October 22, 2017

II. Beyond Katrina

Is home still home? What I mean is that there are so many fascinating stories of people who were displaced and who come home to all sorts of different circumstances — but if you listen to these survivor narratives, it’s like these people were home but they’re not home. They’re in a place that’s almost indescribable. The institutions and influential people that existed before are gone, the landmarks are gone, so you’re not really there, and the power relationships have changed. You may have had influence and you don’t anymore.

– Steven M. Gorelick

At the close of her presentation, Arnessa Garrett read a quotation that she felt “really described the sense of loss” of displacement: “It’s less than desirable to be driven away from your home. It’s difficult when you can’t go to mourn a member of your family. It’s difficult when you can’t go to their graves.… People would talk about homesickness and for me that was ‘everything that you missed.’ Now I know what it truly is. Whoever experienced that … homesickness is when you miss even the mud in your garden, even the mud.”

The words were not from a Katrina evacuee. They were spoken by a 55-year-old man named Temuri who was displaced from his home in a war nearly 7,000 miles from New Orleans in a place the vast majority of Americans have never heard of: Abkhazia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, which broke away from the Republic of Georgia in a bloody conflict that broke out as Georgia was separating from the Soviet Union. Temuri, whose story appears with those of other South Caucasus refugees on a website called IDP Voices, maintained by the Norwegian Refugee Council,[i] was one of more than a quarter of a million ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia who fled during the war and remain displaced two decades later. (Abkhazia was only one of several territorial/ethnic conflicts that ravaged the region in the early 1990s. Altogether those wars left over a million people displaced in the three South Caucasus countries.)

Garrett, who traveled to the Caucasus in 2008 and interviewed more recent refugees from that year’s Georgian-Russian war, heard echoes of New Orleans and Katrina despite the great distances in miles, culture, language, and circumstances: “I was struck at the similarities between the displaced population stories, even though they were displaced for different reasons and they were displaced from different cultures, the stories were so similar. One woman said before the war broke out, the recent war, that she had just finished remodeling her kitchen and she said wow, now everything was great, I had everything I wanted. My kitchen looked perfect. And then soldiers came in and their house was destroyed. So she really had this sense of normalcy, and then all of a sudden in an instant her life was changed. I think you can hear that from the evacuees in New Orleans, from displaced people in Haiti probably, you can hear that from displaced people all over the world.”

Hearing from displaced people means hearing a lot of voices. In the week when news media were full of stories tied to the fifth anniversary of Katrina, no fewer than 8 million people were estimated to have been driven from their homes by unprecedented floods in Pakistan. A million and a half Haitians were still homeless after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. A 2009 estimate (before the Pakistan and Haiti disasters)  was that worldwide, as many as 27 million people in nearly 30 countries were internally displaced as the result of conflict alone, not including natural catastrophes. Another 15 million were classed as international refugees — a meaningful legal distinction but from the human point of view, often a distinction without a difference.[ii]

Those numbers represent an unimaginably immense burden of suffering. Displacement, Gerard Fromm observed at the ACIA conference, leaves “wounds of the spirit that are profound.” They represent “a concussion of the spirit,” in the words of sociologist Kai Erikson. Fromm, a psychoanalyst who directs the Erik Erikson Institute for Education and Research at Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., added that those wounds challenge our ability to understand and respond: “It is profoundly difficult and moving to try to speak across the gap of our vastly different experiences. And yet it’s something we have to try.”

Often, the gap in experience between victims and the larger society existed before the disaster, too. Typically, in cases of large-scale displacement, the disaster falls most heavily on poor and vulnerable people whose lives were already outside the mainstream self-image of a country or community. The poor tend to live in the most threatened areas, have the fewest social safeguards, and fewer means to protect themselves from a catastrophe or recover after it. And their low status frequently leads more privileged people to feel, consciously or unconsciously, that those refugees have less of a claim on the resources of the larger community, less of a right to benefits and support. The day before the five-year Katrina anniversary, a noted writer in Pakistan, Mohammed Hanif, commented that the rural poor who made up most of the victims in the disastrous August 2010 floods in that country “live lives which are almost invisible” to the rest of Pakistani society. “So there’s a certain mindset,” he went on, “that thinks these people have just moved to cities and they’ve suddenly become greedy, they want food, they want medicine, they want shelter, they want toilets… It’s horrible to say, but there are people who say ‘did they have all of this before?’ The truth is that they did.”[iii]

While Pakistan and the United States are vastly different countries, Hanif’s words carried echoes of Katrina — for example, former First Lady Barbara Bush’s comment after visiting evacuees sheltered in the Astrodome complex in Houston a week after Katrina hit. “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” Bush told an interviewer after her tour, “so this is working very well for them.” That small but emblematic footnote to the Katrina story has meaning because it was not just a moment of unthinking callousness. It captured the deep gulf in perception and understanding that separated privileged, powerful Americans from the disadvantaged New Orleans refugees.

