The Importance of Culture in Disaster Recovery
Anthropology | February 19, 2016
By National Science Foundation, as appearing in National Science Foundation
August 2015 marked 10 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and displaced hundreds of thousands of families in a 90 square mile area.
While most basic research on disaster regions tends to focus on infrastructure and short-term relief efforts, fewer studies explore how local socio-cultural systems in these affected areas may – and often do – influence how local communities adapt to post-disaster environments.
In the case of Katrina, recovery efforts proved lengthy and costly, and some of the most critically affected communities were low-income and predominantly African-American families whose ties to the land and its resources transcend many generations.
Katherine E. Browne, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Colorado State University, recently visited the National Science Foundation to talk about her long-term work in post-Katrina Louisiana. With an NSF RAPID award from the Cultural Anthropology program in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, Browne traveled to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana to document how a large network of African-American family members adapted to their post-Katrina lives amidst shaky recovery efforts. Her NSF-supported work led to her making the documentary film ”Still Waiting: Life After Katrina.”
Drawing from her previous work in informal economies – or ‘creole economics’ – in Martinique, Browne found cultural and structural gaps between local community members and the authorities heading recovery efforts that ultimately prolonged post-disaster relief. For instance, according to Browne, recovery personnel could have capitalized on existing community-based support systems and local knowledge had they approached community leaders and tapped into their collective strengths. That’s particularly true for areas around New Orleans, communities accustomed to self-reliance and interdependence.
More broadly, Browne notes that anthropology can contribute on-the-ground, long-term knowledge that is critical in understanding how communities in post-disaster areas reclaim their environments and everyday lives. Culture is often regarded as “stripped away” in disaster, but is in fact essential to the physical, economic, and social healing of the affected communities. Social and behavioral scientists are, thus, well-positioned to contribute to the scientific documentation and understanding of how local communities and recovery authorities can work together to optimize post-disaster recovery efforts, Browne says.
“Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort, and Coming Home after Katrina” is Katherine Browne’s most recent book and was published in late 2015 by the University of Texas Press.
NSF’s Science Assistants help keep our scientific programs running and producing important findings. Gabby Galeano studied Cultural Anthropology at George Mason University and is interested in social science research and its applications at large.