After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later


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New Orleans: houses can be rebuilt, but can trust in central government?

If the predictors they identify hold true across other natural disasters—and that remains to be seen—Katrina 10 could help policymakers and disaster recovery programs pick out especially vulnerable groups.

It might even steer them toward interventions that do the most good. Following survivors wherever they end up, year after year, is an unusual and costly proposition for a field in which disaster experts tend to lurch from one catastrophe to the next. Last year alone saw flooding across Houston, Texas; wildfires in California; and a crushing hurricane in Puerto Rico; to name a few.

But studying survivors long after the floodwaters recede can pay off, the researchers say. Long after debris was cleared, families struggled to recover. The city's Superdome, normally home to raucous football games, overflowed with refugees. Some families trudged out of the city on foot; others who couldn't escape waved for help from rooftops. The country had never seen anything like it. Katrina "is a flash point in people's minds about how bad it could really be," says Jeffrey Hebert, a city planning expert who from to served as the city's first "chief resilience officer.

Despite his catchy title, Hebert acknowledges that resilience has many meanings, some easier to measure than others. Engineers may gauge a city's physical resilience by the strain a levee can bear. Pinpointing what makes a person or community resilient is harder.

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But by a stroke of luck, two social scientists who later became leaders of Katrina 10 were uniquely poised to try. That's because both had been following New Orleanians before the storm for unrelated studies, and so were able to pivot and compare subjects' lives before with what came after.

In , he launched a project in the quiet area of eastern New Orleans comparing the lives of Vietnamese immigrants who had settled here after evacuating from Saigon in with those of families who stayed behind in Vietnam. In the summer of , his team was wrapping up a survey on the health and well-being of people in Vietnamese households. Meanwhile, another sociologist, Mary Waters from Harvard University, was part of a nationwide study examining how higher education affects the health of single parents.

The team had reached about first-generation college students in the New Orleans area for a phone survey when Katrina sent them fleeing for dry ground. Waters, safe and dry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and VanLandingham, who escaped to Galveston, Texas, before his own house took on a meter of water, didn't know each other. They didn't know much about disaster research. But both immediately recognized that their questionnaires documenting the health, social networks, and personality traits of Vietnamese immigrants and mostly poor, black, single mothers before the hurricane had taken on outsize significance.

In the months after Katrina, Waters and VanLandingham, along with their colleagues, began tracking down their displaced participants to see how they were faring. The researchers tried calling the phone numbers on file and sent teams to search New Orleans neighborhoods for participants or friends who might know where to find them.

Hurricane Katrina anniversary: New Orleans ten years after storm, in pictures - Telegraph

Meanwhile, Katrina's devastation also drew Abramson in. Their goal was to monitor those families over the coming years as they sought permanent housing back in their original neighborhoods or elsewhere, and to track how disaster and displacement affected health. In a first round of surveys, Abramson's Gulf Coast Child and Family Health Study interviewed people from displaced households between 6 and 12 months after the storm.

As the team's passenger vans rolled through FEMA housing sites, they found families of six crammed into trailers, uncertain whether they'd be forced to move out on a few days' notice.

Some feared for their safety and kept their children inside. Abramson would track those families over time and watch their paths diverge. But in another population, a future colleague of VanLandingham's saw a different trajectory from the start.


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Cam Tran had immigrated from Vietnam as a child, and after Katrina she traveled from her home in Texas to New Orleans to help her in-laws recover. Tran remembers the day she drove into their neighborhood, about a month after the storm. But yes, please do come back! Tran took their advice. She moved here and helped set up a charter school. And she later became a coordinator for VanLandingham's study, Katrina Impacts on Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans, which showed that the optimistic welcome she received from the rebuilders presaged an entire community's long-term recovery. In the coming months, VanLandingham watched members of the community wake at daybreak, drive back to their neighborhood, and rebuild—one house at a time.

They seemed to embody resilience. Two years later, when VanLandingham and Abramson met for the first time at a conference here, they discovered that some of their participants hailed from adjacent neighborhoods.


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Together, as the pair drove those streets in VanLandingham's Subaru Outback, something started to click: Families in the two studies had similar economic means and their homes had sustained similar levels of damage. Conventional wisdom might have predicted similar recoveries. But it was "as if they had almost suffered two entirely different events," Abramson says. The neighborhood of Abramson's mostly black participants, the ones who'd wound up in FEMA housing and whom Abramson was now carefully tracking, was still strewn with debris and abandoned belongings.

