Families and Faith-based Communities After a Disaster: Successes and Failures in the Wakes of 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_14

14. Families and Faith-based Communities After a Disaster: Successes and Failures in the Wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

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

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

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

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

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



Loren D. Marks


Trevan G. Hatch


Yaxin Lu


Katie E. Cherry (Corresponding author)

CopingNatural disasterFaith-based communitiesHurricanes Katrina and RitaQualitative research


“Religion” is a term of such staggering breadth that it is typically necessary to divide it into separate dimensions when conducting social science research. Three dimensions of religion, as outlined by Marks (2005) , include: (a) spiritual beliefs (personal, internal beliefs, framings, meanings, and perspectives), (b) religious practices (e.g., outward, observable expressions of faith such as prayer, scripture study, rituals, traditions, or less overtly sacred practice or abstinence that is religiously grounded), and (c) faith communities (support, involvement, and relationships grounded in one’s congregation or religious group; pp. 175–176). With reference to the latter dimension, which serves as the focus of the present chapter, Krause (2012) has made the point that church attendance provides opportunity for older adults to share what they have learned in life with other members whom they believe value such experiences, which in turn enhances older persons’ sense of self-worth and feelings of belonging. Most would agree that faith communities can be influential for people of all ages; however, a cautionary note is in order because this influence can be positive, negative, or both (Dollahite, Marks, & Goodman, 2004; Marks, 2006a, b) .

In this chapter, we examine the role of faith-based communities for individuals and families coping with the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In particular, we explore whether faith communities were perceived as helpful by directly affected survivors coping with the aftermath of these hurricanes—or whether these organizations contributed to their frustrations and misery. In addition to examining this two-pronged question, we also address the deeper issues of why and how faith communities helped (or harmed) coastal residents of south Louisiana whose lives were forever changed by the 2005 storms. We begin by highlighting select results from the research literature on faith community to contextualize our findings.

A Brief Overview of Research Findings on Faith Community

Despite a US tendency to exaggerate religious participation, statistics indicate that religious involvement is an important part of life for many Americans (Burr, Marks, & Day, 2012) . Although most married couples in America report a religious affiliation, there is significant variation in actual levels of attendance among persons who claim a faith affiliation (Burr et al., 2012) . Around 60 % report that religion is important or very important to them (McCullough, Hoyt, Larson, Koenig, & Thoresen, 2000) , but Taylor (2003) found that only 36 % attend a religious service once a month or more.

An expanding body of medical and social science research on faith community has yielded several recurring findings that are of relevance (Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001; Marks, Dollahite, & Freeman, 2011) . These six findings relate to the social and psychological issues that are focal points in the present study:


Faith community provides social and instrumental support for those who are actively involved (Koenig, 2002; Marks et al., 2011; Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004) .



Koenig et al. (2001) found nearly 100 studies suggesting that religion may be a deterrent to alcohol or drug abuse across the life span (i.e., Laird, Marks, & Marrero, 2011) .



For those who develop alcohol and substance abuse addictions, evidence indicates “more successful rehabilitation among the more religious” (Koenig et al., 2001, pp. 179–180).



Actively involved religious persons have significantly lower cancer rates than those who do not attend regularly (Enstrom, 1998; Koenig et al., 2001; Marks, 2005) .



In their comprehensive review of the literature, Koenig et al. (2001) found that 79 of 100 studies indicated “at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and greater happiness, life satisfaction, morale, or positive affect” with 20 studies yielding complex, mixed, or no relationship findings, while only one study reported a negative correlation (p. 101).



Hummer, Rogers, Nam, and Ellison (1999) found a 7.6-year increase in life expectancy among persons who attend worship services more than once a week compared with nonattenders. African Americans who reportedly attended church services more than once a week lived nearly 14 years longer than African Americans who reportedly never attended (80.1 vs. 66.4 years; see also, Marks, Nesteruk, Swanson, Garrison, & Davis, 2005) .


