When Neighborhoods Are Destroyed by Disaster: Relocate or Return and Rebuild?

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_12

12. When Neighborhoods Are Destroyed by Disaster: Relocate or Return and Rebuild?

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

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

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



Keri L. Kytola


Katie E. Cherry (Corresponding author)


Loren D. Marks


Trevan G. Hatch

Bioecological modelEcological frameworksNatural disasterHurricanes Katrina and RitaCatastrophic lossLong-term recovery


The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season brought two category 3 storms, Katrina and Rita, within 4 weeks of each other. These treacherous hurricanes left a trail of immeasurable losses across the US Gulf Coast. When homes, neighborhoods, and communities are destroyed by disaster, survivors must relocate to habitable geographic regions. Depending on the individual and his or her circumstances, temporary or permanent new living arrangements become a necessity. Following a ­disaster, uncertainties driven by environmental destruction may be overwhelming and possibly frightening, although survivors find traction to move ahead despite the hardships of displacement and catastrophic damage to homes and communities. Understanding how environmental factors affect personal as well as community-wide recovery in the years after a disaster is a timely and urgent challenge for social scientists. Greater awareness and insight into disaster survivors’ experiences may be key to the development of successful interventions to lessen suffering in future storms and natural disasters.

In this chapter, we focus on the role that the post-disaster environment plays in long-term recovery for Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors at least 5 years after these events. Our goal is to present an insiders’ perspective on post-disaster adjustment based on the experiences of people who relocated permanently and those who returned to their storm-devastated homes to rebuild and re-establish lifestyles. We begin with an overview of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory which has been adapted to study the psychological impact of natural disasters (Kilmer & Gil-Rivas, 2010; Weems & Overstreet, 2009); see also Chap. 10, this volume) . An ecological systems approach, among other contextual theories, provides a useful conceptual framework for thinking about individuals nested within the broader social contexts of family, community, and cultural traditions and heritage. In the second section, we describe our qualitative methodology , which was modeled after our earlier work with indirectly affected older adults in Louisiana Healthy Aging Study (LHAS) 4–14 months after the storms (Cherry et al., 2011; Silva Brown et al., 2010 . This chapter is based on interviews conducted with directly affected coastal residents between 5 and 7 years after the 2005 storms. All had experienced catastrophic hurricane damage and losses, which are reported elsewhere (Cherry et al., 2015). Here we present two emergent themes that provide insight into the frustrations and forced environmental changes after the 2005 storms. The remaining themes are presented in Chap. 13 (this volume). In the last section, we focus on adjustment and new life circumstances in the years after natural disaster.

Conceptual Framework and Literature

Nested Ecologies

Recent theorizing on post-disaster psychological reactions from a child developmental perspective traces its origins to Bronfenbrenner’s (1977, 1979) ecological systems theory , which offers an integrative conceptual framework for studying factors that affect adaptation and well-being after a disaster (Kilmer & Gil-Rivas, 2010; Weems & Overstreet, 2009) . In brief, the ecological systems theory holds that children function within multiple nested contexts or ecologies that vary in proximity to the individual. Proximal ecologies include family, school, and peers, among other influences close to a person. Distal ecologies include the farthest sources of influence, such as government, sociocultural values, and beliefs. Proximal and distal ecologies are assumed to exert bidirectional influence, where changes in one ecology may influence another as well as an individual’s development (see Chap. 10, this volume).

Bronfenbrenner’s original formulation of ecological systems theory , which emphasized multiple nested ecologies at increasing levels of abstraction, later gave rise to his bioecological model with greater focus on characteristics of the individual over time as a critical determinant of development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) . An ecological framework for disaster research, which emphasizes proximal and distal factors that affect well-being in children and families, has motivated research on topics as diverse as childhood wellness and community resilience after disaster (Pfefferbaum, Pfefferbaum & Norris, 2010) to the emotional consequences of destruction and loss after Hurricane Katrina for disaster-exposed youth in New Orleans (Weems & Overstreet, 2009; for review, see Chap. 10, this volume) and coping behaviors and well-being among Katrina-displaced older adults (Kamo, Henderson, & Roberto, 2011) . Here we adopt an ecological systems perspective to guide our work on psychosocial consequences of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for a primarily older sample of adults directly affected by these storms.

Disrupted Ecologies and Psychosocial Consequences

On August 29, 2005, residents of Louisiana held their collective breath in anticipation of the massive, category 5 hurricane churning in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Katrina (and Rita, 1 month later) was on an unstoppable path of destruction. Louisianans in the coastal parish (county) of St. Bernard, just 5 miles southeast of the great city of New Orleans, were sent into a flight of panic, shock, and fear as the local government issued a mandatory evacuation order just hours before the storm made landfall.

