New Orleanians started using some new words courtesy of Katrina. Diaspora. Mudding. Gutting. Ten years later, there’s another Katrina word: Resilience.
Just last November, Mayor Mitch Landrieu appointed the city’s first resilience officer. The concept of resilience has gone global, with communities working on strategies that can be implemented for recovery wherever disaster strikes. But what about personal resilience, the ability of an individual to bounce back after a disaster?
Mona Lisa Saloy never gave resilience a second thought when she evacuated with a neighbor, a friend and her dog for Katrina in 2005. She simply put one foot in front of the other as she packed up her 11-year-old Toyota 4Runner.
“There was no time to think. I was just acting the way I was taught and the way I was raised,” said Saloy, a professor of English at Dillard University, who would return to find her home destroyed.
The floodwaters of Katrina destroyed her 5,000-volume library, her unpublished research materials, family photos and keepsakes. The poet/author/folklorist has had 12 addresses in the last 10 years. Three months after Katrina, Saloy was hit by a car while walking in City Park, sustaining injuries that required three years of healing and physical therapy. A decade after Katrina, she is still rebuilding her home.
“My story is not uncommon,” Saloy is quick to say. She knows she is a small part of the big picture that saw 80 percent of the city underwater and left thousands of people without homes and loved ones.
“I just give thanks that I can keep it together. I press forward, and I am not giving up my dreams,” she says. She sees how far she has come, not how far she has to go.
“Personal resilience is the degree to which a person is able to cope with all challenges and stressors as determined by how well we function — technically, interpersonally, psychologically, and personally in terms of self care and regulation — with little lasting unwanted consequences for those high in resilience,” says Dr. Charles Figley, internationally known trauma expert and head of the Tulane Trauma Institute.
Is the ability to recover from a tragedy something inherent in all of us?
“All humans have resilience of some sort,” said Jane Parker, director of the Institute for Psychosocial Health at Tulane University. “Most people are more resilient than they think they are. It is through heartbreak and suffering that we realize we have it.”
Resilience, she says, is often mistakenly romanticized as perfection or the capacity to be “superhuman.”
“I didn’t make the best decisions, but I made the only ones I could at the time,” says Saloy, pointing out that only in hindsight can all options be explored with the luxury of time easing the pain.
During this time of displacement, Saloy worked on a book of hurricane-inspired poetry (“Second Line Home,” published last year) and joined with others to restore the cohesiveness of her neighborhood by attending neighborhood meetings all over the city, learning of initiatives to help reorganize neighborhoods and finding free spaces for meetings. Three years ago, the 7th Ward Neighborhood Association was revived.
“We are merely continuing the work of our elders who are no longer here or no longer able to organize, and we have a long history of civic engagement,” says Saloy, a New Orleans Creole culture scholar. “Katrina wasn’t about the stuff we lost. It was the interruption in our culture.”
“Studies consistently show that when people have something to live for that is bigger than themselves it seems to make them more resilient.” says Robert Laird, professor of psychology at the University of New Orleans. “After a tragedy, someone can feel horrible, but also feel the need to look out for their children or others or to help in their church.”
The neighborhood association Saloy helped rebuild is already giving back to the community by providing seminars on how to build rain barrels, plant food, abate standing water and report blight.
“For our individual post-K memorial, we’re giving away books to families since there’s no library our kids can walk to without crossing avenues. A millage was just passed to rebuild Nora Navra, the library I walked to for story time as a kid,” she says.
The spiritual dimension, says Parker, is another component of resiliency.
“It may or may not involve a religious practice, but it is another dimension that we humans must attend to in order to bolster resilience. Some TLC to our spiritual side helps us to transcend our current circumstances, can promote altruism, and encourages forgiveness.
Meditation, deep breathing, ‘mindfulness’ journaling or other meditative practices are yet one more set of skills that can ease our weariness in this world,” says Parker.
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of person,” says Saloy, who credits three factors for her resiliency. “My faith. The culture in which I was raised. And gratitude.”
She’s still grateful for that 11-year-old car that carried her and her loved ones out of town on the eve of Katrina — and even more appreciative that she’s still driving it 10 years later.
“I can’t wait until I am back in my home, sitting on the gallery, sipping a cup of café au lait, reading a book, and waving at a neighbor, having my pastor come to bless the house, and family members visit and hang out at our home again,” says Saloy.
Ten years later, what can we, as individuals, do with the resilience we have learned and demonstrated?
“We share with younger generations or with others when they are in their darkest days. What great justice to take something that hurt you so badly and turn it around to help another person or community. It is so healing,” says Parker.