Younger and Older Coastal Fishers Face Catastrophic Loss after Hurricane Katrina

Fig. 18.1
St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes in South Louisiana. (Courtesy of Mary Lee Eggart, Cartographer, 2014)

Lifelong residents of the US Gulf Coast are well acquainted with the threat and environmental realities of severe weather. The Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1 and concludes on November 30 (National Hurricane Center, 2015). Year after year, hurricane season comes and goes, sometimes with great activity churning in the Gulf of Mexico and other times with less activity and relative calm. Storm preparations and anticipation are fundamental to coastal residents. They either evacuate, leaving the area for a few days until the storm has passed, or they hunker down and ride out the storm as coastal residents have done for centuries. For commercial fishers, the large shrimping and oyster boats are moved to secure locations within the levee protection system or taken to distant ports well beyond the anticipated reach of a potentially deadly hurricane. No one would have imagined these austere and commanding sea vessels would become a safe haven for hundreds of storm-ravaged strangers rescued by first responders and brave citizens in the last days of August 2005.

For younger and older coastal residents alike, storms associated with flooding and significant property damage stand out in memory, serving as a reference point against which future storms are compared. Older coastal residents talk about hurricanes that destroyed homes before storms were named. For example, the unnamed storm of 1947 demolished homes in Yscloskey, Hopedale, and Delacroix Island (see Fig. 18.1). Less than a decade later, Hurricane Flossy struck the central Gulf Coast on September 24, 1956, as a category 1 storm that directly caused 15 deaths (Dunn, Davis, & Moore, 1956) . Middle-aged and older coastal residents spoke of Hurricane Betsy on September 9, 1965, with flooding in New Orleans and portions of St. Bernard. At 90 years of age, one lifelong coastal resident spoke of losing homes in three different hurricanes, Flossy, Betsy, and Katrina. As she described it, rebuilding homes and reestablishing routines of everyday living were part of life, something one does without hesitation or complaint. Listening to very old adults describe losing everything and rebuilding multiple times without litany, self-pity, or blame, one gets the sense that ­resilience (referring to the tendency to bounce back from negative life events) is a developmental characteristic acquired over time through experience and repeated exposure to adversity.

To summarize, we explore Katrina’s impact on commercial fishers and their family members who depend on natural resources for their livelihood in this chapter. The contrast between younger (less than 55 years of age) and older (55 + years) fishers is of particular interest. One might reasonably assume that distal variables such as cultural heritage and tradition may hold greater meaning among older fishers. Older fishers who have lived in hurricane-prone coastal regions for over a half-century have likely developed hurricane preparedness techniques and methods of coping, possibly passed down through fishing families for generations. These personal characteristics among seasoned fishers may contribute to individual and family resilience and the recovery and revitalization of communities when deadly and destructive hurricanes strike.


Participants and Procedure

The sample was comprised of 64 fishers and their family members. All had experienced catastrophic losses in the 2005 hurricanes (Cherry et al., 2015; Chap. 4, this volume) . To examine age-related differences in coping responses, the sample was split at the median age to form groups of younger (M = 43.2, SD = 10.9 years; age range: 21–54 years) and older adults (M = 66.5, SD = 10.5 years; age range: 55–90 years). In this chapter, we focus on fishers’ responses to the following open-ended questions:


In times of trouble, people often turn to their religion and spiritual beliefs to help them cope with life stresses. Have your religious beliefs and practices helped you cope with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? If so, in what way?



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? If so, in what way?



They say every cloud has a silver lining, and even the most awful events can have positive outcomes. Do you think there are any positive outcomes that can come from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? If so, what are they?


Of the 64 persons in the sample, four couples responded jointly to the open-ended questions, and one participant declined for a total of 59 responses which were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. For each transcription, two separate data audits were performed by different graduate research assistants to ensure accuracy of these narrative data.

