Author chronicles vexing recovery of family after Hurricane Katrina

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On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, leaving incredible destruction in its wake. As the 10-year anniversary of the devastation approaches, Colorado State University anthropology professor Katherine Browne is releasing a new book, Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina. In it, she follows a large African-American family over the eight-year ordeal of their recovery from the aftermath of disaster, both natural and man-made.

“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.

She points out that at the root of the word “comfort” is “strength.” And so providing comfort provides the strength that people who have lost every material thing need in order to recover the fundamental ordinariness of their lives.

With her book, Browne offers a partial roadmap for recovery for an entire community, even a nation, whenever and wherever the next disaster strikes. Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina is one of four books being published this summer by University of Texas Press as part of the “Katrina Bookshelf” series conceived by distinguished sociologist and series editor Kai Erikson.

Two Colorado State University faculty contributed to the series: Browne and Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Disaster Recovery at CSU. Peek has co-authored Children of Katrina with Alice Fothergill of the University of Vermont and co-edited the first book in the series, Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora, released in 2012.

Both Browne and Peek are speaking at the 40th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in July in Broomfield, Colo., which will feature a screening of Still Waiting.

Browne said her ultimate goal in writing the book was to raise awareness around the world about how we respond to natural disasters — and to be more sensitive to cultural differences that are easy to dismiss, but that left unaddressed are likely to slow recovery and prolong suffering.

“That’s really what this effort is about, to expose invisible things,” she said. “We could do so much to lessen the ordeal people endure when outsiders take control without understanding local people or what makes sense for them.”