In summary, these six findings related to faith community indicate correlational relationships between regular worship service attendance and benefits including: (a) higher levels of social and instrumental support, (b) lower rates of alcohol or drug abuse, (c) greater success in overcoming addiction, (d) significantly lower cancer rates, (e) greater happiness and life satisfaction, and (f) significant increases in longevity. While these and other similar findings have been obtained, relatively little is known regarding why these associations exist (Marks et al., 2005) . On the heels of these positive correlates of faith community involvement, however, we note an important counterpoint that will reemerge as a central theme in the section “Findings”. This point of concern is drawn from qualitative research that indicates that when a faith community or congregation to which an individual or family is closely tied lets them down or fails them “it [is] both disappointing and hurtful in ways that…elicit deeper frustration and pain than failures by secular agencies and institutions” (Marks & Dollahite, 2001, p. 636) .


The sample, interview procedures, and team-based qualitative analyses are described in Chap. 12 (this volume). Here, we focus on participants’ responses to the following question: In times of trouble, people may turn to a faith community to help them cope with life stresses. Has a church or faith community helped you cope with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and, if so, in what ways? They were encouraged to share illustrative personal stories and experiences, consistent with a narrative approach to qualitative methods (Josselson & Lieblich, 1993) .


Our primary aim is to present our participants’ voices and convey their experiences and observations with as much fidelity as possible. In keeping with this goal, our interpretation and explanations are brief. Four “core” themes related to faith community are as follows:


“The Hunger for Faith Community”: In this theme, we see the pressing and almost urgent need for faith community some participants reported after the storms.



“My Church Family Kept Me Going”: This theme illustrates how and why faith community was an important coping resource for many participants and their families.



“I Felt Like My Church Abandoned Me”: This theme focuses on the deep and almost palpable pain reported by some who felt that their own faith communities let them and their families down in their hour of greatest need.



Helping Others: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” This theme reflects the reported impact of receiving personal and familial help and assistance from a faith community to which the beneficiaries have no ties.


Theme 1: The Hunger for Faith Community

For many of the participants we interviewed, faith community was important because it promoted a sense of “peace” and “calm” in their lives. One explained:

212 1 (69-year-old female): [Church] gives you an inner peace. I think I had told you, I’m not the holiest person in the world, but when I’m in my church, for some reason, a calm comes over me.

For the group we highlight next, however, faith community was more than just a calming spiritual and psychological experience, it was vital. The need to worship with others was so pronounced for some that they literally created or joined small, faith makeshift communities—in some cases, even under heavily damaged or primitive conditions (e.g., no electricity or running water). One married couple, for example, rallied the residents of an indirectly affected senior care facility that had become a home for her displaced and frail elderly relative for a weekly Sunday school.

262 (67-year-old female; Wife): [After Katrina]…we had a Sunday school, bible study on a Sunday morning. We had quite a few people that [would come]. Got to be like a little family.

263 (73-year-old male; Husband): All the residents of Jenny’s Place2

262 (Wife): [Well], all of the ones that wanted to come.… Oh it was a blessing…

Interviewer: I bet they really enjoyed it.

262 (Wife): [I mean it was a blessing] for us…. Because you know, it allowed us to stay connected…

263 (Husband): Yeah.

262 (Wife): [It helped us]…with our faith, and not to become disconnected…. You know…when you teach, [that] is when you learn…. Every time you teach a lesson, you learn something yourself….And they seemed to enjoy it because they kept coming back.

Another participant similarly talked about the spontaneous interdenominational community that united at her neighbor’s house in the weeks following Katrina. As she explained,

207 (67-year-old female): So, you know, we were all [a] different religion, if you want to talk about religion. But we would get together by Ralph’s [he’s my neighbor], and we would have a little church service and we’d sing and we’d have a meal and people lingered on for two hours or so afterwards, just talking and sharing and that really, really helped us to cope with a lot things. You know, we talked about everything. We talked about the politicians, we talked about the flood, we talked about where our houses [were, in terms of damage], we talked about if we had windows [left in them]… We talked about [everything]. [Eventually], from there, we went to the pastor’s house, and he started having [a service] in his garage by his house.

