In recent months a number of natural disasters have struck individuals and communities around the world. In April, for instance, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal killed as many as 7,000 and injured tens of thousands. In May, heavy rains caused flooding throughout the south central United States, claiming the lives of two dozen people in Texas. Early estimates of damage to public property alone is more than $80 million. The extent of the damage will become more apparent as homeowners return and begin cleaning up and rebuilding.
These communities are faced with daunting challenges that the communities in New Orleans had to confront and overcome a decade ago.
It might be easy to forget when looking at New Orleans today how devastated the city was when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. More than 1,800 people died as a result of Katrina and the subsequent flooding. As much as 80 percent of the city flooded, including over 134,000 occupied housing units (70 percent of all occupied housing units were damaged). Total damages were estimated at over $100 billion.
And yet, out of the sorrow and devastation, individuals and communities came together to rebuild. Remembering and revisiting the stories of how residents tried to come back could be not only a source of hope, but the stories could also be instructive to communities that recently suffered — or could one day suffer — from such a disaster.
A collection of such stories from Hurricane Katrina survivors in four diverse New Orleans communities is presented in a new book, “How We Came Back: Voices from Post-Katrina New Orleans,” edited by Nona Martin Storr, Emily Chamlee-Wright, and one of us, Virgil Henry Storr. These oral histories offer an opportunity to revisit stories of personal resilience and community rebound and recovery. Although the book does not offer policy prescriptions, themes do emerge from the narratives, including the importance of social networks within civil society, the ways in which local resources —food, emotional support, and specialized skills — can be leveraged to spur recovery, and the role of social entrepreneurs as leaders in recovery efforts.
Consider the story of Calvin and Kim, a couple who lived and owned a grocery store and diner in the 9th Ward — one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods with floodwaters over 10 feet high. After the storm, the couple illustrated a tremendous work ethic and generosity. Their diner was one of the few businesses up and running 18 months after the storm.
Calvin weathered the storm at the grocery store, and after the water receded, he brought food, water and medicine to those in the community who had nothing. They also relied on their faith. Kim explains, “We’re working towards a bigger goal. … I just feel that God’s gonna always provide for me if I keep just working hard trying to do his will.” Operating a business is no simple task during mundane times. Yet, Kim describes how after Katrina the couple not only reopened their business but provided additional assistance to those less fortunate in their community.
Stories like that of Calvin and Kim — and the others captured in “How We Came Back” — are increasingly relevant in a world where there has been an uptick in the reported number of natural disasters during recent years.
According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster, the number of natural disasters worldwide steadily increased from 24 in 1950, 66 in 1975 and 296 in 1990. According to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance/CRED International Disaster Database, there were 328 natural disasters worldwide last year.
As community members and officials attempt to weather these challenges and recover from the devastation caused by disasters, they can perhaps gain encouragement from the stories of how others bounced back from similar difficulties. The stories of Hurricane Katrina survivors speak to both the strength of the human spirit and the ability of community members to work together to take on personal and community challenges.
Virgil Storr is a senior research fellow and senior director of Academic and Student Programs for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and co-editor of “How We Came Back: Voices from Post-Katrina New Orleans.” Laura Grube is an assistant professor at Beloit College and a former Mercatus Center dissertation fellow. The Mercatus Center is a think tank that promotes conservative economic policy.