In a preliminary analysis, that group was scoring well below VanLandingham's Vietnamese families in mental health surveys. Why did such gaps exist between those communities when it came to resilience, the researchers wondered, and could anything be done to narrow them? Years passed, but the sociologists didn't leave. For Waters, there never seemed to be a good time to stop. But in each round of interviews, "it was so clear that we were in the middle of the story. The RISK researchers examined mental health trajectories, in particular whether those women had returned to their level of psychological functioning from before the storm.

Some had, among them "Keanna," who built a new life in Houston with her husband and five children. She re-enrolled in school and started her own business; she said she had developed a deeper relationship with God. On the other end of the spectrum sat "Belinda," also a mother of five, who spent nearly a year at a friend's house in Arkansas before returning to New Orleans.

She became estranged from her partner, struggled to support two unemployed sisters, and faced depression and weight gain. Some of the factors widening that divide were predictable. In the RISK Project, researchers found that stressors such as going without food or water after the storm or, worse, losing a loved one predicted longer-term mental health struggles, as did reporting a weak social support network before Katrina.

But other findings took Waters by surprise—such as the fact that, controlling for all other factors, the loss of a pet because of the storm had lasting negative effects. The faster you move somebody into stable housing, the faster, more accelerated, and more durable their recovery will be. Abramson, meanwhile, developed an analytical tool to gauge recovery on the basis of measurements in five areas: physical and mental health, economic stability, stable housing, and "social role adaptation," or how people feel that they fit into their community.

That framework allowed him to identify prestorm factors that most contributed to long-term recovery. Just wild abandoned dogs.

Hurricane Katrina anniversary: New Orleans ten years after storm, in pictures

To come across this scene was actually quite frightening, for it was straight out of a horror movie. She was there for weeks. This photo was taken on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a house that had been left abandoned after the storm. I was walking with a marching band who was paying tribute to the victims of the storm when I noticed the hanging coat from the street below—the wall of the two story house had been sheered off, offering a glimpse into the once private room.

As the music from the street receded, I found myself in silence in the darkened house.

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I was astonished to find it much as it must have been three years prior when its residents hastily fled. Nearby, on the dining room table, was a tea set. I imagined the family had just finished having guests over and never got the chance to put the china away. The only sure thing is that he would never live there again or wear the clothes that gave his life meaning. The suit has become a ghost in my imagination, one that haunts the house hanging onto the life that used to be sheltered within and protected from the elements outside.

Over the past decade, from New Orleans to tsunami battered Japan, I have come across more homes like this than I can remember. They are like modern day versions of Pompeii, living snapshots of receding civilization due to climate change. I photographed this mother and son in a shelter near New Orleans. I think I was struck less by the physical destruction of the place than by the collective fear and insecurity.

So many people who were already living at the edges were now pushed beyond. Something in the eyes of this mother and child spoke to me of that fear and uncertainty. Most people thought they would come back, but the majority never did. I thought it was quite shocking. They never came back. She represents the American Dream, where the lucky few can find a way out. One of the most striking things about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the realization that those struggling to survive had been abandoned by the government.

People understood that the only way to subsist in the immediate was to care for themselves. Almost all was breaking down, a shocking crumbling of infrastructure, and I bore witness to sidewalk graves, abandoned victims outside their homes and water for days on end. Sick people trying to leave took the place of luggage on carts on an airport runway. It is thought that a civilization can be judged on how it treats its ill and dead.

The days following Katrina should haunt us all about how we lost our way. We found whole towns completely wiped off the map with a few remaining houses lifted up and dropped on railroad tracks. Roads and rail lines were bent, broken and curled. Transport trucks had been lifted into the air and set on cement block walls while roof tops sat at street level. The entire contents of a Wal-Mart covered several football fields.

The store itself appeared to be gone. In Waveland, only a fire hydrant held its ground where there had once been an entire subdivision of homes. The only thing left of its Catholic Church, apart from the floor and a bit of debris, was a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary. On our last night we passed through New Orleans. Because the city is below sea level, bodies in graveyards are placed in mausoleums because water would force coffins to pop out of the ground.

It was dusk at the Metaire Cemetery when I got out of the car and walked knee deep through the water to shoot the last image.

After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later
After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later After the Storm: Katrina Ten Years Later

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