Ralph, referenced in the previous quote, was also interviewed and recalled:

220 (63-year-old male): [For months after Katrina with few churches available], we had church services right underneath my carport back here…. And, when it got cold, we had them inside the shed. [We have] our woodstove in there…. We’d crank that woodstove up and we’d have it in there. And…. We had as many as 80…people back there…. You had people from Delacroix, Yscloskey, Shell Beach, from right here in this neighborhood all back there, all together. And, it was very simple. We tried to make the Gospel [real]…there wasn’t nothing preached so high that nobody couldn’t understand it. You know? There wasn’t no collections taken, wasn’t no money changing hands. It was strictly people coming together, enjoying each other, and enjoying the word of God. And, I wish it would have never left right there, really, to tell you the truth.

In the experience shared and narrated by this man, the reader almost feels the warmth of the stove and the literal and social warmth of individuals gathering for the unified blessing of believing and belonging—juxtaposed against the backdrop of a community in ruins. We have observed elsewhere that as human beings, we “long for something to believe in,” that we “long for something to belong to,” and that many persons strive to “satiate both of these craved, primary longings through [the] sacred” (Marks, Dollahite, & Barker, 2012, p. 186) . For some participants, their faith community, in whatever form they could find it or create it, seemed to meet the dual needs of hope and connection during an almost incomprehensibly dark time.

In the preceding narratives, it is difficult to discern whether: (a) the need for strengthened faith and an assurance of the sacred was of fundamental importance or (b) whether the relationships, the connection, and the “sharing” were most salient in the coping efforts of the individuals, married couples, and families involved. Clearly, however, both were taking place.

The creative energy evidenced in the spontaneous faith communities is striking and fascinating, but these communities should not be overextended or portrayed as a primary emergent theme from our data. The spontaneous communities sketched out here offer but one expression (albeit a vibrantly colorful one) of the hunger and scramble for faith community in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Qualitative analyses yielded additional examples of satisfying this hunger through more traditional paths—although those paths were disrupted in most cases. The narratives presented next capture several participants’ longing for some sense of their pre-Katrina/Rita “church family” and their efforts to restore and reestablish their faith communities in varying ways. As this participant reminded us:

203 (52-year-old female): Okay, I’m going to start by saying…. There wasn’t any church community here to come to shortly after, so as far as here in St. Bernard, just like everything else, it got devastated, too. So there wasn’t one to turn to here.

Even so, her desire to worship with others was sufficient that she did the best she could after evacuating and while being displaced for several months. She went on to explain,

203: When I was moving around from place to place, and I wasn’t familiar with the areas I was living in or staying in, even if it was for a couple of weeks, what I did was if I…the nearest church or one that I spotted on my way would be where I would go on Sunday, regardless of denomination. So after, as I moved from place to place, I went to a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Unitarian church, a Episcopalian church…. If I could find a church, then I went to it….

Several other participants discussed their post-evacuation solutions to finding a new faith community as well. Two other participants explained:

238 (67-year-old male): As far as our church and that, yes because we (our family) always would try to stay as active as we can in our church. Even when we didn’t have a church [because of the flood], we made our mass, no matter where it was. Even if we had to travel half an hour, 45 min, it didn’t matter, we were going to mass [somewhere].

131 (56-year-old male): It was amazing because for a long time, people came from Baton Rouge, and Lafayette, and really all over Louisiana, and Mississippi, on Sunday morning to come to church [together]…. [Y]ou don’t really realize how much of a center of community is at the church, until something like [Katrina] happens. I never really realized it before. You’d see everybody in the church. You know, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your momma doing?” and all that kind of stuff. But you didn’t really realize how strong those bonds were, I guess, until something like that happened…. [I] saw those people driving for two or three hours to get there, to go to a 1-hour mass.