Being invisible in the way many refugees are can add to the trauma of displacement, Fromm pointed out. If victims’ experiences and their pain are obliterated from the public mind and memory, in a way that obliterates them too. Their trauma becomes one of  “profound identity problems,” as if they weren’t just displaced by the storm but erased by it. An episode Fromm related about the sociologist Kai Erikson poignantly illustrates how place and identity are interwoven. Interviewing Katrina survivors after the storm, Fromm related, “Kai asked one young woman who spoke only Creole — she was living in New Orleans but she was from Haiti, I think — through a translator, he asked, ‘where are you from?’” Listening to the translation, Erikson sensed it was more complicated than just the simple question he had asked, “so he asked the translator, ‘what are the exact words you asked her?’. And she said, ‘I asked her, where are you a person?‘ Which I thought was a profoundly moving statement about the link between person and location.”

The experience of displacement can be made more painful by the response from the rest of society, Fromm went on. “For example, victims treated as perpetrators, citizens treated as enemies, the trauma of humiliation…. The trauma of massive disillusionment and the trauma of betrayal which Jonathan Shay says is key to the Vietnam vets’ experiences of trauma.[iv]” For many in the African American community of New Orleans, Fromm added, these experiences came together to create “a sense of how tenuous their citizenship was, in the context of wanting to believe something else. And so the trauma of trust in government is profound.”

If being unseen and unheard makes trauma worse, a growing body of research suggests that being heard can be a meaningful help in making trauma less severe. Fromm cited one study in which researchers evaluated the emotional condition of a group of young children in New York after the September 11 attacks. The authors found that when parents “could not say how their children were dealing with the 9-11 disaster,” the children “were 11 times more likely to show behavior disturbance in school…. The issue is, can the parents say how is my child dealing with it? If they can’t, the chance that their child is going to suffer or is suffering something quite traumatic is very high. On the one hand this makes complete sense,” Fromm commented. “On the other hand the scope of it is quite astonishing. Eleven times difference!” Another study, attempting to identify the sources of resilience “among really troubled kids,” found that one significant factor was that “they found a relationship. They had the capacity to get the other person interested in them.” And that interest from someone else, Fromm said, enabled them to reflect on and articulate their own feelings and become “active agents” in their own recovery.[v]

The message of this research is that having someone listen and pay attention to their experiences is a strong need for people trying to overcome trauma. As Fromm explained, “It creates a relational context in which the people themselves are also able to listen to themselves, sort things out, deal with their feelings and recover a sense of  ‘I.’”

In many cases, listening to the displaced and other disaster survivors can be difficult for the listeners, Hunter College’s Steven Gorelick observed, because the survivors’ stories- may remind the public of failures it would like not to remember — not just failures that caused the disaster, but failures of will, public attention, sympathy and concern that might have prevented it. It is difficult to remember now, but survivors of the Nazi slaughters in World War II kept almost complete silence for many years after the war, Gorelick reminded his audience. Most Holocaust survivors “spent almost 20 of the first post-war years not talking to anybody,” Gorelick said. “The reason is quite simple and it does apply to some of the stories you’ve been telling us down here. And that is those Holocaust victims in the United States — their presence was the physical manifestation of the failure of the person with whom they were speaking. They were evidence of how badly the world had botched this. So their accounts were not welcomed. A veneer of compassion was often offered,” he added, but the details of what the survivors had to say were walled off.

This can happen in many situations where the survivors’ narrative conflicts with the official one, or with the popular mythology of an event. As Gorelick pointed out, heroes in one story line can appear as villains in another, and vice-versa — as illustrated in Katrina by sharply differing perceptions of the National Guard and other emergency responders, heroic rescuers in their own eyes and to many in the public audience, but hostile, unhelpful invaders in the eyes of someone such as Harold Toussaint, or many others with similar memories. To the extent that survivors’ accounts undermine or confuse a broadly accepted perception of an event, they meet with an unwillingness to listen, Gorelick observed: “a pressure of let’s get beyond this public narrative, a sort of a hint that it’s time to move on. The kind of hint that discourages a full accounting of what people have been through.” There is also the question of whose perceptions shape the narrative, and the public attitudes that are revealed by, for example, the persistent exaggerations about violence and looting in New Orleans during the crisis. Gerard Fromm remembered another comment by Kai Erikson:  “When we consider the narrative that takes hold around a disaster like Katrina” — or any other disaster — “the question becomes, not what does that narrative say about those involved in the disaster, but what does it say about us?”

