When Hurricane Katrina hit the bayou communities of St. Bernard’s parish just outside New Orleans, countless families and people were separated, displaced or otherwise forced from their home.
Colorado State University anthropology professor Kate Browne became interested in the recovery efforts those communities had to endure in the devastation of Katrina.
After the release of her documentary “Still Waiting,” shown on PBS stations in 2007, Browne continued her research on a family of more than 150 people who were displaced from the bayou communities surrounding New Orleans.
Her new book, “Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort, and Coming Home after Katrina,” tells the account of this family and documents their recovery from one of the most destructive hurricanes the United States has ever seen. It was released Sept. 1, and a release party will be held at Avogadro’s Number Sept. 10.
The Collegian asked Browne several questions about her research and book:
Collegian: What drove you to continue your work with the family after your documentary “Still Waiting” was released?
KB: The truth is, in disaster studies, there is very little long-term work. There is an emotional challenge. There is nothing you can do to save people from what is going to happen. It became clear after the film that their struggle was far from over. New Orleans is very dear to my heart because my long-term research has been in the French-Caribbean. There are French manners and customs and cuisine, and there’s also a Latin influence. It is culturally very distinctive. So when Katrina hit, I felt like I had to do something.
Collegian: Was the spirit of the area what made you interested in that culture originally?
KB: My original work was in a French colonized area of French Polynesia, but then my dissertation led me to the Caribbean where I wanted to see French colonization deeply. They brought slaves over from Africa. It was rupture in everything they had. I was fascinated by that — the deep colonization and that sense of what it takes to control people and dominate people for your own financial gain. Then when Katrina happened, I was already interested in New Orleans because it’s a place that shares a lot of that same history.
Collegian: What is something people would be surprised to learn about the recovery from Katrina?
KB: I don’t think people understand how long so many people had to live in FEMA trailers. They had wheels, but you weren’t allowed to move them. The furniture was bolted down, you couldn’t put anything on the walls and you couldn’t paint. That was a drastically shrunken existence for people who were used to living in big groups. There was no place to gather, no place to be your normal family because the concept of the nuclear family is the default assumption. Kids move around and households are fluid, so the paperwork was daunting because all these assumptions were built into the boxes you had to check.
Collegian: Would you say, then, that it was more out of their control than people might think?
KB: Not having a sense of control is the most corrosive thing you can do to ensure that recovery will take longer and hurt more. When they are denied that sense of control, stuck in these trailers and not able to be their family self, they are cut off in all these ways from who they are. This study is attempting to show why culture matters. It is a fundamental part of making people who they are, that they belong to something vital.
Collegian: Your book talks about “wounded culture” and “recovery culture.” Could you explain what those terms mean?
KB: What happens in a disaster situation is you have recovery people coming in from the outside attempting with all their will and heart to make things better, to make things right. Meanwhile, you’ve got these people who have been profoundly hurt — their lives are in complete upheaval. Anytime you get a cultural environment where the people hurt and the people helping don’t look alike and don’t talk alike, then you’ve got a cultural gap. People in other parts of the world are doing so much better than we are, and that’s because we take American culture for granted. We think it all looks the same. That gap has to be recognized and has to be dealt with.
Collegian: Is that your goal with this book, to recognize that gap?
KB: I am hoping someone will get enough clues and enough texture from this study that they will be able to recognize a pattern. I am hoping that there will people who recognize that this is a new light cast upon a dark terrain and we can use it to make things better.
Collegian Reporter Erik Petrovich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @EAPetrovich.