Another evacuee strived to find remnants of her faith community in Slidell, LA (about an hour from New Orleans). She said,

204 (62-year-old female): [What helped me cope] was going to mass even though I was going in Slidell and [then] seeing the familiar faces of both the priests [who had also relocated] and being fed by their dynamic homilies…. They could just kind of knock your socks off…that really helped me…. [It also helped a lot to see some of] the [old church] friends that I was able to reconnect with.

We are reminded by this participant’s recollections that while faith community worship is primarily sacred for some and primarily social for others, for many it serves both of these important functions (Dollahite, Marks, & Olson, 2002) .

The previous three narratives remind us of the disruption of faith communities caused by evacuation and relocation of both congregants and clergy . For those who later returned (as opposed to permanently relocating elsewhere), some additional challenges remained. One woman recalled that, for her family and congregation,

214 (56-year-old female): [We had flood] water in the Church, about…three feet or so. So, we had Mass under a tent, which belonged to our congregation from here. You know, they went around salvaging what they could from different places. And…[we] had donated chairs…. I don’t know where they came from, they were all different chairs. And, then when the Church was finally cleaned out, we went into the Church…of course there was no air conditioning, no whatever, and we had to make do with what [we] had.

The same participant (214) explained elsewhere that when she and her family

…got back home, which was several weeks after…Katrina, we didn’t have a Church. Church was…. Our Church building was damaged and would have to be repaired. And, our faith community, the Catholic community in St. Bernard, started with one Church and everybody went to the one Church, before any others could open. So we started with the one church and the one pastor and, you know, everybody from…which was once seven different parishes or churches going to the same place. So I think, you know, it’s like everybody had been through the same thing, you know? And, I think that was a help with coping once you went to a place where everybody had been through the same thing and is going through the same thing….

Two other participants said, with respect to both their literal families and their “church families”:

251 (71-year-old female): What we worried about coming back, [was that] we wouldn’t have our religion, [that] we wouldn’t have nothing…. When we first…[back] we didn’t have [pews], but they had [borrowed] chairs…as a matter of fact, I think in the beginning we were sitting outside…. But we didn’t care. We sat on the floor, we had to…but [it still] really it made your Sunday….

260 (64-year-old female): [After the hurricanes, we] had to rebuild Our Lady of Prompt Succor, our church which was my parish. [That was the church] where I was married. My children [were] baptized there, [and] they went to school from kindergarten to eighth grade there. And so we had a hand in [rebuilding our church]. So when you have a real role, it’s a real ownership, and so that helped [us to be able to help to] put the church back together.

Another narrative supporting “The Hunger for Faith Community” shows a particularly determined participant who refused to let her faith community die:

228 (52-year-old female): We kept our [Our Lady of] Lourdes faith community together, even though we weren’t a “church” [because our building was damaged and closed for a while]…. The people were church. We kept that alive. We kept in touch…. I had everybody’s email [on a] distribution list. I kept them abreast of what was going on. [We] rallied in the troops for the rosaries at church, outside of church, [we’d even meet on] the levee walks. Everybody got the emails. “Okay, we’re doing the [meeting at the] levee.”… So we were church. We kept the same core people together and we knew we were going to [eventually re-] open our church. And we did. (Note: Our Lady of Lourdes reopened in November of 2009).

As previously illustrated, several participants and their families made pronounced (even remarkable) efforts to maintain, sustain, or even create faith communities after Katrina and Rita struck. Although most of our participants were Catholic and at least somewhat religious, the sample ranged widely in their reported faith affiliation and level of belief (see Cherry, Sampson, Nezat, Cacamo, Marks, & Galea, 2015) . The following participant represents the atheist perspective of a few:

236 (76-year-old male): No, I don’t believe, I don’t believe [in God]. [Also], I don’t like crowds [and I don’t like church]. I have enough faith in my thoughts to overcome just about any problem that I find…. So religion has not been…[helpful].

