Loss, Chaos, Survival, and Despair: The Storm after the Storms

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_13

13. Loss, Chaos, Survival, and Despair: The Storm after the Storms

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

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

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

Department of Psychology, Oklahoma State University, 74078 Stillwater, OK, USA

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

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



Trevan G. Hatch


Katie E. Cherry (Corresponding author)


Keri L. Kytola


Yaxin Lu


Loren D. Marks

Hurricanes Katrina and RitaNatural disasterDisaster mental healthPosttraumatic stressComplicated griefLong-term recoveryQualitative research


The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season brought two category 3 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, which resulted in unparalleled destruction and devastation for the US Gulf Coast residents (see Chaps. 10 and 12, this volume). Lingering signs of the damage from these massive storms in 2005 can still be seen in coastal towns and communities today. Many neighborhoods were completely destroyed, including houses and schools. Some families were separated and many friends moved away. Coastal residents lost their jobs and their religious communities, as businesses and churches were destroyed (Henry, 2013; Kamo, Henderson, & Roberto, 2011) .

The psychosocial consequences of disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, are well documented in disaster research literature (Neria, Galea, & Norris, 2009; Norris et al., 2002; Norris & Elrod, 2006) . For instance, disruptions to social networks and heightened prevalence of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress may be observed in the first weeks and months after a disaster. Other evidence has shown that behavioral and mental health consequences of disasters may persist 2 or more years after these events (Galea, Tracy, Norris, & Coffey, 2008; Gleser, Green, & Winget, 1981) . From a developmental perspective, short-term and long-term psychological effects have been found in children exposed to natural disasters (i.e., hurricanes, Belter, Dunn, & Jeney, 1991; flooding, Earls, Smith, Reich, & Junk, 1988) . For example, McFarlane, Policansky, and Irwin (1987) tested children at several points following a natural disaster. They found that after 8 months, the number of children who were at high risk for psychiatric disorders increased dramatically, and these rates remained high for more than 2 years (see also Green et al., 1991). Adults who experienced a traumatic event have also exhibited psychological effects over time including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) , anxiety, depression, and affective disorders (Breslau, Davis, Andreski, & Peterson, 1991; Sharan, Chaudhary, Kavathekar, & Saxena, 1996) . Older adults are considered by some to be a special risk group for post-disaster distress (Massey, 1997) . However, older adults who survive disaster may be resilient to adverse psychosocial outcomes (Cherry, Galea, & Silva, 2008; Cherry et al., 2011) , although further research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of disaster exposure, especially for frail elderly adults (Cherry, Allen, & Galea, 2010) .

Our primary purpose in this chapter is to examine the challenges that survivors faced after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and highlight their experiences as remembered 5 or more years after these storms. Some challenges seem to have remained in the forefront of our participants’ minds while the recollection of other challenges may have faded over time. There is evidence in the research literature to indicate that the vividness and effects of some experiences, such as physical pain or hunger, may diminish over time. For instance, individuals who experience a tremendous amount of pain—a severe ear infection or toothache—may not remember how painful the ear infection or toothache felt several years later (Eich, Reeves, Jaeger, & Graff-Radford, 1985) . In contrast, other traumatic life experiences such as crises of health or finances, or the death of a loved one may be remembered with great clarity bringing waves of sorrow and additional challenges that have lasting effects. Similarly, our participants have identified losing personal possessions (e.g., pictures, tools, vehicles, etc.); dealing with insurance companies; or securing the basic necessities of clothes, food, and temporary shelter immediately after the storms as challenging because those were their immediate needs. These challenges, however, may pale in comparison to less tangible, interpersonal challenges that have lingered for 5 years or more.

To summarize, participants’ narratives highlighted in this chapter bring into focus the immediate challenges of meeting basic needs and the lingering challenges related to a wide range of post-disaster losses that may be less apparent to those with limited hurricane experience. In particular, our participants have spoken of the loss of friends and colleagues who relocated elsewhere, the diminished sense of community, and lasting sorrow and mental fatigue (in local parlance, “Katrina brain”) associated with the burden of surviving a disaster, followed by stress of rebuilding a life. In addition to identifying which challenges may have been the most difficult to manage over time, this chapter also examines how the various proximal and distal challenges affected our participants several years after the storms.


