On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, leaving incredible destruction in its wake. As the 10-year anniversary of the devastation approaches, Colorado State University anthropology professor Katherine Browne is releasing a new book, Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina. In it, she follows a large African-American family over the eight-year ordeal of their recovery from the aftermath of disaster, both natural and man-made.
“Katrina was an unbelievable disaster, unlike anything else we have experienced in our country; it destroyed not just property but also the way of life of everyone in its path,” said Browne. “I wanted to know how large, interconnected families, so common in the area, cope with something like this. How do they rebuild their lives in a place that has been changed forever?”
With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Browne located a family of more than 150 who had fled their bayou home in St. Bernard Parish ahead of Katrina and taken refuge with a relative in Dallas. She recruited a filmmaker and, with colleague Ginny Martin, tracked the family for 20 months as they returned home. The documentary, Still Waiting, was first broadcast on PBS stations in 2007.
“What I observed was that as members of the family tried to resume life in little bitty FEMA trailers, no one in what I call the ‘recovery culture’ seemed to understand who they were or what they needed to truly recover,” Browne said.
Determined to follow a family she had come to respect, Browne continued her research for six more years after the completion of the film. She learned how recovery proceeds in fits and starts, how people adapt to sweeping change, and how a tattered social fabric can be repaired. Browne also discovered that the years of hardship family members endured were caused less by the storm than by the institutional approach of the recovery effort itself.