Catastrophe and Change: Living in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Justine A. Von Arb
Olivet Nazarene University

Key Words: catastrophe, Hurricane Katrina, preventative measures, governmental priorities, policy failure, devastation, adaptation


This paper considers the catastrophic occurrence of Hurricane Katrina and investigates the social changes that resulted. The criteria for catastrophe are presented, including the disruption of normal life. The possibility that better preventative measures could have been instituted is explored, primarily with regard to governmental measures that failed due to a lack of an accurate perception of both the threat and the efficacy of the proposed solutions, and the immediate responses of the victims are noted. Although devastation ravaged the cities and the lives of those impacted by Hurricane Katrina, each day is an opportunity for the victims to adapt to the changes that were forced upon them.


In an instant, lives can change. Not everyone is confronted with such a defining moment in his or her life, but for the one who is, that moment – whether positive or catastrophic – changes the trajectory of one's life. In the wake of devastation, confusion, chaos, destruction, and powerlessness, life becomes a monotonous string of one day after the next – days in which the victims try to restore, or rebuild, and heal. Thus, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one survivor's poignant comment displays the dichotomy of life before and after the catastrophic event: "I know what day it is. Every day is the day after the hurricane" (as cited in Osofsky, 2008). Life, instead of involving exciting dreams and lofty hopes, becomes a struggle to return to the normal, to the mundane. The survivors try, as much as they can, to live each day in a post-Katrina world in a way that matches the days before Katrina. Ultimately, this is futile. In the first days after Katrina, the devastation of the victims' physical surroundings served as an inescapable reminder of the devastation that they had witnessed: "We saw not only huge signs blown down, but also sides of buildings blown away. The flooding and destruction from the winds of Hurricane Katrina made parts of the New Orleans metropolitan area look like a warzone" (Osofsky, 2008). Indeed, the physical destruction reminded the victims of the material losses that pervaded their every waking thought, but it also provided a metaphor for the lives of those affected. Just as the trees had been uprooted, just as the buildings had collapsed, just as a warzone had emerged from the widespread destruction – so, too, were their minds ravaged by the storms of doubt, confusion, and chaos. Their lives had been ripped apart, and the sense of security that they had tried so hard to establish had been destroyed in an instant. Just as Katrina ravaged the American southeast, Katrina ravaged the spirits of the people in affected regions: "We felt a part of our identity had been ripped from us" (Osofsky, 2008). It is necessary to consider the deeply emotional response of those who were impacted. Lives were changed in an instant, and the victims of Katrina live each day in the aftermath of catastrophe.


Hurricane Katrina can be seen as truly catastrophic. Rodriguez, Trainor, and Quarantelli suggested that catastrophes could be distinguished from disasters when compared against several criteria. The "massive physical impact" (Rodriguez et al., 2006) of Katrina is undeniable, but Katrina, Rodriguez et al. argued, can be classified as a catastrophe. Their criteria for catastrophe depend largely upon the disruption to normal life that results from disastrous events. For example, Hurricane Katrina resulted in an inability of local officials to perform their jobs properly. In addition, support for the victims came from everywhere – even those who were physically far removed from the epicenters of destruction felt a deep emotional tie that surpassed any distance. Furthermore, "most everyday community functions [were] sharply and concurrently interrupted" (Rodriguez et al., 2006). The lives of those affected became fixated on a single event. The destruction of Katrina was reported extensively by national mass media, and the national government also was involved in responses to the destruction (Rodriguez et al., 2006). These qualifications for catastrophe speak to the existence of a national consciousness; even though the events of Hurricane Katrina were restricted to one area of the United States, the devastation was not limited by physical boundaries. The nation, as a whole, mourned with those who had been impacted, and the nation tried, as well as it could, to respond in ways that would aid those who faced both the physical and the emotional destruction that resulted from Katrina.

Failure of Preventative Measures   

Even so, some posited that the destruction that resulted from Katrina was ultimately a failure of prevention, rather than an unpleasant and unexpected surprise. Parker, Stern, Paglia, and Brown argued that "some might consider that an extraordinary disaster of Katrina's magnitude was a relatively 'normal' failure…of a highly complex and multi-level system of people and organizations dependent on an unbroken chain of intelligence" (2009). When that chain of intelligence was broken, catastrophe resulted.

