Book Review: The Continuing Storm: Learning from Katrina

Book Review: The Continuing Storm: Learning from Katrina

Authors: Kai Erikson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University and Lori Peek, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Natural Hazards Research Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Publisher: University  of Texas Press Austin Texas. ISBN: ISBN: 978-14773-2433-2 (hbk); 978-1-4773-2434-9 (pbk); 978-1-4773-2435-6 (PDF ebook); 978-1-4773-2436-3 (ePub ebook); DOI:10.7560/324332. Pages: 142; Paperback Price $27.95; Hardcover Price $90.00. University of Texas Press; Katrina Bookshelf Series.

Reviewer: Jack L. Harris, Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication; Communication Department Internship Director (Summer 2022); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Author of Hyperlocal Organizing: Collaborating for Recovery over Time, forthcoming in November 2022 from Lexington Press.

This book is the 8th in the University of Texas’ Katrina Bookshelf series edited by Kai Erikson. This is the only series of writings that explores the multiple levels of a disaster and its extended aftermath over a nearly two-decade period. As such, the series provides a much needed understanding of the complexity of disaster response and recovery, of long-term toll disaster takes on people, families, and communities.

The Continuing Storm serves as a series capstone of sorts, locating Katrina in both time and space while revisiting the chaos fostered by the immediate storm and flooding. The book also extensively reviews the impact of race and racism on Katrina response and recovery.

Chapter 2, “On the Streets of New Orleans” confronts head on the role that race played in the response to Katrina.  It crystallizes the media narrative of  an out of control city and the false reporting that may have delayed response. As is well-known among the disaster research community, the sensationalistic Katrina reporting of the media was unfounded with minimal corrections of the record(s) and apologies by media organizations for getting it wrong. What we do know is that people worked collectively with neighbors helping neighbors and family helping family to get to safety and find ground after their homes and lives were upended. Individual and collective behaviors in New Orleans during and after Katrina played out exactly as disaster research would predict.

One of the most valuable contributions of The Continuing Storm is Erikson and Peek’s overview of work of the different contributors to the bookshelf series. In Chapter 7, “After” (The Pains of Displacement) they review Weber and Peek’s work on displacement in the Katrina diaspora and its long-term effect of creating a smaller and Whiter New Orleans. Both the Katrina diaspora and the processes of long-term recovery disrupted multigenerational extended families and the networks of support that people relied on in a city and region with sharp divisions of race and class. Issues and impacts of long-term recovery are well-covered in Kroll-Smith, Baxter, and Jenkins study of the recovery of two African-American New Orleans neighborhoods, and Katherine Browne’s in-depth study of the “The Peachy Gang” a large extended African-American family in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. In their review of Katrina’s “aftermath” Erikson and Peek emphasize the language and cultural barriers between the institutional response of nonprofits and federal agencies and the actual needs of impacted residents. In particular, the inability of institutions to adapt their policies and knowledge to local cultures and practices is well-covered here through an extended discussion of the failure of these institutions to understand and account for the importance of extended families and neighborhood networks in New Orleans and coastal Louisiana.

The Continuing Storm is organized into three sections and seven chapters. Part 1, a “Hurricane Known as Katrina” is divided into two chapters, Chapter 1, “Along the Shores of the Gulf,” and Chapter 2, “On the Streets of New Orleans.” Chapter 1 provides a retrospective on Katrina’s gathering intensity and immediate impacts on the Gulf Coast. Chapter 2 provides a longer look at the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans that we now simply refer to as Katrina. Chapter 2 revisits the timeline of the levee collapses and the slowly unfolding disaster as waters from the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain slowly began filling the bowl shaped city. Chapter 2 then turns its focus to  the media focus on race and rioting, as discussed previously in this review.

