Faith and Coping: Spiritual Beliefs and Religious Practices After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_20

20. Faith and Coping: Spiritual Beliefs and Religious Practices After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Loren D. Marks , Yaxin Lu , Katie E. Cherry  and Trevan G. Hatch 

Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, 236 Audubon Hall, 70803-5501 Baton Rouge, LA, USA

School of Family Life, Brigham Young University, 2092C Joseph F. Smith Building, 84602 Provo, Utah, USA

School of Social Work, Louisiana State University, 335 Long Fieldhouse, 70803-5501 Baton Rouge, LA, USA

Louisiana Department of Education, 1201 North Third Street, 70802 Baton Rouge, LA, USA



Loren D. Marks


Yaxin Lu


Katie E. Cherry (Corresponding author)


Trevan G. Hatch

Natural disasterHurricanes Katrina and RitaReligious practicesSpiritualityCopingResilienceQualitative research

Without God in my life, there’s no hope. [And] when you lose hope, you have nothing.

(234; 59-year old male)


In August and September of 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought catastrophic destruction to the US Gulf Coast, including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Nearly 2,000 people died and over a million Gulf Coast residents were displaced from their homes. Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact and the psychosocial consequences of this treacherous storm are described more fully elsewhere (see Cherry, 2009; Kessler et al., 2009) . In this chapter, we focus on the role of faith as a coping resource hypothesized to promote resilience in the wake of the Katrina tragedy. In particular, we examine qualitative interview data that allowed deeper insights concerning not only what sacred beliefs and practices were helpful but also why they mattered to participants as they faced multiple stressors in the immediate aftermath and in the years following the 2005 storms.

Overview of Coping and Resilience

A leading religious coping scholar, Ken Pargament, defines coping as a transactional process that involves maintaining and restoring multidimensional human functioning across cognitive, affective, behavioral, and physiological domains (Pargament, 1997; see also Chap. 19, this volume) . Coping is further defined as the process through which resources are accessed and used to respond to stressor events within individuals and across people in various relationships and settings (Pargament, 1997). Although coping typically invokes a positive connotation, there are negative forms of “coping” as well (e.g., drinking, social withdrawal). A closely related concept, resilience , pertains to peoples’ ability to “bounce back” and thrive after having experienced trauma, a potentially traumatic event (PTE), or other harsh circumstances (Cherry & Galea, 2015; see also Chaps. 1, 3, and 16, this volume) .

With respect to religious coping , some religious practices, especially prayer, have been reportedly helpful for individuals in connection with both “acute” and “day-to-day stresses” of life in a variety of samples and contexts (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001, p. 94; Lambert, Fincham, Marks, & Stillman, 2010; Marks, 2008) . Religious beliefs and practices have also been correlated with positive mental health outcomes including greater personal happiness and/or self-esteem and lower depression rates (Dollahite, Marks, & Goodman, 2004; Koenig, 1998; Mahoney, 2010) —but the science-based picture of religious coping is more complex than this, especially in a disaster context. For example, Cherry et al. (2015) found that non-organizational religiosity was associated with increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where people who were highest in non-organizational religiosity were nine times more likely to have PTSD symptoms than their low-scoring counterparts. Cherry et al. (2015) suggested that persons who suffer most severely from PTSD may seek solitary forms of religious coping to strengthen their sense of well-being, or perhaps they turn to non-organizational religiosity in response to emotional distress when former places of worship have been destroyed by natural disaster.

Religion is an important coping resource for many persons but, like other forms of coping, religious coping also has positive and negative manifestations (see Chap. 19, this volume). In connection with negative religious coping (i.e., “red flags”), Pargament et al. (1998b) have said: “Although religion is often a source of help and integration, certain religious expressions appear to be part of the problem in coping rather than part of the solution” (p. 88, emphasis added). Koenig, McCullough, and Larson’s Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford, 2001) and other volume-length reviews similarly identify religious belief as a beneficial psychological coping resource or as a correlate of better mental health with myriad samples—but also draw attention to harmful connections that sometimes surface (Koenig, 1998; Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Smith, Koenig, & Perez, 1998a; Paloutzian & Park, 2005) . More recent article-length reviews continue to establish a generally positive connection between religion and psychological coping, but with greater sensitivity to positive and negative manifestations (Dollahite et al. 2004; Mahoney, 2010) .

