Most of the members of the Johnson-Fernandez family — more than 150 strong — proudly reside in St. Bernard Parish. During Hurricane Katrina, they did what families do: they banded together, helping each other as best they could. Many evacuated to Dallas, where relatives waited to welcome them. Then, after the flood decimated their homes and livelihoods, they began the battle to come home.
That struggle is recounted in “Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort, and Coming Home after Katrina,” by Colorado State University anthropologist Katherine E. Browne, one of the newest entries in The Katrina Bookshelf Series published by the University of Texas Press. It’s a tale of a loving family bound together by a long tradition of loyalty and love of place.
“In the disaster field, there aren’t many anthropologists,” Katherine Browne said. “So there weren’t a lot of models for me.”
But she plunged into the work, moving the traditional focus of her research from the French-Caribbean to New Orleans, “which we know as the northernmost part of the Caribbean.”
From the first, cultural differences were clear. “We’re not from New Orleans,” family members told her, clearly and directly. “We’re from St. Bernard.”
“Disaster is very profound. There’s nothing that shakes you to the core more than seeing people’s lives stripped of all that’s familiar. The experience is one of the most unsettling, and you come face to face with who we are as human beings, as a species,” Browne said.
Her early efforts — 20 months of interviews and observation, along with award-winning filmmaker Ginny Martin — culminated in a film that was shown on PBS, “Still Waiting: Life after Katrina.” Browne continued to follow the family for almost nine years and remains in contact with them.
The book follows the arc of evacuation, exile and slow return, centering on the women in “The Peachy Gang,” descendants of Alma “Peachy” Johnson James (1900-1984). They are Katie Williams, Cynthia Winesbury, Roseana Maurice and Audrey Brown.
Along the way, Browne casts their experience in analytical terms that a New Orleans reader can only hope will reach policy makers and disaster experts.
Browne explains how the experience of the Johnson-Fernandez family was helped by their Dallas relative, Connie Tipado, who served as “culture broker,” one who could ease the way in the new environment, one who had resources and knew how to summon more.
She was key in helping the family recreate a sense of normalcy in the new environment and communicate with the bureaucracy.
During the first visit home. Browne recalls the difference between her own expectations and the family’s reaction to the sights before them.
“I was seeing complete devastation and ruin and helplessness,” she said. “But they were in the car, driving down the streets of Violet, smiling and waving to everyone. It wasn’t that they weren’t seeing the ruins. It was the sense that they were home. This was the biggest wake-up call. I had expected tears and sobbing or mourning, prayerful attention to ruin because their whole lives were upended.”
After the initial joy of return, more work began — the struggle to find or regain employment, rebuild and recover, and perhaps most frustrating of all, deal with Road Home.
Browne’s account of matriarch Katie Williams’ conversation with Road Home will elicit groans of recognition from local readers. Then comes the moment that will make readers want to stand up and cheer.
Even though anthropologists are bound not to interfere or intervene, Browne took what she described as “an ethical pause” and got on the phone herself. By the end of Browne’s verbal journey up the bureaucratic chain, Katie had a date for getting her case resolved. And Browne had even more evidence for what she terms the profound differences between “the recovery culture” and “the wounded culture.”
Those failures to communicate are what daunted many citizens in the claims and recovery process — fear that showing anger would lead to adverse consequences, an inadequate understanding of the process, or, in Katie’s case, finding that all her submitted papers had been lost.
Browne took the inch-thick file, copied the papers and faxed them when she returned to Colorado, because, as we all know, machines were in short supply in the post-Katrina landscape.
The book’s title, “Standing in the Need: Culture, Comfort and Coming Home after Katrina,” comes from an old gospel song, “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” Browne’s examination of culture and coming home are fairly clear, but one of the lessons she hopes readers will take home is the idea of comfort. She certainly understands the need for familiar foods in unfamiliar landscapes and the difficulty of making gumbo and red beans without the right ingredients.
“Comfort is one of the most overlooked aspects of recovery from disaster. Everyone has a way of doing certain things, and it’s important to reconnect with your own rituals, the meaning of your life and shared life. We really need to understand something about comfort in order to alleviate suffering … It’s a desperately urgent problem: How do we create comfort?”
Years pass, and Browne continues to bear witness to the family’s recovery — taking part in such rituals as weddings, funerals and family reunions.
The bond between her and this family is permanent.
“I never really doubted that they cared for me as much as I cared for them,” she said. “And, the more I learned, the more I cared.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.