A Double-Dunk: Colorado State University Researcher Studies How Oil Spill Affects Katrina-Impacted Residents

As the fifth-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches on Aug. 29, Colorado State University anthropologist Kate Browne is undertaking new research on how the Gulf oil spill is impacting U.S. residents who are still recovering from the effects of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The epicenter of both disasters occurred in the same area of New Orleans off the Gulf Coast, affecting large numbers of the same residents. Since 2005, Browne has been studying issues facing Katrina survivors such as family cohesion, strain and dissolution, differential access to material and psychological resources, and gaps between what Katrina survivors need and what is actually available to them.

“The people I’m studying for this new project are the same people I’ve been following for the last five years. They just got out of FEMA trailers a year ago and now face an entirely new insult to their way of life. The oil spill is as massive and as human-caused as the massive failure of the levees during Katrina. It’s a double-dunk,” Browne said. “While the material loss of Katrina was catastrophic, the one thing that wasn’t destroyed was their bayou environment with its critical wetlands to buffer them from hurricanes and nurture the seafood that is central to bayou culture.”

Because the oil spill made landfall in many areas of St. Bernard Parish, these same bayou residents are facing incalculable damage to the wetlands and fishing waters that are part of their home environment.

“The closure of fishing waters in St. Bernard Parish is affecting seafood supply. The vitality of family networks depends on family gatherings that, for generations, have happened every weekend. And seafood is at the center of these gatherings – delicious shrimp and crab that come from just a couple of miles down the road,” she said.

Browne says that, for these residents, there is no substitute for local seafood. “No one is going to buy seafood shipped in from Thailand,” she said.

Specifically, Browne will study how the oil spill is affecting family members’ access to seafood, its affordability and quality, how the frequency and quality of family gatherings is affected, whether the rituals of reciprocity organized around seafood exchange and preparation diminish, and whether the impact of all these changes in daily life is re-stimulating fear and stress experienced during Katrina.

On a broader level, Browne will also track local and federal responses to the oil spill and how family members on the bayou perceive the effectiveness of these different levels of government.

“The hurt of Katrina is still very fresh. The oil spill adds a monstrous new dimension to the prospect of more loss,” she said. “It’s beginning to look endless.”

In 2007, Browne and two-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ginny Martin released “Still Waiting: Life After Katrina,” a documentary that chronicles a family’s journey following their Hurricane Katrina evacuation from New Orleans to Dallas, Texas, and their eventual return home.

The documentary explores the meaning of home and the rituals and place that define a family, the role of faith in resilience, and finally the problems left in what remains of the parish: rebuilding homes and families under newly emerging racial strains, demographic changes and the emotional toll Katrina continues to take.

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Katrina, the documentary will be broadcast on PBS stations across the country. The film will air in Denver at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 on KBDI Channel 12.

For more information about the documentary and to view a trailer of the film, visit http://www.stillwaiting.colostate.edu/.