Participants and Interview Procedure

In all, 125 individuals participated in this study. They were 62 former coastal residents relocated to new homes in non-coastal communities (M age = 58.4, SD = 17.1 years, 21 males, 41 females) and 63 current residents returned to rebuild and restore their lives in their home communities (M age = 60.7, SD = 15.0 years, 26 males, 37 females). Sociodemographic characteristics of the sample and other individual differences are reported elsewhere (see Cherry et al., 2015) . All participants were assigned a three-digit number to protect anonymity; former residents in the 100s (101–162) and current residents in the 200s (201–263), which we reference here and in Chaps. 12, 14, 20, and 21 (this volume).

Interviews were conducted in participants’ homes or in a community location in two sessions (or more, if needed). At the end of the first session, participants were given seven open-ended questions on a prepared sheet, which were read aloud and reviewed. In the second session (at least 1 week later), participants answered these questions and their responses were recorded. Digital voice files were transcribed verbatim and double-checked for accuracy. In this chapter, we focus on participants’ responses to these questions: (1) “People who lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita experienced a variety of challenges, obstacles and setbacks. Please tell us how you coped with the challenges you faced after the storms.” (2) “What kinds of things did you do to establish a new daily routine?” (3) “When did ‘normal living’ come back for you?” (4) “What would you like others to know about your experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?”

Participants’ responses were analyzed using open and axial coding, two techniques from grounded theory methodology (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) . We conducted team-based analyses to enhance the reliability and validity of these findings (see Chap. 12, this volume, for description). Five themes pertaining to the challenges current and former coastal residents faced after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 were revealed; three are presented next and two appear in Chap. 12 (this volume).


The themes presented next reflect participants’ personal anguish, fatigue, and discouragement after their homes and communities were devastated by the 2005 hurricanes. They lost material possessions, their “entire community”—including houses, jobs, neighbors, churches, public buildings, and institutions (Cherry et al., 2015) . Many were thrown into a tailspin of sorrow—overwhelmed with the task of trying to adjust to their new circumstances.

Part of the “truth” that has emerged from this study is the remarkable resilience apparent in the interviews. As documented in Chaps. 20 and 21 (this volume), participants seemed to gravitate toward faith, family, and friends for comfort and support. Chapters Chapters  20 and 21 deal primarily with healthy and successful coping strategies and efforts—emphasizing the positive and salutogenic. Another portion of the full truth is that, for many, psychological and emotional scars linger—even years later. We are grateful for the opportunity, within this edited volume, to present different facets of participants’ reports—thereby conveying a richer, more complete version of the “truth” regarding these 125 participants’ experiences.

The themes presented here capture challenges they faced after the storms. These themes are: (1) “I Don’t Want to Lose Another Friend:” A Loss of More than Material Possessions, (2) “No Coping, Just Surviving:” Chaos and the Crushing Burden of Survival, and (3) “[Katrina] Made Me a Weaker Person:” Anguish and Despair after the Storms. Primary data are presented in connection with each theme next, consistent with our objective to provide the reader with the opportunity to hear the participants’ “voices” (e.g., Gilligan, 1992) .

Theme 1: “I Don’t Want to Lose Another Friend:” A Loss of More than Material Possessions

A former coastal resident (124) told a new friend after Katrina: “I don’t know if I want to get close to you, because I don’t want to lose another friend” (69-year-old female). Her lament echoes the voices of many who agreed overwhelmingly that material possessions do not matter as much as relationships (see Chap. 21, this volume). Although participants reported the loss of family heirlooms, photographs, and wedding memorabilia (with profound regret in most cases), many also spontaneously mentioned that relationships with God, family, and friends are what matter most. Accordingly, the greatest challenge for many was that, in addition to losing most of their personal possessions, they also lost their entire community and network of friends.

