It was around this time 15 years ago that University of Delaware Assistant Professor Jennifer Trivedi was calling people she knew in Biloxi, Mississippi to see if they were evacuating the coast as Hurricane Katrina made its way into the Gulf of Mexico. They were not.
Suffice it to say, she wasn’t expecting to be waiting to see if they would be threatened again this week as two tropical storms – Marco and Laura – spun in the Gulf (both storms ended up veering west, with direct impact mostly in Louisiana).
In an eerie way the threat of the two storms brought Trivedi full circle, as she prepares for the release of her new book, Mississippi after Katrina: Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction on the Gulf Coast. The book, which centers on Biloxi, was years in the making — she spent six weeks there in 2006 and another 11 months there in 2010-2011, around the fifth anniversary, with extra trips sprinkled in.
Her research has yielded a bounty of lessons and insight into Hurricane Katrina, a strong category 3 hurricane at landfall that affected New Orleans and surrounding areas in August 2005 and caused more than 1,800 deaths and around $170 billion in damage. In a way what happened then mirrors what the Gulf and other areas of the U.S. are facing now. In 2005, the region grappled with the aftereffects of the hurricane as the BP oil spill and then the Great Recession took hold. Today, Gulf communities deal with natural hazards and disasters as well as the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Trivedi, who works in the Department of Anthropology and is affiliated with UD’s Disaster Research Center, took some time to answer a few questions about her book, the Hurricane Katrina anniversary and the current situation both in the Gulf and around the United States.
Q: How is the current situation with storms and the pandemic similar to what happened during Katrina? And what lessons can be learned?
Trivedi: One is that cultures in society shape disasters. There's always a man-made element. Even if we're talking about natural hazards like a hurricane or a pandemic, there are always going to be people who are at greater risk because of a larger context. They lack money to rebuild somewhere safe. They can't afford things like reliable health care access. There's always a piece of human decision making before, during and after that shapes how people are affected. A lot of times when people are dealing with one disaster, they're also dealing with other events, whether that's normal daily life occurrences, or larger-scale issues. We saw this with Biloxi during the Katrina recovery. The recession hit and then the oil spill happened in 2010. Now, we're seeing that happen with COVID-19 across the country. In the Gulf, two storms — Marco and Laura — impacted communities in the midst of a pandemic. The same thing happened in North Carolina, where they’re dealing with COVID-19 while still recovering from Matthew and Florence.
Q: In the book, you focus specifically on Biloxi. What did you find there when you dug into the recovery efforts?
Trivedi: Biloxi wasn't a big city like New Orleans that drew a lot of attention or one of the really small communities that had been wiped out by the storm. Biloxi was kind of this middle ground, and it has a history of hurricane strikes. When I was on the ground talking to people about Katrina, they were also telling me about Camille, which happened in 1969, or, in a few cases, the 1947 hurricane. They're also affected by the fact that their economy and the city itself are intrinsically tied to the Gulf. They rely on the seafood and tourism industries. Being there puts them at greater risk but also allows them to have a thriving economy. Their location isn't really something that they can give up. I was also very much interested in looking at the importance of community and local assistance vs. federal help. The people I spoke with were immensely thankful for people who had helped them: Coworkers opened up their houses, neighbors brought them food, friends and family members checked on them and brought them supplies, and even total strangers volunteered to come in with small groups to clean up debris or send funds. At the same time, they also often acknowledged large scale aid, but that was secondary.
Q: Given that we are a more polarized nation than we were in 2006 — and one distanced by the pandemic — do you anticipate the same sort of altruism taking place before, during or after these storms or other disasters that take place?
Trivedi: I do and I think some people might paint me as sort of overly optimistic for that, given the current debates and climate sometimes. But we always see pro-social behavior after disasters. People will reach out and help other people. They'll drop what they're doing to send supplies or funds or, in some cases, self deploy to go help. We're seeing more and more of these emergent organizations — groups like the Cajun navy. Now, that won't come without debates or arguments. We saw that in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, for example, where some legislators from the coast got backlash because they were arguing against providing funding for affected areas. We are still going to see that in political arenas, but on the ground, I absolutely think people will continue to help one another despite the current conflict.
Q: You talk about recovery as a long-term process, especially after Katrina. Are people surprised to hear that?
Trivedi: Yes, and I think it actually kind of shocks people who aren't from the Gulf Coast or don't have contacts on the coast. They're very startled to think about this still going on 15 years later. Talking to people on the ground after Katrina really emphasized the duration of long-term recovery to me because people kept bringing up Camille, and they bring up Camille in terms of their own decision making and Katrina. So if people say things like, ‘Well, I didn't evacuate in Katrina, because I stayed during Camille. The house I live in had been okay in Camille.’ And so they were making what seems like very logical, reasonable decisions for them. Here's my past experience, here's my past knowledge. But we're talking about a hurricane that happened 40 years prior shaping people's evacuation decisions. So that long term process is really long term. These anniversaries serve as a reminder, not only of what happened in those days when Katrina made landfall, but also what's still happening today. Biloxi is still repaving roads as part of the recovery project, and we're 15 years on. I think if you ask somebody in Biloxi if recovery from Katrina is done, you're probably going to get a range of answers depending on their personal circumstances and the neighborhood that they're in and how their friends and family are doing.
Q: One of your primary fields of interest is vulnerable communities. How were those communities impacted immediately after the storm, and have you seen any changes upon return visits?
Trivedi: In disaster research there's this conversation around terms like “vulnerable” or “resilient.” If we talk about people this way, have we forced them into a predetermined box? Are we setting them up to be blamed if something fails? I really started to see that during the recovery in Biloxi. We think about those people as vulnerable populations: Lower income, working class or even middle class; can't afford insurance for disaster hits or out-of-pocket payments to rebuild and recover, and maybe don't qualify for aid funding after an event because they are a renter or didn't have flood insurance on their home. It’s important to keep in mind that they are facing additional circumstances that make recovery more difficult. They don't have the resources available to them. But it's also important to keep in mind that those people aren't just throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Forget it. I'm not going to do anything. I give up. I'm vulnerable.’ They're saying, ‘OK, we're going to figure this out.’ New emergent groups came out of organizations that didn’t exist before Katrina or that didn't necessarily do disaster recovery. They stepped in and started to do disaster recovery. Or even just local people going to help friends or neighbors or coworkers. Those efforts were really a pushback. These are not passive victims. These are people who are stepping up and taking care of their own. On the other hand, we also have to keep in mind that this doesn't mean they don't need or deserve larger assistance. We still need to balance these things out, and pay attention to and respect the efforts of local people while trying to ensure that they get assistance they need from experts or funding agencies from outside.
Article by Peter Bothum; Photo courtesy of Jennifer Trivedi