Analyses and Coding

Narrative data were content analyzed in a manner consistent with grounded theory methodology (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) . Two student teams (each comprised of four coders and one team leader) met weekly during the 2014 spring semester to carry out the open-coding process (see Chap. 12, this volume, for a description). One team coded younger fishers’ responses, and the other team coded older fishers’ responses. Each week, the two coding teams met separately to discuss the prevalent ideas and themes covered in the interviews. To ensure that all reported themes for the two age groups were verifiable and clearly supported by the data, the two team leaders revisited all interviews within their age group and copied and pasted primary data that had been directly linked with major themes. As a final check to increase rigor, two senior research assistants who had not participated in the open-coding process reviewed the data files (one file for each major theme) for accuracy and completeness. As a result, each of the major themes reported here had several pages of supporting data drawn from multiple interviews—consistent with Patton’s (2002) recommendation of creating a data “audit trail” (p. 93).

For the major themes identified in this chapter, there was some overlap and similarity across the two age groups. There were, however, differences in the respective order of importance and salience across age groups—as well as some nuances that were captured during the process of team-based analysis. These themes are reported next along with more than 50 illustrative and supportive examples taken directly from the interviews.


In overview, we begin with Materialism and True Colors Revealed: Despicable Deeds and Acts of Grace After the Storm (Theme 1). In this theme, we focus on the polarizing effects of Katrina, where the best and the worst of humanity seemed evident after the storm. The next theme, Helping Efforts Across Denominations (Theme 2), overlaps substantially across the younger and older groups. Participants in both age groups revealed similar (sometimes strikingly similar) perceptions and reports in connection with this theme. However, our last theme, Historical Ties that Bind: Old Roots Versus New Connections (Theme 3), features noteworthy differences in responses between younger and older coastal fishers.

Theme 1: Materialism and True Colors Revealed: Despicable Deeds and Acts of Grace After the Storm

The first central theme voiced by our participants reflects a recurring, heightened awareness of the fleeting nature of material possessions. Many participants critically discussed some aspect of what might be broadly labeled materialism. With respect to money and the material possessions that money can buy, the catastrophic Hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, seemed to yield or “reveal” two diametrically ­opposed patterns of human response. One end of the spectrum involves the phenomena of looting and corruptly maximizing profits—the other end is an elevated sense of the worth of human life, often accompanied by generosity and unselfishness. In ­connection with Theme 1, we begin with a few brief references to the negative tendencies witnessed in Katrina’s aftermath (see also Chap. 13, this volume).

One participant noted that several of the “kids” that lived around him started looting after the storm. He reportedly redirected their efforts:

361: They were coming back with TVs. They were stealing everything, you know. Radios, and TVs, and stuff like that…the kids [were]. I said, “But listen: Where you going to go with that? You can’t eat it, and you can’t drink it! You [are] going to starve to death with that! …Come back with food! ….You see anything floating [that we can eat], don’t be stupid, pick it up, the canned goods, pick them up! Go gather food! And you all come right back here.” So, boy, they go gather up [canned food] stuff and they come right back to me. And then I formed a posse, the kids got together, it was the kids that did everything [to keep us alive]. (O)(57-year-old male)

As looting of possessions reached its peak and began to spill from businesses to homes, the concerns of non-evacuated survivors spiked. One participant recalled:

334: “[At first] I left the gun out. [But then], I couldn’t. I said, “What do I need a gun for? We don’t need a gun, we just got hit with a hurricane.” (O)(58-year-old female)

A few participants shared their view that the aftermath of the hurricane(s) revealed the “true identity” or “true colors” of people. The following excerpt is illustrative:

352: People were brought to their bare self. People…their true identity had become exposed. [You saw them] for what they really were…. You’re at the mercy of whoever will show you any [mercy]…. But [some] people used and manipulated and lied and took advantage and abused [other people] on a scale that was—[well], it was despicable. And [some who did these things] showed no remorse, or respect for people because they felt [that others] owe them something, I guess. (Y)(46-year-old male)

Another woman (312) similarly concluded that the changes and financial upheaval surrounding the hurricanes created a context where “We got to see true colors of people.” (Y)(40-year-old female). While some storm survivors were eager to grab and acquire during the aftermath, first responders and other heroic citizens who had not evacuated before the storm were concerned with saving lives (for documentary evidence and specific description, see Buuck, 2007; Schaefer, 2007; Wells, 2008) . A college-aged participant, who spoke of his mother (who was accustomed to providing for herself), provides a striking counter example to looting and stealing to improve one’s own lot. He recalled:

314: We didn’t have anything to eat, and the Red Cross would come around giving out lunches and my mom was crying because she didn’t want to have to take food…. (Y)(22-year-old male)

The same young man, who was in high school at the time Katrina hit, also recalled:

314: [The] environment at Holy Cross [School] helped me be strong through times like that, and you see other kids at school and they’re dealing with the same problems that you’re dealing with. I know some kids that didn’t have that strong family behind them like I did. I was…like I said, I was blessed to have that.… I know this one…guy I went to school with…he was working two jobs to help his mom rebuild their house [and he was still] in high school. I mean who should have to do that?

The crisis of Katrina placed new demands but also reportedly stimulated new opportunities and realizations in the lives of many of our participants.

As noted earlier, there were some reports and witnesses relating to persons who seemed to emphasize and cling to the monetary and material aspects of life through looting, dishonest manipulation, and other antisocial channels. Although this tendency to “grab” was mentioned, participants’ reports far more frequently referenced changes away from a materialistic or acquisition orientation in their own lives (see Chap. 21, this volume). The remainder of this theme’s discussion is devoted to conveying the participants’ related experiences and differences in the outlook on life they reported. Some, for example, juxtaposed the fleeting value of possessions with the precious nature of life itself, as reflected in these five excerpts:

302: The one positive thing I could think of is that we’re all living, we still, all my family made it through the storm; [our pets and] animals, and all my friends that I know made it through the storm. And you know, the possessions, you can always get back.… [But] life you can’t. …I want to take every day…like it’s the last day. (O)(59-year-old male)

346: [The initial shock] goes beyond just losing your home and pictures and your belongings. [What really makes you] emotionally distraught…[is] not knowing if your family members are okay and where you’re going to end up next or what’s going to happen [in] your future [life]. (Y)(25-year-old female)

339: [Y]ou got your babies, that’s the main thing. You can replace things, but you can’t replace a life. (O)(63-year-old female)

313: As long as it is not a human life and it is material things [that you lost], they can be replaced, and [things] are not really worth what you think they are anyway. (Y)(47-year-old male)

345: I hear…after Katrina, with [our] loss[es], “I’m so sorry” and I’m like, “Don’t be. You know [what, our stuff might be gone but], we’re still alive. (Y)(51-year-old male)

Several participants reportedly experienced a change in priorities following Katrina—a change away from an acquisition orientation or what finance scholars refer to as “conspicuous consumption” (Moore & Asay, 2008) . The following excerpts are representative of a larger array of similar responses:

341: [I realized that] when I go out [of this life], I got to give [my stuff] to somebody else. But I done got that figured out. A lot of people are still trying to acquire things. I’ve done switched that off. I don’t need to acquire no more things. And I find that’s what makes living life a lot better, when you [see that you] only need so many things. When you get too overwhelmed with acquiring things, it messes your life up. (O)(55-year-old male)

Participant 341 mentioned that when this life is over, he will have to “give [his stuff] to somebody else.” However, the next participant decided not to wait that long before passing along much of her wardrobe. She explained:

331: My biggest thing that I think everyone should know is not to take anything for granted. It’s, because that’s how I was before Katrina. I just figured that’s how it was for everybody; and now I don’t take anything for granted at all. …That’s the biggest thing that I learned from Katrina. And [I learned that] material possessions don’t mean anything…. I have so many clothes, I’m giving them all away… [I was really down after Katrina but my friend], she told me one day that I had to get a grip and stop complaining and fix myself in my head. So, I just, I don’t know, something just clicked. I just decided to go [and do things differently]… I kind of made “before-Katrina” life seem more like it was a different life, [that person was] not me. That was somebody else who lived that [way], that’s kind of how I see it now…. (Y)(21-year-old female)

Two other shifts in perspective follow next:

330: The acts of kindness [from others], that is what was the silver lining. We really re-learned what was really important. You know, before the storm we had a lot of material things and the kids were both in private schools. We were working really hard to supply the kids with a life that we thought was a good life for them. And after we went through everything, what we thought was good did not mean that much. And we had to go through [Katrina] to find [that] out…. And hopefully by us seeing it that way, the girls will live a life…[that is] more rewarding. (Y)(43-year-old female)