It is not always resistance or hostility or indifference that silences survivors’ stories. What feels hostile or uncaring or unsympathetic to the survivors may have been something else: incomprehension, for one. (As one writer noted about the homecoming of Vietnam veterans, the folklore of soldiers being routinely cursed or spit on when they came home “was almost certainly exaggerated. But the sense of being silenced, which felt a good deal like being shunned, was part of almost every soldier’s experience. And the hurt was deep.” The silence reflected much more confusion than hostility — the confusion left by an inconclusive, unsatisfying war that many Americans did not understand and for many years found no language to speak about, to themselves or to their returning soldiers. The same writer added: “The absence of words meant more than an absence of gratitude or sympathy or respect. Unable to speak about the war, many veterans also had no way to find a reason or purpose in what they had lived through, no way to complete their experience by telling about it and thus coming to understand it.”[vi]) The same lack of comprehension — an inability to speak across the gap of experience, as Fromm put it — may explain the plaintive comment of a New Zealander who fought in World War I and  said seven decades later, “I went home to a father, mother and four sisters and no one ever asked me what it was like. For seventy years no one ever asked me what it was like.” Incomprehension may also explain Steven Gorelick’s puzzling glimpse of a small group of genocide survivors from Rwanda whom he encountered on a visit to his son in the West African country of Togo. “A few families of Rwandan survivors that had walked all the way from Rwanda were there,” Gorelick recounted, “and they were welcomed warmly and made part of extended families. But I never saw anyone ask them what happened there. Nobody asked them what happened there.”

There’s No Such Thing as Benign Displacement
When your home is standing in 10 feet of water or in the path of a forest fire or when artillery shells are falling nearby, of course you are better off leaving than staying. So displacement can be an unavoidable necessity. But as ACIA’s discussions progressed, the thought began to emerge that even when it is necessary, displacement is inherently damaging, and emergency managers need to recognize that and consider it in planning and carrying out disaster response. Several comments convey the idea:

Ned Benton, chair of the ACIA Council: The lesson I’m learning is that there’s really no benign displacement, and that in managing an incident a basic principle should be that displacement should take place as an absolute last resort to the absolute minimal extent possible even if the conditions without displacement are worse in some respects than the possible conditions of displacement. I’m learning  that displacement is very destructive and something that really should be understood by the emergency management and incident management community as an evil…. In the New Orleans case, you have the displacement that happened as a result of the flooding. But then they stacked on top of it the decision to reform the public housing, to throw people out of existing and viable public housing.  They could argue that they were going to move people into better housing but of course that didn’t happen. But what an awful time to do that. Whatever the benefits might theoretically be it’s a horrible time to add to the displacement.

James Hawdon of Virginia Tech University: There is no such thing as benign displacement….  I think one thing that has really slowed the recovery of New Orleans is this massive displacement. Not only have you lost the labor of people who love this city, who are part of it, you lose that community and we know the effects of taking people away from their community. It’s not good, the effects on health, mental health and well-being.

Two Katrina survivors at the conference made the same point:

Harold Toussaint: Immediately when we were displaced we were looking forward to the cleansing, the removal of debris, the rebuilding. We were anticipating pitching in and getting those federally mandated wages of I think 29 dollars an hour, that would’ve been a good safety net for the jobs we lost. So [when that didn't happen] we felt displaced several times on several dimensions, for a lack of a better term. You’re right, it’s more injurious because we weren’t allowed to enter soon enough to at least participate in the community, in the healing. Proverbs 13:12 ["Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life."] is really applicable to our displacement… this is really why so many of us are sick. We’re sick in the spirit and sick in the body because of the delay of our return.

Parnell Herbert: I entirely agree that displacement should be a last resort. If people were able to be closer to home and be a part of the rebuilding process, the opportunity was there to make New Orleans a better city. However those housing projects were demolished. That was your work force right there. A lot of these people, these were people who were unskilled and untrained who could’ve been trained. Who could’ve learned how to be a carpenter, learned trades to rebuild our city and become proud of it. The one thing I’d say is that a hopeless man is the most dangerous man in the world because he has nothing to lose. So if you’re giving hope to the hopeless, you could build it back better.