Without ample time to prepare for evacuation, many people faced the reality of staying behind to bear witness to Katrina’s destruction of their homes, community, and way of life. Residents who evacuated in advance of the storm avoided having to experience Katrina’s wrath firsthand, yet most witnessed the storm’s devastating effects via television or radio transmission. In nearby Baton Rouge, LA, an estimated 200,000 evacuees arrived overnight from storm-ravaged coastal areas, resulting in immediate infrastructure challenges and disruptions in daily life (Cherry, Allen, & Galea, 2010) . These storms brought many challenges at the time, although the adverse effects were longer lasting than initially foreseen. Those who experienced the hurricanes were fully aware that normal living would be temporarily suspended, but they did not know it would be completely lost. Hurricane Katrina spared no one in her comprehensive swath of destruction. Homes, neighborhoods, schools, shopping centers, businesses, places of worship, and entire geographic regions were destroyed (Cherry, 2009).

In the present research, we compared former residents who relocated permanently to non-coastal communities after the 2005 storms and current coastal residents who had returned to rebuild and re-establish lives in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in south Louisiana. Based on an ecological systems perspective, we reasoned that proximal and distal ecologies would be impoverished in areas where community resources (e.g., social networks, schools, businesses, places of worship) were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm. Those who returned to devastated areas to rebuild their homes would therefore be exposed to a longer duration of adversity than former residents who relocated to non-coastal communities after the storms. One might expect that the experiences and needs among former and current coastal residents would differ in the immediate post-disaster period and in the years since 2005 (see also Chap. 13, this volume). Such a pattern of outcomes would provide new evidence concerning proximal and distal ecological influences on post-Katrina recovery.

To summarize, participants responded to open-ended questions designed to examine different, but complementary aspects of post-Katrina recovery: (a) challenges, obstacles, and setbacks after the storms, (b) establishing a new daily routine, (c) the return of “normal living,” and (d) what others should know about their hurricane experiences. These open-ended questions were given to provide greater breadth and depth of responses than would have been possible with a strictly quantitative assessment. Taken together, participants’ responses to these questions yielded narrative data that were analyzed for recurring concepts and emergent themes. We expected that responses for both groups would be similar concerning lost property, disrupted social and professional networks, and difficulties with insurance claims (see also Chap. 13, this volume). In contrast, current residents’ responses may qualitatively differ from those of former residents due to a longer duration of adversity driven by disruption and losses in proximal and distal ecologies, including limited community resources and social milieu.


Participants and Procedure

A total of 125 adults were interviewed between March, 2010, and November, 2012. They were former and current residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in south Louisiana, with catastrophic Hurricane Katrina damage. Former residents consisted of 62 persons who were displaced and relocated permanently to non-coastal communities after the storm (M age = 58.4, SD = 17.1 years; age range: 18–89 years; 21 males, 41 females). Current residents were 63 directly affected persons who were also displaced but returned to rebuild and restore their lives in their coastal parish communities (M age = 60.7, SD = 15.0 years, age range: 20–83 years; 26 males, 37 females). A more thorough description of the sample and procedure is given elsewhere (Cherry et al., 2015) .

Participants were tested individually in their homes or in a community location across two (or more) sessions separated by at least a week. The procedures used in this study were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. To preserve anonymity, all participants were assigned a three-digit number, with former residents in the 100s (101–162) and current residents in the 200s (201–263), as referenced throughout this chapter. In the first session, informed consent was obtained and quantitative measures were administered (see Cherry et al., 2015) . Participants were given a prepared page with seven open-ended questions in all, which were reviewed briefly and left with them to reference later, if desired. In the second session, these questions were presented to participants in turn on individually prepared cards. Their oral responses were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcriptions were audited for accuracy and print copies were produced for the purpose of qualitative coding by an independent group of research assistants. In this chapter, we focus on participants’ responses to the following four questions:


“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.”



“What kinds of things did you do to establish a new daily routine?”



“When did ‘normal living’ come back for you?”



“What would you like others to know about your experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?”


Analysis and Coding

Participants’ narrative data were open coded and content analyzed in a manner consistent with grounded theory methodology (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) . In brief, two research teams, consisting of one graduate student and three undergraduate students per team (eight coders total), performed independent open coding (identifying recurring themes and concepts in the text) on an interview-by-interview basis. One team coded former residents’ narratives (100s series), while the other team coded current residents’ narratives (200s series).

To promote rigor, every interview was independently coded in its entirety by two coders, referred to as “coding partners” or “coding pairs.” Each coding pair met weekly to review and discuss their independently assigned codes. Coding partners would compare and contrast their independent open coding from the previous week on a line-by-line, page-by-page basis with each other, alternatively “leading out” by discussing her/his personal open coding of a given page. Following presentation of one’s independent coding of a given page, the other coding partner would discuss similarities and differences from their coding. Each team member provided a numeric content analysis (NCA) of his/her open coding for each interview, similar to Miles and Huberman’s (1994) “data accounting sheet” (p. 80). Similarities and discrepancies between individual coders were noted.

Following the weekly “coding pair” meeting, full “team” (two coding pairs) meetings were held to compare and contrast emerging themes across interviews. The two teams met separately on a weekly basis for several months until the open coding and content analysis was completed for all interviews. At this point, we collected all NCAs for each interview, offering multiple “at-a-glance” perspectives of the concepts and themes expressed in each of the interviews (Marks, Cherry, & Silva, 2009) . Each team member identified her/his top central themes based on two factors: prevalence (within and across interviews) and salience. To strengthen inter-rater reliability and minimize idiosyncratic bias, all central themes were reviewed and discussed within each team until a consensus was reached. By doing so, the team-based analysis revealed both relevant data segments that may have been overlooked and peripheral excerpts that were deemed “a stretch.”