Part 2, “Locating Katrina” locates Katrina in time and space and is divided into two chapters, “In Time” (Chapter 3), and “In Space” (Chapter 4). Chapter 3 situates Katrina within post-colonial time highlighting how the physical geography of New Orleans was shaped through industrial activity that supported New Orleans historic role as a critical United States seaport. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of “Counting the Dead” and “Counting the Wounded.” These sections are one of the most important parts of the book as they ask a key question for both disaster policy and research, whose death counts when we assess the toll of a storm or pandemic, and what is the impact on physical, mental, and emotional health during disaster and recovery? Erikson and Peek show the ways in which official death tolls, strictly time-bounded to cover only the time-period of immediate storm and flood impact misses the larger dynamics of recovery. Physical and mental health declines, often precipitously, in the years after storms of the magnitude of Katrina, Sandy, or Harvey. Displacement and disruption in the routines of everyday life create trauma-response in individuals that may only manifest as physical or mental health problems years after the storm is gone and initial clean-up completed. This section emphasizes the need for expanding the scope and boundaries of disaster to better account for the long-term health, social, and emotional toll that disaster and its aftermath takes on people and communities.

“In Space” locates New Orleans both as a physical location on a map and as a broader culture radically reshaped by Katrina and its aftermath. The social interactions of people in New Orleans with each other, their physical environment, and their history are likened by Erikson and Peek to an “organism” that extends through time and space. This metaphor helps frame the broader arc of the book in which people, neighborhoods, history, culture, foodways, and stories are all dispersed post-Katrina through government policy and individual decisions. Government policy is the main driver of the Katrina diaspora making policy decisions that destroyed public housing, dismantled the public school system, consolidated health care services through LSU, and set up barrier after barrier on the road home that led to a much smaller, whiter city in the post-Katrina era. Like their review of the media’s focus on unsubstantiated reports of social breakdown driven by perceived Black lawlessness, in this section Erikson and Peek highlight the role that race plays in reshaping both the physical and temporal space in which New Orleans resides.

Part  III, “Katrina as Human Experience” is divided into three chapters; “Before,” “During,” and “After.” Each of these chapters breaks down the issues of policy, race, time, and space that the authors review earlier in the book into direct impact on people and neighborhoods, “Before” details the geography of vulnerability in New Orleans, while “During” shows how these preexisting vulnerabilities of race, class, health, and age left many New Orleanians stranded in toxic flood waters and led to many preventable deaths. “After” covers the extended recovery period and the physical and psychic displacements that marked the aftermath of Katrina. These three chapters in Part III represent a seamless whole and reinforce the book’s central premise, that disaster needs to be understood as a social process that exists through time and that the boundaries of disaster extend far beyond the specific physical impacts occurring over a series of hours or days. Disaster not only encompasses the social and physical environment in which a hurricane, flood, wildfire, tornado, or earthquake occurs, it also extends into an uncertain future where people, neighborhoods, and communities wrestle with an aftermath whose parameters are already set by the degree of vulnerability and marginalization existing in disaster-impacted communities.

Important New Report: Streamlining Emergency Management

A new report (44 pages) from RAND Corp for FEMA: Streamlining Emergency Management.

“The U.S. emergency management system has met a number of increasingly difficult challenges in recent years, such as extended wildfire seasons, more intense storms, and of course an ongoing global pandemic. In fact, FEMA noted that “the number of annual disasters that [they] have managed has tripled in the past ten years and highlights the pivotal moment that climate change and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have created.”

To combat this, FEMA and other agencies created constructs—programs, grants, assessments, doctrine, and coordination bodies—designed to help assess preparedness; support disaster response and recovery actions; enhance government capabilities through grant funding; and improve organization of emergency responses. However, the large amount of constructs that were created are “poorly integrated and not optimally structured for the current operating environment.” Poor integration can lead to confusion about when to use similar constructs, which can lead to disjointed reporting and a lack of shared situational awareness.

FEMA tasked the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), operated by the RAND Corporation, to conduct a review of 31 specific constructs to identify opportunities to streamline, simplify, and strengthen the system. Constructs include the Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) program, the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), and threat and hazard identification and risk assessments (THIRAs).”

