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The Sociology of Disaster


You live in a house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It's a lovely turn-of-the-century dwelling. Or maybe it's a trailer home. You're surrounded by friends and family who often watch the kids while you're at work. You make an above-average wage or a decent wage. Or maybe you struggle to make ends meet. Life is good. Or maybe you have health issues. Maybe you just landed a high-ranking job and you're pregnant with your first child. Maybe you just finished construction on your first church, and your parishioners are filled with hope for the future.

Hurricane Katrina doesn't care. On August 29, 2005, it roars in with a ferocity not seen in the United States for close to 100 years. When it makes landfall, its sustained winds rage at 145 miles per hour, with even greater gusts. A 30-foot storm surge muscles its way in. It shreds -- and I do mean shreds -- everything in its path.

You flee inland to another town or county -- or to another state. When you return to your neighborhood a few weeks later, your house -- and your church, your town hall, your entire downtown -- is gone. Your bedrooms, your living room, your kitchen, your bathroom. Gone. Only the concrete slab foundation remains; even the sill plates have been ripped from their bolts. In the backyard, a toilet that might be yours lies on its side amidst leaning telephone poles, a washing machine, an upended car, and a shattered china hutch that looks a lot like your best friend's, who lives a mile up the coast. As far as you can see, there is very little standing except for the most stalwart oak trees and a few concrete pillars upon which sat other people's homes. Katrina has scoured everything else clean.

The scene isn't really sinking in; it's too surreal. Later, you will try to write about it to a friend, but abandon the attempt.

You notice a few lone neighbors picking through the rubbish on their properties. You gather with them in the middle of the street to take stock of what has happened, to try to comprehend the extent of the devastation and figure out what you should do next. Some are holding cans of spray paint; they have emblazoned the fronts of their concrete foundations with their names, their insurance company names, and their policy numbers. Like you, they have brought tents and pitched them in their backyards. What belongings they have managed to recover they have piled in or near the tents. Some are armed; one neighbor has propped up a sheet of plywood and spray-painted on it a grim message: "You loot, we shoot."

Word is that FEMA will provide some disaster assistance in the form of temporary housing and financial help; already, white food tents are appearing and barracks-style canvas tents are being erected. Your insurance company assures you an adjustor will arrive soon to view your property. Weeks later, your situation has not changed significantly. You want to rebuild your home, but you feel you can't until you hear from your insurance company, until FEMA gives you the go-ahead or mandates that homes in your neighborhood need to be built a certain elevation above potential flood waters. Meanwhile, you've heard that the mayor of your town is trying to jump-start redevelopment by cozying up to condominium developers. Rumor has it that developers are buying up abandoned land for their projects. Rumor has it that plans are already in the works to transform your beloved waterfront into a wall of condos and casinos. Rumor has it that council members are wresting control from former city officials and forcing their personal agendas on the unsuspecting -- or absent -- townspeople.

You don't know what to do. You can't separate fact from fiction. You feel you have no control over your future.

And that's the best-case scenario.

Thousands of Gulf Coast residents can tell a story like this or a variation of it. They lived through one of the worst storms in U.S. history; indeed, they are still living through it. As Henderson Point resident Martha Murphy put it, "We're shocked, traumatized, and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. We're spending all our energy just trying to stay buoyant."

So when the Mississippi Renewal Forum began on Oct. 12, 2005, its team members met with residents, city officials, and state government representatives not only to formulate plans for rebuilding and renewing the 11 municipalities under consideration. They met to do so while paying attention to the emotional and mental state of residents who had had their material possessions and community ties surgically removed in a matter of hours. Comprising the team charged with examining the sociological implications of Katrina's aftermath were David Brain, professor of sociology at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Fla.; and Emily Talen, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

After speaking with storm victims from many of the affected towns, Talen and Brain found many common threads running through their stories, including:

• A profound sense of powerlessness.
• Frustration with not being in control of one's future.
• Uncertainty about core issues, such as food, housing, finances, utilities.
• A sense of euphoria at the prospect that the community still exists -- even without the buildings that once housed it.

In some areas, Brain reports, deep distrust erupted amongst residents and their elected officials, due primarily to a breakdown in communication after the storm. "In Pass Christian, some residents were suspicious of the acting mayor. They didn't know his agenda; they suspected he was in league with developers. But he was doing a heroic job. So the city officials and residents and I discussed together how to address the anger and suspicion and resentment, and act as a community to address the issues."