When students were given the option to cut short the semester and go home after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, Hawdon’s colleague John Ryan noted, it turned out that those who left were emotionally more troubled than those who stayed on campus and went through the immediate aftermath in the company of other members of the community. Ryan commented:

The displacement was entirely voluntary and very low, the most benign kind of displacement. Why are we even talking about it? Because what we have found in our research is that even that benign displacement, which in no way compares to Katrina displacement, had effects on people. We actually have data at Virginia Tech [and] displacement turns out to be very important.

Gorelick’s Holocaust research led him to pose another question that has resonance for those displaced by Katrina: “Is home still home? Is home still home? What I mean is that there are so many fascinating stories of people who were displaced and who come home to all sorts of different circumstances — but if you listen to these survivor narratives, it’s like these people were home but they’re not home. They’re in a place that’s almost indescribable. The institutions and influential people that existed before are gone, the landmarks are gone, so you’re not really there, and the power relationships have changed. You may have had influence and you don’t anymore.”

The authorities dealing with Katrina refugees made no attempt to keep together or reassemble people from the same neighborhood or community. Nor was that a consideration in any program for longer term temporary or permanent resettlement. Evacuees reached their destinations as the result of random accident, the vagaries of the evacuation or their personal circumstances. Those evacuated by the military or government agencies not only had no say in where they were sent; often, FEMA officials did not even tell passengers on evacuation flights where they were going to land. As author Jed Horne reported in his book Breach of Faith, this was a deliberate policy, not an accidental omission.[i]

If the idea of reconnecting members of a community ever even entered the minds of officials in FEMA or other public or private agencies involved in resettling Katrina refugees, there is no readily available evidence of it. Horne recalled being told that “Americans don’t do tent cities” (although they used to, a century earlier, in disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906). Whether by design or unintentionally, the American approach fosters a bureaucratic model for the recovery process, designed and managed by officials without community participation — because the communities are too scattered to participate. The same pattern was true of the refugees’ return. Those who came back to their neighborhoods did so on their own private decisions, one by one or family by family, not as a community.

Even if Americans gave little or no thought to alternative policies, however, scattering communities and dispersing refugees across the landscape is not the only way of dealing with mass displacement. Speaking at the ACIA conference, Jed Horne described the very different approach taken by Japanese authorities to residents displaced by earthquakes and mudslides in Niigata Prefecture in 2004. Instead of scattering them across the country, as was done in the United States after Katrina, the Japanese housed refugees in the equivalent of FEMA trailers in temporary settlements that to the extent possible recreated the neighborhoods and villages that had been destroyed. That way, neighbors remained neighbors, and a recognizable form of a community’s public life was able to resume. This system of “communitarian relocation,” as Horne termed it, didn’t only serve to avoid adding the trauma of isolation to the trauma of displacement. Because the authorities as a matter of policy built the settlements as close as possible to the destroyed areas, that meant refugees were able to be involved as a community in the rebuilding effort — as a work force, and also in decision-making. That too is important in recovering emotional balance: “there is no better therapy” for a disaster victim, Horne commented, than becoming an active participant in the process of recovery.

There is no reason to believe that cases of large-scale displacement will decline across the world in future years. If anything, they may become more frequent, as population grows and global warming unsettles the natural world. “I think that these issues are going to become more and more important,” Arnessa Garrett declared, and it will also become more important to find effective and humane ways to respond to them — including doing a better job of seeing those victims who too often become (and already were) invisible. “Not only natural disasters but also climate change and man-made disasters that we’re seeing are going to cause displacement,” Garrett added. “So if we can find a way to deal with these populations and treat these populations with compassion, I think we’ll be better able to deal with displacement.”

The displaced will have to deal with their own memories and challenges too. For many who were victims of conflict, that includes the challenge of escaping a cycle of violence instead of perpetuating it by seeking revenge. That requires seeing beyond their own suffering — not an easy thing to do, for most people. But not impossible. After describing his own ordeal, Temuri, the Georgian refugee, added this:  “No one should think that Abkhazians were happy with this conflict and all this happened to us because they were happy with it. Ask the other party too. Ask Abkhazians as well… They haven’t suffered any less than we have and they haven’t been damaged less either… The war has damaged everyone. It depends on how one thinks, how one perceives, who can forgive and who has enough will and intelligence to forgive these crimes.”