Another former resident explained the context behind this type of statement, as many outsiders are unaware of the life-changing devastation that descended upon the communities embedded in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes of south Louisiana:

115 (48-year old female): I would like everybody to know [and]…understand that in the history of America, no county (we call them parishes) has ever been decimated like St. Bernard has. The entire parish was destroyed; with the exception of three to five buildings, everything was destroyed. The way that this parish was…you grew up and you bought a house down the street from your Mom. You didn’t move. Certainly some people did, but most people stayed close to home. So when [Katrina] destroyed the entire parish, you are looking at generations of families being out of some place to live…. You know when they…had the flooding in Tennessee…it was terrible, really terrible…[but] it wasn’t an entire…parish [that] was destroyed…. So that’s what I would like people to understand: that it was not [just] a neighborhood. New Orleans was not [entirely] destroyed; neighborhoods of New Orleans were destroyed. But St. Bernard, an entire parish was destroyed…where pretty much everybody you know was born, raised, and then lived in that same neighborhood. They were destroyed…. That’s what I’d like Brad Pitt to know as he’s rebuilding those houses in the Ninth Ward; the Ninth Ward is one neighborhood. If you go just a mile down the road, you will run into miles and miles and miles of destruction.

She emphasized to “everybody” outside the community that the hurricanes did not generate a 60–90-day inconvenience consisting of flooding, followed by the hassle of replacing carpet, drywall, and furniture—rather, the storms decimated everything save a few buildings and then forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes in St. Bernard Parish alone. Participants 117 and 252 echo similar details:

117 (61-year old female): Every house was devastated—the whole community was devastated… Every job, every business, everything was devastated. And I don’t think, you know, even though everybody saw the pictures, I think they thought it was like…the flood water in Iowa…but we had such a different experience because houses were [not just wet or damaged, they were] just totally destroyed.

252 (56-year old male): I would like them to understand what happened here, that it wasn’t just a hurricane [that] came in and then it left and we were alright or we were back on our feet… This parish was 67,000 people before the storm. We are [now] in March of 2011, five and a half years later, and we’re only at 35,000 people. When a jurisdiction is one hundred percent wiped out…it takes years to go about getting government up and running. We’re just five and a half years in, and they just started the hospital. We don’t have a hospital. Five and a half years in [and still] we’re working out of a clinic.

As illustrated by the three previous reports, individuals who experienced the devastation were adamant that outsiders learn the extent of what happened to their communities. Residents of the region were not just inconvenienced; the infrastructure of their parish and their way of life were obliterated. Their homes, churches, family businesses, government buildings, hospitals, schools, and shops were nothing more than a memory after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

In addition to the loss of physical structures and personal property, individuals lost daily, face-to-face contact with their friends and peers. For example, one man (134) lamented the loss of relationships that had been nurtured for nearly three decades before the storms:

134 (60-year old male): It was a loss. It was a feeling of loss, not just loss [of] things but loss [of] community. You know, we lost our community and our friends because our friends moved everywhere. Pretty much, that’s it…. We didn’t have our church anymore to go to that we had gone to for twenty-seven years. We had to start going to a new church. It was… it was hard. After a while, you get tired of making new friends.

Many participants in the immediate aftermath of the storms would identify employment and housing as the greatest losses because those necessities were highest in priority at the time. However, our sample—individuals who were interviewed between 5 and 7 years after the storms— seemed to agree that personal relationships, faith community, and intimate social circles were missed more than the possessions, houses, or jobs. As an illustration, one participant offered the following insight:

210 (57-year old male): You know, when you grow up somewhere, and you go to school, you have friends, you have family, and all the sudden what happened with Katrina was… you know, the houses are one thing. The houses are something physical that can be replaced, but it scattered families [and] friends. The schools that you went to…are no longer there or they’ve…changed into something else…. So the biggest loss I would say was loss of community, a group of people, and a way of life down here.

In Theme 1 (“I Don’t Want to Lose Another Friend:” A Loss of More than Material Possessions), the voices of several participants explained that, in many ways, the most profound losses were relational in nature. Five or more years after the storm, the wounds left by having family and friends torn away had not healed fully—and perhaps never will.

Having established that the distress associated with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita’s catastrophic impact still lingers in the present for many, we now present a theme that takes us back to the carnage and devastation in the immediate aftermath of the storms (Buuck, 2007; Schaefer, 2007) . If some of the relational scars left by Katrina were indelible and unrelenting, so too were some of the horrific memories of the chaos and the related fight for survival that followed in the immediate but lasting wake of August 29, 2005. In Theme 2 (“No Coping, Just Surviving:” Chaos and the Crushing Burden of Survival), we convey participants’ experiences regarding the struggle for life amidst the chaos and destruction, which we have termed, “The Storm After the Storm.”

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Loss, Chaos, Survival, and Despair: The Storm after the Storms
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