Strained faculties aren't a surprising development, says Brain. "The city governments are really struggling with the challenges of recovery. The smaller places are incredibly strapped for resources. They lost all their revenue sources and are burning through their cash quickly just paying for the recovery; some are facing bankruptcy within a few months. None of the businesses are operating; no people are paying property taxes. The city officials themselves have lost everything and are coping with their personal situations and the town situations simultaneously."

But Brain is quick to add that even with high frustration levels, an equal measure of civility is present. "When I attended the City Council meeting, I was expecting a shouting match, really uncivil outbursts. I didn't see that. There are signs of anger, frustration and impatience, but it wasn't as personally directed as I expected. I was struck by how the emotion was held in check by the widespread and deep commitment to rebuilding."

As a planner, Talen focused on demographics, on the social geography of each of the cities. Poring over maps while the design teams worked on their individual plans for rebuilding, Talen analyzed the post-Katrina social conditions, then used the results to inform her recommendations to the teams. "I needed to answer many key questions. Where is the population density? Where are the poor and rich living? How integrated are the populations? What kind of balance exists between rental and purchased properties? This needed to be done to connect what was happening socially before Katrina to the plans that were being created at the charrette.

"I think that many of the towns had some of the same issues as any town in the United States. For example, some concentration of poverty. Some racial residential segregation. Disinvestment in some neighborhoods, when the poorer neighborhoods need the most help in terms of recovery and rebuilding," said Talen.

Brain concurs. "It's clear that the effects of the disaster are distributed unevenly. Low-income populations -- especially low-income minority populations -- are affected much more dramatically, and the effects are much more long-term and difficult for those especially vulnerable populations. There are two reasons for this. The low-income communities are in the less desirable, more physically vulnerable (low-lying) places. And they don't have resources for evacuation.

"Additionally, low-income communities tend to be much more reliant on place-based resources; i.e., they rely very heavily on social networks for a variety of types of support. The single mom relies on her mother for childcare so she can work, for example.

"That resource is lost when you disrupt and scatter people. When people leave, trying to seek shelters in other cities or shelters, those networks are disrupted. And once disrupted, those networks are not easy to rebuild.

"So what I hoped to contribute to the charrette was thinking about how recovery and rebuilding was about reconstituting communities, not just thinking about where those communities had been."

For Talen, physical reconstitution is crucial. She tells of a Pass Christian resident who had directed a local chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and lost her brand-new facilities to Katrina.

"Those kinds of social services and civic organizations are very important," says Talen. "They need to be at the forefront of the rebuilding effort. Somebody needs to make sure that those kinds of facilities are funded and rebuilt, because that's the kind of thing that's critical to community. It will be great if the charrette plans are able to incorporate those essential city services.

"I think the plans are really socially progressive, because they're all about neighborhood and connecting to the downtowns. Prior to 2004, the populations were dispersing in a sprawl pattern. The projected growth was all on the outskirts. The new plans refocus on the poor neighborhoods in the 'inner cities' of the Mississippi coastal towns."

Talen encourages each municipality to pay attention to the policy aspects of the design suggestions. While all 11 plans are neighborhood-based and accommodating of demographic diversity, they need to be supported with strong policy statements by municipalities -- an element that is lacking at the moment but which she and Brain can help develop.

For Waveland and Pass Christian -- and these are ideas that could be replicated in the other towns -- Brain suggested two initial approaches. First, he proposed an outside facilitator to help Waveland residents and city officials work through the issues that concern them. For Pass Christian he envisioned a community center, a physical place where residents could go to get answers to their most pressing questions during the renewal process.

"It can be a place where people can go to meet other people and rebuild social capital. In the long-term, the community center could become a design center, a venue for stewardship of the design plan."

In the end, though, it is the residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast who will shoulder the task of renewing their social networks and their built environment. This is an attainable goal, because for every story of destruction and loss, there is an equal tale of determination and humanity.

While walking through an East Biloxi neighborhood during the charrette event, California developer R. John Anderson met a woman who was picking through the rubble of her house. Seeing him without a hat in the blazing sun, she rushed over and handed him one.

"That's emblematic of the experience many of us had," says Brain. "The scale of the devastation was staggering, but the human warmth and resilience that we encountered was extraordinary. Mississippians don't let their frustration get in the way to seeing their way clear to doing what needs to be done.