A final combined team meeting (with all eight coders) was held to identify similarities and differences among the central themes that had emerged from former and current residents’ narratives. To ensure that the final central themes were verifiable and clearly supported by the data, team members then revisited all of the interviews and copied and pasted all data that had been directly identified with a given theme into a specific file. Each team member was assigned one prospective “core” theme which they were asked to confirm. Ultimately, in order to be deemed “core” or central, a given theme required several pages of supporting data—consistent with Patton’s (2002) suggestion of creating a data “audit trail” (p. 93). Although many themes were identified during the team-based, open-coding analyses, the “core” themes presented here were identified by consensus (see also Chaps. 4, 13, 14, 18, 20, and 21, this volume). In other words, the themes featured in our related work were not merely emergent or noticeable. Indeed, to be identified as a “core” theme, every member of the coding team must have identified the theme many times across interviews and must have produced the NCA trail to document the theme as core and central. The themes presented shortly met these rigorous criteria.


Five major themes emerged from our team-based analysis. Two themes are presented here, which include: (1) There’s No Going Back: The “Old Normal” is Gone Forever and (2) You Don’t Understand Unless You Were There. The remaining themes are discussed in Chap. 13 (this volume). Illustrative and supportive excerpts from the participants’ interviews are provided in connection with each of these major themes.

Theme 1: There’s No Going Back: The “Old Normal” Is Gone Forever

Coastal residents faced countless challenges in an uncertain and chaotic post-disaster environment. One pressing dilemma is where to live when one’s home and way of life has been washed away in the floodwaters of Katrina. Over a million displaced US Gulf Coast residents faced an exceedingly difficult decision of whether to relocate permanently and start over somewhere else, or return home and rebuild despite the catastrophic devastation, hardships, and crippled infrastructure. For many people, interpersonal, economic, and historical factors likely influenced the decision to relocate or go back to their coastal homes (see Henry, 2013, for a related discussion). At least 5 years later, former and current residents alike repeatedly made the point that their life today does not resemble what it was like prior to August of 2005. The next quotes, from a former (151) and two current residents (253, 227), illustrate differences in the length of displacement for those who relocated permanently versus those who returned to rebuild, although the sense of loss and painful steps of moving on in a world that has changed appear remarkably similar:

151 (65-year old male): Life was never, ever going to be the same. Oftentimes people will say to us, “But look at the beautiful home you have. You all have everything you could possibly want.” And that’s true. But what we don’t have is life as we knew it before Katrina. So although you can go out and buy furniture, the loss—it never, ever goes away. When I say loss, what I mean is your life is never the same.

253 (21-year old male): Normal living…I could tell you probably when it came back the most, but I’m not sure that I can really say that we ever got back to full, normal living because so much of what we had known before the storm had changed. We were able to get back into our old house, you know, two years after the storm had hit. It was, but even then it was renovated, so it was new. And, I was able to go back to the same school that I had gone to before the storm, but the people who were there were different. You know, some people had left. Some new people had come in. So it was always this process of getting re-familiarized with everything, because nothing was normal. So I mean, I guess the, the most normal was when we were finally able to get back into our house and go back to my old school. But even then I, I think there was never a point when things were fully normal because things had changed too much for that.

There is a sense of comfort in the familiar, yet transformed and now different home and school environments 2 years after the storm for this adolescent (253) who was a high school student at the time of the 2005 hurricanes. One may sense a similar sentiment in the next quote of a middle-aged man (227) when he returned to his former home and reopened his business 3 years after the storm:

227 (54-year old male): I guess normal could be different, could be different for everybody. As far as completely normal, I don’t think my life ever did get completely back the way it was, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a normal routine and I don’t have a life that’s—it’s different, but yet it’s consistent. And what was normal then and what was normal now, I feel is different. But as far as being normal to some consistency, I would say it took about three years to get the businesses reopened and be back in a home and at least feel like things would get back to some type of normalcy where I could live within my own home and have my businesses running again and that kind of felt probably more normal than anything else at that point.

As this man notes, “normal could be different for everybody.” Most would agree that what constitutes “normal” is subjective and may also evolve over time, so it may not be possible to quantify this term for strictly research purposes. Nonetheless, our participants shed some light on what “normal living” means to them, what it was considered before the storms, and why it never fully returned after the 2005 hurricanes. Based on the participants’ direct storm experiences, “normal living” would appear to mean living one’s life as he or she so chooses, being close to and seeing immediate and extended family members regularly, having access to necessary establishments (schools, shopping centers, hospitals, etc.), participating in local activities, and feeling a sense of home and belonging. After Katrina and Rita swept through the US Gulf Coast region, this idea of what was “normal” has reportedly disappeared.

Both former and current residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes spoke of the loss of a way of life. Their comments provide a unique insiders’ perspective on why their lives will never again be “normal” in the pre-Katrina sense:

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on When Neighborhoods Are Destroyed by Disaster: Relocate or Return and Rebuild?

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