Banishing Burnout

This is a guest posting by Ms Jolie Wills, a practitioner formerly from NZ and now living in the U.S. Readers are encouraged to reply to her via this posting or to her co. website noted below.

Those working in emergencies are feeling the burn. Disasters are increasing in frequency and severity and the layering of disasters is now sadly all too common. We can harm even the most resilient of people if we load them up with too much for too long.

A recent study in Australia (Charles Sturt University) of first responders and disaster workers indicated that:

  • more than 50% are showing high levels of burnout
  • the group have ten times the rate of severe depression compared to the general population
  • 40% are considering quitting their role.
    Here in the United States, burnout has been topping the list of concerns at the last two emergency management conferences I have attended in 2022. Not a rosy picture.

The ramifications of burnout ripple through the sector. For example, with little energy to spare, emergency personnel are reluctant to enroll in continuing education and professional development on top of an already demanding role. This means we are not developing emergency managers to take the place of established leaders and emergency management professionals as they retire out of the field.

We can be reassured – there are methods and approaches to prevent burnout that have been designed specifically for this challenge in these very conditions.

Hummingly has been working to address the challenge of burnout in those working after disasters for the last decade and is bringing those learnings and crisis-informed methods to support the sector in New Zealand.Emergency managers across New Zealand have united in their effort to banish burnout. The local government groups and the national ministry have joined together to take a sector-wide approach to support the well-being and performance of emergency managers and prevent burnout.

So, what to do here in the U.S.? Inaction is not an option. We must question the ethics of continuing to hurt great mission-oriented people when we know this work is psychologically hazardous and when methods and measures exist to help prevent burnout.

If our disaster workers are feeling the strain now due to the cumulative and relentless load they face, how will we fare if we lose the 40% of our workforce that have leaving on their minds? And what will this mean for our communities when disaster strikes?

New Zealand is making moves to banish burnout in the sector. Here are some questions for our American readers:

  • How do we make a transformative change here in the U.S. too?
  • What would this take?
  • Who would we need to get involved?
  • What levers would we need to pull?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and please join me in the call to make a sector-wide shift for the benefit of the great people working in emergency management and the
communities they support.

The Bill Anderson Fund

This is an unusual but important posting. The Diva was a friend of the late Bill Anderson, who was an important pioneer in the emergency management research field. Please support this effort to carry on his work.

For those looking to get outside for some summertime activity, the Bill Anderson Fund Disaster Dash is coming up! The Dash is a fantastic opportunity to participate in a virtual 5k walk/run, with the proceeds going to support the Bill Anderson Fund’s (BAF) mission to expand the number of historically underrepresented minority professionals in the fields of hazards and disaster research, policy, and practice. Your support is more important than ever this year, as BAF has recently welcomed their largest cohort of doctoral student Fellows ever! Proceeds from this year’s Dash will support the expansion of the BAF’s professional development programming and research training.

If you’re interested in supporting the cause but aren’t too keen on participating in the 5k, consider sponsoring a student, team, or supporting the overall event at: https://www.grouprev.com/baf-disaster-dash

A great moment to get out there in support and share with your friends/colleagues/networks! https://billandersonfund.redpodium.com/2022-disaster-dash

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FEMA’s Higher Education Symposium

The Diva just returned from FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, MD, for the 24th annual symposium. This is the first one to be live in 3 years.

It was nice to see old friends and familiar faces, and I met lots of newcomers to the field. I welcome comments from readers who were there.

Of special interest to me is the availability and knowledge of potential users of new text books, since I am the editor of some in recent years. There were several sessions devoted to new books and help for potential authors of books.

What surprised me is how much improvement is needed to bring new books to the attention of potential adopters. Readers of this blog know we feature book reviews, and a full page of this website is devoted to completed Book Reviews. I welcome suggestions about how we can create a better and faster way of calling new books to the attention of adopters.