Regrettably, the influence of religious belief and practices on individual and family-level coping in response to major disasters has not been well researched. Much of what we do know is based on surface-level survey data, while many deeper and underlying questions regarding religious coping in the aftermath of both natural and man-made disasters are only beginning to be addressed (Cherry, 2009; Tausch et al., 2011) . Closer examinations of underlying processes, like our attempt here, have been referred to as “mining the meanings” (Marks & Dollahite, 2011) . Cherry, Galea, and Silva (2008) have made the point that natural disasters provide a context to study adaptation, resilience, and successful aging. The qualitative analyses reported here may shed new light on potential connections among religious coping and resilience outcomes in the years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita’s deadly impact on coastal communities along the US Gulf of Mexico .

To summarize, prior research has shown that positive religious coping may enhance posttraumatic resilience, while negative religious coping has been related to higher levels of depression (Abu-Raiya, Pargament, & Mahoney, 2010; Koenig et al., 2001) . The “two-tailed” outcomes associated with religious coping beg more specific questions than “Is religion a factor?” Scholars must look deeper to examine the specific expressions of religious belief and practice that are facilitative and linked to successful adaptation and resilience without ignoring the potential for negative outcomes. The participants in the present study seem to be positioned to shed light on how spirituality and religious practice align with resilient outcomes and adaptation to stressful situations, as discussed next.


Participants and Procedure

In all, 125 adults from the heavily affected parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines in south Louisiana participated in the study. All participants experienced significant property damage and storm-related displacement. Two groups were compared and contrasted: Group 1 was composed of 62 directly affected persons who ultimately relocated to new homes in non-coastal communities (M age = 58.4 years, SD = 17.1 years). Group 2 was composed of 63 directly affected persons who were displaced, and returned to rebuild and restore their lives in their home communities in the years following the 2005 storms of Katrina and Rita (M age = 60.7 years, SD = 15.0 years) (see Chap. 12, this volume).

Participants responded to open-ended questions regarding their experiences in coping with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and were also encouraged to share illustrative personal stories and experiences, consistent with a narrative approach to qualitative methods (Josselson & Lieblich, 1993) . All interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcribed interviews were then “audited” by additional research assistants who carefully checked the interview transcription with the digital audio interview, congruent with the spirit of careful data auditing promoted by leading qualitative researchers (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) .


Qualitative grounded theory methods were employed to analyze the data. According to Strauss and Corbin (1998) , open coding is an important initial analytic step in qualitative data analysis. In this study, we employed two coding teams of four members each (eight total coders) for the data analysis process. One team analyzed and open coded narratives from the 62 participants who relocated and identified recurring concepts in these interviews. The second coding team analyzed and open coded narratives from the 63 participants who returned and rebuilt their coastal parish homes.

Open coding and analysis were done on four different levels:


Each coder analyzed interviews independently.



The coders met (in pairs) with a coding partner on a weekly basis to compare and contrast their open-coding findings in a qualitative variation of inter-rater reliability.



Each team of four (i.e., two pairs per team) met to compare open-coding findings.



At the conclusion of the open-coding process, the two coding teams (team 1 representing the relocated participants and team 2 representing the returned/rebuilt participants) were reunited to compare and contrast central findings across the two groups.


During this process, we also conducted numeric content analysis (NCA) of the open coding in each interview. In NCA, high-frequency concepts and salient concepts are recorded and organized thematically. Major themes are identified and systematically documented (Chap. 12, this volume).


