ties are highly valued. Also, not enough time has elapsed for evacuees to pull their lives together, and the misconception that life for evacuees should be returning to normal compounds their troubles.
"Evacuees feel a profound sense of attachment to New Orleans: its Creole food, its music, its flair for celebration and even the way of talking were wildly different than what they have found in other areas," said Kate Browne, an expert in Afro-Creole populations and professor of anthropology at Colorado State.
Those who were able to rely on family or friends during their evacuations are likely to be faring better mentally and emotionally compared to evacuees who found themselves or their immediate families alone and isolated in new cities, she said.
Browne has teamed with Lori Peek, a disaster researcher in Colorado State’s Department of Sociology, to document the stories of evacuees. The team surveyed evacuees brought to Denver. In addition, Browne has followed the story of a large family that was able to evacuate together from the bayou parishes of New Orleans and go to a family member’s home in Dallas.
Their research has been supported through a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a $50,000 grant from Colorado State’s College of Liberal Arts.
About 13,000 Gulf Coast evacuees came to Colorado, settling at least temporarily into every county in the state. The research team has documented experiences of some of the Denver area evacuees to better understand the impact of relocation on the everyday lives of people and how the difficulties related to this tragedy have evolved since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Peek has paid special attention to the effect relocation has had on children and families.
Browne elaborated that, for evacuees to Colorado, the massive scale of material losses were just part of the problem. "Nobody even owned a fleece jacket. The climate, literally and culturally, left most people feeling disoriented and without a sense of control over their lives. Add to all this their separation from family, and you have a continuing disaster that is nowhere near over."
The Colorado State research group also has developed a Web site to act as an information clearinghouse for Denver evacuees. The site, at www.MileHiNewOrleans.org, contains resources for life in Denver such as work opportunities as well as life back home in New Orleans, links to information on assistance and New Orleans news Web sites.
With the help of Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Virginia Martin, the Colorado State team is working to tell the story of the New Orleans family that Browne interviewed for a film, "Finding a Way Back." The film, scheduled to be released in December 2006, will examine how one large bayou family was able to stay together throughout the evacuation and their return home. Browne noted that their ability to self-evacuate together to a family member’s house in Dallas helped keep spirits high. Most of the extended family has returned, but many face long, frustrating waits for FEMA trailers and insurance settlements.
"The film tells another part of the story," Browne said. "When you have 155 individuals who evacuate together, and who now have gotten themselves back to New Orleans, you really see the power of family solidarity in a time of crisis. In Denver, people still separated from their families face economic catastrophe in a cultural environment that is still like a foreign country to them."
During their research, Browne and Peek encountered many harrowing stories of evacuees. Peek noted how children were affected by the disaster in different ways than adults. Missing crucial childhood milestones like senior prom, being separated from friends and classmates or coming to understand the reality of not being able to attend college had tremendous impacts on teenagers.
A year after the hurricane, many evacuees are still struggling to pull the pieces of their lives back together, and it will take sustained assistance for them to be successful in starting a new life outside of the Gulf Coast region or to return home and rebuild. Fighting perceptions that they should be further along in rebuilding and weaning themselves from aid compounds the struggle for evacuees.
"It’s important for people to recognize that many Katrina survivors have lost everything," Peek said. "This was a social event, a human catastrophe instigated by a natural disaster. Unfortunately, it appears that the same people left behind in the Katrina evacuation are being left behind again during the reconstruction."