For one or two other participants, having a faith community was not important, although they still held a belief in God and engaged in religious practices. One such participant (233) reported that in her home, “I probably read my Bible more after the storm and I probably prayed a lot more [but] my husband and I are not real fond of organized religion” (49-year-old female).

To summarize, in Theme 1, “The Hunger for Faith Community,” we see that while faith community was unimportant or only mildly important to a few of our participants, faith community was of profound importance to many other individuals, married couples, and families. Indeed, faith community was important enough to some that following the destruction of their traditional houses of worship, they employed a variety of alternatives including: (a) starting informal worship groups in their neighborhoods and homes, (b) finding new places to worship in whatever city or state they found themselves, and (c) involving themselves in restoration efforts for their buildings of worship after the storm. This first theme reflects the importance of faith community in the lives of many of our participants and their families. However, this theme offers only moderate insight regarding why they longed for a faith community. This issue is addressed in greater depth next.

Theme 2: “My Church Family Kept Me Going”

Both the religious and social force of faith community in the lives of many participants is evident in the narratives that follow, providing new insight into why participants may have longed for association with a faith community after the storms. The close-knit faith community ties of some were evidenced by reports of focused concern in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. One woman recalled,

203 (52-year-old female): [I remember] the frantic search online for people. [Trying to find out] who was missing and who wasn’t. [It was awful] how long that went on after [Katrina hit], still not knowing who made it out, if everyone that you knew made it out, even if they weren’t a close relative. [Especially], you still were concerned [for] your fellow church community [members]. And as the list of names of [those] who didn’t make it came out…we lost quite a few, I’d say I knew at least a good five people from church that didn’t evacuate and drowned.

For this participant, the first reported source of human concern, after “close” family, was “fellow church community” members. As the death tolls rose, and names of “church family” were added to the list, it is interesting to note that some participants also turned to their faith community, not only in terms of “religious coping” but also in terms of social support, a listening ear, and someone with whom to break bread. Another woman summarized:

223 (63-year-old female): I think just going to church has helped us…cope. Just, just going to church and being with our friends and all [our loved ones] at church. And after church on Saturday…evening…a group of us go out to eat [and visit together].

Other participants similarly discussed the impromptu social meetings after the formal worship service—meetings the survivors seemed to need—to grieve, to catch up, and to face the future:

143 (59-year-old female): It’s not [just] that you’re going to the building…. You could pray at home…[but] it’s just being a part of the community, knowing that if something happens, [you]’ve got other people there…that would help or that you can turn to…. That’s the whole point of going to church.

238 (67-year-old male): Yes, [the faith community] helped you cope with life’s stresses. The best thing about [our church] to me is that you get to be…a community again [after all we have been through].… [I remember], even [after] mass left out, we’d all gather after mass to eat…. There was a time of community that everybody got together after the mass. Nobody hurried up and got in their own vehicle and left. No, we just…stood around and talked and, we’d have conversations with [our] people that you [see]…once a week…you’ve known them all your life. Just to have that sense of community…. It helps you cope.

The following participants had similar recollections following the storms. One man reported:

254 (59-year-old male): Has a church or faith community helped [us] cope with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? I would say, “Yes.” And the reason is: number one…we went to church the first mass at Prompt Succor the third weekend in October. And, that…mass then for the next [couple of months]…became the meeting place where you could network with people, you know? Because prior to that event, you [were] lucky [if] you found people because everybody’s cell…phones didn’t work; [and] people were living out of town. [Our church family was] scattered all over the place…. [The services starting back up at Prompt Succor gave us all] a chance to make contact with friends and people to get your life going again. So,…[when] the Church started, we had a place to go, [to reunite].… [And the] networking is a big plus that came out of that, being able to see the people and people networking, and then [the additional] moral support.

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Families and Faith-based Communities After a Disaster: Successes and Failures in the Wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
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