Professor Katherine Browne, an anthropologist from Colorado State University studied an extended family from New Orleans and how they were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. She followed their journey in the documentary Still Waiting, Life after Katrina and in her latest book Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina.
There were more than 300 people in the family that all lived in a close proximity – about 15 mins from each other in New Orleans. 155 of these family members evacuated ahead of Katrina to a relative’s home in Dallas.
Professor Browne said large family units like that are common in Louisiana and are common way for people to organize their families “it’s a longstanding adaptation to slavery to live in large families and to be able to share resources and childcare and to survive the insults and indignities of slavery and the legacy of slavery.”
When the family members learned that their homes in New Orleans were destroyed, that meant that they had to stay put in Dallas “they were very concerned to get back just as fast as they could.” Browne said the family members tried to recreate rituals from home, like gathering together to share home cooked food. “Men would go and locate provisions in the area of food, shrimp and crab that they recognized and made it possible for people to cook the way they were used to cooking with the ingredients they were used to cooking with.”
Professor Browne says culture plays a huge role in the recovery of communities after a disaster “many people assume that disaster basically strips us to the barest bone of humanity…the truth is that’s just not the case. People who experience disaster, cling to their cultural values. More than ever they become prominent and important, almost as a survival default to what is familiar, what is a source of comfort.”
Professor Browne says that the federal response failed to recognize the different cultures of the people they were helping. Browne says that FEMA and other agencies have their own culture “the paperwork that FEMA produces…requires you to indicate who is head of household and the number of people in your household. There’s no provision to say “the way we live is in large groups.””
“If we could recognize that cultural variability is a critical awareness that we need to carry with us into the scene of a disaster impacted community, then there are all kinds of ways that are not so difficult that do not cost money that simply require attention and awareness that we could fundamentally make rapid progress to reducing the suffering.”