324: [An experience like Katrina] reminds us that…the material things in this life are really not that important because no matter how much you have, [no matter how many goods you] accumulate here, you’re going to lose them sooner or later—whether you lose them in a disaster or…[well], if you don’t lose them that way, you’re going to lose them when you die anyway…. [Really remembering] that makes us realize [that] what’s really important in life is your relationship with your friends and family and God. (O)(55-year-old female)

The latter reflection from participant 324 presents not only a reminder or remembrance that “the material things in this life are really not that important” but also an emphasis that what is “really important in life is your relationship with your friends and family and God.” Several of the participants not only mentioned a personal or familial move away from materialism following Katrina—they also invoked the Divine in their discussion, as captured in the following two examples:

325: [God] helped me. The thing is that it is not about…material things, [material things] are not everything, you know. (O)(60-year-old male)

332: [Y]ou can show a young person that in spite of the devastation we had down here, we still had God. We still had family. We still had church. Despite losing everything [possession wise]…that [faith] was there, so we never really lost everything. (Y)(52-year-old female)

A final illustration of both a shift away from materialism and an invocation of God came from an individual who referenced significant financial resources and mentioned that they do not have “bills [they] can’t pay.” However, this participant framed the life-altering catastrophe of Katrina as something that reportedly awoke him and gave him “my soul back.” He explained:

352: God took me out of my element because He knew that I had no chance of changing my life from what I was, in my surroundings. I had no chance of making it [spiritually, the way I was]…. There is a whole lot of worse things that could have happened to me. I feel quite blessed, very fortunate. I left. I saved not only my life, but gained a soul. I gained my soul back. I got my life. God gave me a new life…greater than any life I have ever had up to that point…. Who would you call upon to help you if not Him when you need it the most? People can only give you information or money. Maybe that is what you need sometimes, but it never seems to fill the void. You are always missing something…. I have lost everything behind me, and I have gained everything in front of me…. (Y)(46-year-old male)

For many of our participants, life after Katrina was never the same. However, in some cases, life was not only more challenging but also spiritually and relationally richer—sparked by a renewed emphasis on precious intangibles such as faith, true friendship, and family relationships. It is to these intangibles that we now turn.

Theme 2—Helping Efforts Across Denominations: “[God] was using His people to help His [other] people.”

A discussion of religious denominational differences in Louisiana requires a brief note on social and religious historical context. Based on data from the US Census Bureau, the 2013 population of Louisiana was a little over 4.6 million. The largest denomination in the state is the Catholic Church with more than 1.2 million adherents followed by the Southern Baptist Convention with 709,650 members. No other faith exceeds 200,000 members (Louisiana Religion Traditions, 2010), making Louisiana a predominantly Catholic/Baptist state.

In terms of religious heritage, French Catholic settlers in Nova Scotia (called Acadians or “Cajuns”) engaged in a series of battles with British troops during the early and middle eighteenth century that climaxed during the French and Indian War. Commencing in 1755, thousands of Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia, and many of these refugees settled in regions that comprise present-day south Louisiana (Faragher, 2005) . This “tragic…expulsion of the French [Catholic] Acadians” from Nova Scotia by the armed forces representing England and her Protestant faith laid a foundation for deep-seated tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Louisiana (Faragher, 2005). At least remnants of these tensions are apparent two and a half centuries later—indeed, the state remains divided into a northern, Baptist “Bible belt,” and the heavily Catholic and Acadian (“Cajun”) southern portion of the state that depends largely on the mouth of the Mississippi River and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for economic and literal sustenance.

Consistent with this religious and demographic sketch, the Louisiana Gulf Coast fishing families interviewed during the present research project were predominantly Catholic (73.4 %). This context sets the table for our second emergent theme, which addresses significant reported and perceived differences in helping, rescuing, and assistance efforts made by churches and church members in the aftermath of both natural (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and man-made (Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill) disasters. As one participant summarized:

Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Younger and Older Coastal Fishers Face Catastrophic Loss after Hurricane Katrina
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