We have published work elsewhere based on quantitative analyses of survey responses from this sample which confirmed that participants lost their homes, property, and numerous personal possessions, including photo albums, journals, and family heirlooms (Cherry et al., 2015). Based on interview-by-interview qualitative analyses, we also found that many reported less tangible but equally profound losses including: their sense of “home,” their sense of identity, and their lifelong affiliation with a particular faith community. By way of illustration, consider this woman who yearned for her friends and faith community “down the road” in eastern St. Bernard which sustained an estimated 30 feet of water and total destruction as a result of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. Her church, San Pedro Pescador Catholic Church, named for St. Peter the Fisherman, as well as her entire community was lost in the storm (Janega, 2005) :

235 (43-year old): Yes, church was a big, important thing [to me]. I wanted to go back, and I wanted to go back with the people down here [in Yscloskey]. I didn’t want to [meet with a congregation somewhere else] because they didn’t suffer like we did down here. I felt like I needed to be with [my] people down the road here, because the people that used to go to San Pedro [church] where I lived, they had nothing to go back to either. I think I needed to be around them…I wanted it back. I wanted my…I wanted to go to church on Sundays [in my church]…but they wouldn’t allow us. They [the Archdiocese] said we could not touch this church. We couldn’t do it.

San Pedro, among other churches in St. Bernard, was subsequently razed to the ground and never rebuilt. Where does one belong when his or her home, neighborhood, and faith community are suddenly destroyed? This is one profoundly painful and tragic question that many of our participants had to negotiate in the months and years after August 2005.

In addition, in most cases, the participants’ close personal relationships were severely disrupted. Although the directly related death tolls of Katrina and Rita burst into four figures, for many participants it was dispersion, not death, that wreaked the greatest havoc on their relational ties. Some who were initially displaced, disconnected, and discouraged also reported frustrations and challenges in terms of their faith and faith community (Chap. 14, this volume). However, for most of the participants, religious belief and practices reportedly provided strength and encouragement.

Five themes related to faith and religious coping emerged from our participants’ interviews. Three of these themes are connected to spiritual beliefs and two relate to religious practices. All five themes are presented with excerpts of original, primary data that illustrate and support the respective themes. Three themes related to spiritual beliefs are presented first.

Theme 1: “I Couldn’t Have Done It Without My God’s Help:” God as a Personal and Relational Being

Many participants reported that sacred beliefs played an important role in their coping during both the immediate aftermath and long-term adjustment that followed the hurricanes. The participants’ discussions of their beliefs ranged from general reflection to discussions of specific beliefs and even specific scriptural verses. To illustrate, consider this man’s response to our asking if religious beliefs helped him cope with the hurricanes:

216 (80-year old): If it wouldn’t have been for believing in God and all, we never would have made it…. And after we got the [FEMA] trailer…it still helped us…. You never know what it is until you get into those predicaments…. If we wouldn’t have believed in it or had faith in it, we never would have made it. That carried us through.

In his discussion of religious beliefs and coping, this participant repeatedly invoked the nebulous pronoun “it.” Although referencing a belief “in God and all” in the opening line, four of the “it” references seem to denote faith or spiritual belief in a generalized way that leaves the reader wondering what, exactly, was helpful and why “it” was helpful.

In comparison, many others expressed their belief that it was not just “faith” or “belief” but very specifically God who “helped [them] through everything.” Several identified God not only as their primary source of strength for coping during the hurricanes but also hastened to add that God had helped them through much more than the hurricanes of 2005—emphasizing that God had been both a fair-weather and foul-weather friend throughout their lives. Indeed, when many spoke about “God,” they seemed to invoke a reverent, companionate, and deeply personal type of language. A 67-year-old woman provided an example of this personalized style of discourse:

207: I don’t want to say [that it was] religion [that helped me] because it’s not one religion, it’s God. It’s His son. It’s Jesus. And it’s my belief in [Him] that helps me get up every day. [He] helps me do everything I do every day. [He] helped me get through Katrina. [He] helped me with my husband passing….