How Community Worked
One of the things often overlooked in the media’s narrative of Hurricane Katrina was that most refugees left New Orleans by their own efforts and with the support of friends and neighbors and formal and informal groups from their own communities, not through the National Guard or other organizations from outside. Oral historian D’Ann Penner found many “examples of how community worked” in the stories she collected from nearly 300 African Americans who lived through the storm:

Individuals without money for a hotel or transportation often got a ride out with neighbors, church members, extended families. In one notable case an extended family of 49 people, including many living in the Lafitte Housing development carpooled all the way to Coleman, Alabama, 370 miles away. Pete Stevenson, my narrator, arrived on what he called a wing and a prayer. He was in this caravan with just enough money for a value meal.

Church communities did an especially good job of remembering their elderly and the most vulnerable. Pastor Charles Duplessis talked about convincing 30 people to go with him, saying, “now is not the time to be proud.” Community bonds of responsibility were one of the reasons that people with the means to leave before the storm, like Harold Toussaint, ended up at the Super Dome, the Convention Center and the I-10 Cloverleaf. Harold, a prize-winning wine-taster on two continents, did his best to uphold his duty as a deacon of the church to stay during the storm to help the people who could not help themselves. Willie Pitford, the owner of an elevator company, said he rescued approximately 150 people from their attics and almost certain death by dehydration. In the first five days after the storm he shared his seasoned meat and barbeque. He started with the shrimp first and shared with all of his neighbors. Shriff Hasan,, a high school drama teacher, saw the desperate look in a stranger’s eyes on the I-10 overpass bridge after being rescued by boats from his Gentilly home. He took the time to work through the man’s grief over having lost in a matter of hours everything he had worked his entire life for. Perhaps he stopped the man from jumping by extending the tradition of befriending strangers.

It wasn’t until Thursday night, three and a half days after the hurricane, that 25 MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) were dropped from military aircraft for the thousands of people at the convention center. Huey Collins, a homeowner and a 57-year-old welder from the Lower Ninth Ward, spoke nostalgically at the beginning of the interview about the days when a person could count on catching a whipping for doing something wrong, while ruing the undisciplined nature of the youngest generation. But when the interview turned to how he and others had survived at the convention center until Friday, he gave full credit to a group of young men who he said had “looked like the wrong type, but they turned around, they got kind hearts.”

The numerous acts of provisioning provided sustenance and encouragement to the survivors. This extra familial sense of connectedness and responsibility impacted storm strategies and minimized deaths from hurricane Katrina in the city. The legacies of having overcome for centuries was a source of resilience for the residents of New Orleans at the convention center and those scattered to distant shelters in Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston and beyond. The subsequent scattering of the community during the hurricane’s aftermath really disabled the support networks for men, women and children who have not yet been able to return home. To lose your social networks, your job, your home, your church and your community all at once is a staggering blow.

The harm, Penner added, was not only to the refugees but to their home city as well:

The contributions of the still-displaced are needed to rebuild New Orleans to its former status as a great city. Rather than being violent, poor and unskilled, many uprooted New Orleanians have urgently needed abilities. Especially across the black neighborhoods, rebuilding is at a standstill both because of the lack of funds and because of an absence of trustworthy, well-qualified builders.

[i] Jed Horne, Breach of Faith, New York: Random House, p. 185


[i] See http://www.idpvoices.org. The direct link to Temuri’s account is: http://www.internal-displacement.org/idmc/website/idpvoices.nsf/%28httpLifeStories%29/4BB98DF05971314AC125740C0057073F. The Norwegian Refugee Council is one of the world’s leading refugee relief organizations.

[ii] Worldwide IDP and refugee statistics from “Global IDP estimates (1990-2009)”,  Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Norwegian Refugee Council

[iii] “Floods Head for the Sea Over Pakistan Farmlands,” Weekend Edition Saturday, National Public Radio, Aug. 28, 2010

[iv] See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, New York: Atheneum, 1994.

[v] See Susan W. Coates, Daniel S. Schechter, and Elsa First, “Brief Interventions with Traumatized Children and Families After September 11,” in Susan W. Coates, Jane Rosenthal and Daniel S. Schechter, eds., September 11: Trauma and Human Bonds, The Analytic Press, Hillside NJ, 2003, p. 32; and  Stuart T. Hauser,

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Joseph P. Allen, and Eve GoldenOut of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA: 2006, pp. 276-280

[vi] Arnold R. Isaacs, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, pp.10-11.