Myth America

Hurricane Katrina evacuees have enough woes without battling stereotypes.

Disaster is Lori Peek's specialty.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, she was fresh from the University of Colorado, where she'd earned her Ph.D. with a thesis on 9/11, and just beginning her first semester as an assistant sociology professor at Colorado State University. Still, she somehow found a week last October to head to Louisiana armed with a grant from the National Hazards Center in Boulder and Alice Fothergill, a colleague from the University of Vermont, to study the effect of the disaster on children.

"Most of the research on children and disasters has been from a mental health or psychological angle. No one had really studied the impact on social relationships, on their families," Peek explains. "In our work, we argue that children's recovery is central to the place's recovery."

They didn't get to talk with children, though. That would have required jumping through another academic hoop, and they didn't have time. "We were lucky to get approval at all," Peek says. So instead, they talked to people around children -- to parents, to teachers, to those who ran the evacuation shelters. They heard heartrending stories about children who were lost, about children who'd lived but still felt lost. But they also heard amazing stories of resilience. They heard about kids telling hurricane jokes and playing "evacuation," throwing things in a bag and racing out of the room. "And then we read other papers about kids doing the exact same thing in other disasters," Peek says, "playing games to deal with what they witnessed."

One elementary school art teacher told them that kids still liked to draw, but while they were drawing the same things they would have before Katrina, "now there is floodwater at the bottom of many of the pictures." Other children would only draw pictures in black and white.

When Peek returned to Colorado, she was determined to continue her research. And she had plenty of material to work with: Over 14,000 Katrina evacuees came to this state last year -- there were evacuees living in every county -- and 11,000 remain here. So along with an anthropology grad student and Kate Browne, from CSU's anthropology department, she's been interviewing survivors in Denver, both young and old.

"It's pretty interesting thinking about how they ended up here," Peek says. "From the people we've talked to, Colorado had gotten a reputation as being a good place to go." Part of that was the dorm setup for hundreds of evacuees at Lowry, where one-stop shopping for social services was offered through Operation Safe Haven. But the evacuees who arrived at Lowry were just a fraction of the ones who came to Colorado, the people who've since become almost invisible except for this anniversary week.

Some have melded into the community, but most are "stuck in this liminal state of not knowing if you're going to be able to go back," Peek says. "They're holding on to that string of hope. They can't put roots down. When are they going to stop being evacuees? I'm going to call them evacuees as long as they consider themselves evacuees."

And what will change that? Peek's group is trying to determine how people re-establish lives in an "incredibly different cultural and climatic area." The people who've moved from the Gulf Coast miss the food. They miss the humidity. Many had never seen snow before last winter, had never driven on ice. Above all, they miss their families.

"Families in New Orleans pooled resources for rent and child care, general life stuff," Peek says. "People who came here all alone lost that sort of network, and it's been very, very difficult. Before, they never had to think about the issue of child care. But if you can't afford to have your kids cared for, you can't get a job."

That's not the only hurdle to getting a job. Peek has talked with evacuees who no longer mention that they're from New Orleans when they go out on job interviews or look for housing, because to do so automatically brings up negative stereotypes. Untrue stereotypes.

In Peek's "Sociology of Disaster" class, she discusses the myths that arise in disasters. "Myths are really interesting, especially because they emerge time and time again," she says. Deaths are usually overestimated, as is panic. And in the case of Katrina, there were all those rumors about violence. "It doesn't matter that those stories about violence were proven untrue," Peek notes, "because new employers and new neighbors only remember those negative stories."

Race, too, plays an integral role in the stark, black-and-white imagery of Hurricane Katrina. That's another reason the evacuees have become so hard to see. Just think about all the JonBenét coverage, suggests Peek, who spent years in Boulder. "When people of color go missing or get shot, you don't hear about it. With Katrina, the people who died were elderly, and low-income, and African-American -- the three most invisible populations. If there were some way to put a much more human face on this disaster, it would start taking away some of the negative, or minimize it. It might help the evacuees with what they're going through now as they're trying to secure jobs."

It might help us see the extent of their loss for ourselves.

The Chinese symbol for "disaster" incorporates the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," Peek says. "There's no doubt in my mind that the disaster is just starting."

 
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