This participant downplayed the importance of her specific denomination and centers her comments on her personal, relational belief in God and “His son.” Note how God is described not in philosophical or theological terms but in a tangible and close-at-hand manner—almost as if the participant is describing a loving caregiver or family member. Many other participants discussed their beliefs about God and their “relationship” with “Him” in similarly intimate ways. Another woman discussed her belief in and connection with God in these personal terms:

208 (66-year old): God’s seen me through a lot of things. I go to Him for everything. Sometimes I feel a little guilty because I feel like I lay (so much) on Him. But He’s there for me, and He helps me. Eventually I get together and try to handle things myself. He’s seeing me through and getting me through everything.

One participant not only repeatedly referenced her “relationship” with God, she also referred to God’s “touch” in a literal and tactile way that was unique and rather striking. She reported:

249 (51-year old): Well, for me I have a very strong religious belief and I am very, very close to God. [I have] a personal relationship with Him, so even if no one is around…I had Him…. You just have to have that close relationship with Him. Because I believe [sometimes] you [may not] have anybody around you, and you may yearn, you know, for that human touch, but like one priest told me, he said he wished that Jesus had more skin. [a good-natured chuckle]. Which I thought was so cute, because you do need that human touch, but you can…I think you can pretty much survive if you’re close to God.

This same linkage between “survival” and “God” was drawn by others as well. For example, a 59-year-old woman also referenced how God carried her through both the immediate and residual challenges of Katrina. She emphasized:

259: Without God in my life there’s no way I would have gotten through something like this…. When I don’t feel like I’m hanging on and I’m losing my faith in things and feeling so down and depressed, somewhere in the back of my head I still know He’s there carrying me through these bad times…. For me personally, [I] couldn’t have done it without [Him], because [Katrina] was very devastating to me personally. Katrina [was too much]…. So, no, I couldn’t have done it without my God’s help. There’s no way I could’ve gotten through that [without Him].

In her brief excerpt, this participant referenced God directly or in pronoun form five different times. The mantra and theme that is continually reinforced seems to be: “I couldn’t have done it without my God’s help.” The same core concept was reflected in several reports, as follows:

A 71-year-old female who lost an adult son in Katrina reflected:

241: Well, I was always taught that there’s only one person to turn over your troubles to, and that’s Jesus…. He works in so many different ways. After Hurricane Katrina, I found that putting my trust in Him was the best thing that I could have ever done. [I needed His help to] not have a nervous breakdown, or try to, you know, try to do away with my life.… [He] helped me tremendously. If it wouldn’t have been [for Him], if I had to do it on my own, I don’t think I would have been able to handle [Katrina].

This participant specifically referenced “the Lord” directly or in pronoun form seven times in seven sentences. For participants like her, it was not optimism, positive psychology, or even “spirituality” in a general sense that reportedly helped them through—but a specific belief in (and reliance on) a personal and relational God who cared for them and “helped them through.”

This sense of relationship with God was not necessarily a panacea. Several participants of apparent faith, including those cited in this section, referenced the longing for human touch. They contended with loneliness, “depression,” “nervous breakdown,” and even the temptation to “try to do away with my life.” But even so, the recurring testimonial offered by those who found their faith most helpful was often an echo of (241), “[He] helped me tremendously.”

Theme 2: “God is in Control:” Conceptualizations and Characteristics of God

As discussed in the previous section, a belief in a personal, relational God was a “tremendous help” to some participants. Other recurring beliefs addressed by those we interviewed dealt with the expansive power, scope, and involvement of God in the lives of those influenced and affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Again, the focus of the data was rarely on specific denominational doctrines, but instead on what might be called “attributes of God.”

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Faith and Coping: Spiritual Beliefs and Religious Practices After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
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