Governmental perceptions. There were preventative measures in place to attempt to limit the destruction of events like Katrina, but they failed in practice. Although the event itself could not be prevented, the scope of the disaster that followed could have been limited. Parker et al. (2009) identified several causes for the practical inefficacy and insufficiency of New Orleans' preventative measures. These causes included the mistaken belief that past measures had succeeded far better than they had, unwarranted confidence in their updated policies, intentional ignorance of any criticisms of the updated policies, wishful thinking, and "receptivity fatigue that is related to repeated false alarms and incidents that are perceived as examples of 'crying wolf'" (Parker et al., 2009). Thus, the government's inaccurate perceptions of which preventative measures needed to be taken hindered the efficacy and sufficiency of their preventative measures.

The responses to policy failure. These criticisms of state and local governmental policy may seem harsh; many would prefer to let the blame for the devastation of Katrina rest fully in the hands of nature. After all, such monumental loss– the loss of life, possessions, relationships, and normalcy itself – could not have been premeditated. The destruction ultimately shook the entire nation, according to Rodriguez et al. (2006), and the response of those in the wake of Katrina was no less striking: "we had an overwhelming sense of sadness related to the tragic events caused by Hurricane Katrina and the breeching of the levees. We knew then that although there would be a new normal in this city…it would never be the same again" (Osofsky, 2008). The preventative measures that should have been in place to prevent the widespread devastation that occurred as a result of Hurricane Katrina were strangely lacking. However, Parker et al. suggested that "the stark images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina reflected the government's perceived inability to protect the city from catastrophic flooding or to mount a fully effective response effort" (2009). They asserted that much of the governmental failure resulted from a lack of understanding of the imminence of an event like Katrina. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers, noted the underestimation of the likelihood of the occurrence of a catastrophic hurricane: "We figured we had a 200- or 300-year level of protection. That means that an event we were protecting from might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years" (as cited in Parker et al., 2009). Such a belief, when proved to be inaccurate, had disastrous consequences. George W. Bush, President of the United States from 2001-2009, responded similarly, admitting that the government failed to prepare adequately for a catastrophe like Katrina: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government" (as cited in Jordan, 2005). National, state, and local governments all failed to adequately prepare for a natural disaster like Katrina, but only after Katrina ravaged the southeastern United States was this weakness brought to the forefront of the public consciousness.

Governmental priorities. The mistaken estimation of the likelihood of the occurrence of a catastrophic hurricane informed the priority – or lack thereof – of preventative measures in state and local governments against destruction resulting from hurricanes. Parker et al. argued that preoccupation with other matters of policy – such as tax cuts, the War on Terror, immigration, coastal erosion, and offshore drilling – took precedence over matters related to hurricanes in New Orleans: "The threat of hurricanes was but one of any number of problems plaguing New Orleans, wracked by one of the nation's highest homicide rates, poverty, and poor schools" (2009). Ultimately, the potential threat of disastrous hurricanes was less pressing than the certainty of homicide; thus, probability and priority both affected New Orleans' – and the national government's – policies regarding hurricane disaster prevention.

Responses to Devastation

Regardless of who failed to properly protect the people of New Orleans and those in similarly affected areas from destruction caused by Katrina, devastation came. Food, medical treatment, refuge, water, fuel – the commonplace necessities of life were stripped from those in Katrina's path, and the highest concern of the victims was perpetuating their survival.

Disruption of Normalcy

It was impossible to live a normal life in a world that had been shaken by death, destruction, and deprivation. Desperation drove some to fulfill their need for refuge by seeking asylum at hospitals, churches, and convention centers (Rodriguez et al., 2006). Ordinary life was interrupted for people could not fulfill their needs in the ways of the past. Thus, a new way of life emerged, one that was distinct from life before Katrina. Within hospitals, job responsibilities changed; hospital staff was required to adapt to the influx of patients in need of care, which meant that "many staff members were doing things that were quite distant from their everyday jobs" (Rodriguez et al., 2006). In light of these needs, the lives of those who participated in charity groups were altered as well. To combat growing needs, "local traditional religious groups accustomed to providing food and other help to disadvantaged people on a daily basis in churches and mosques suddenly and unexpectedly had to take on and train many volunteers…or to provide new kinds of services" (Rodriguez et al., 2006). Thus, the impact of Katrina spiraled outward from those whose lives she first disrupted.

Adaptation to Devastation

The fundamental needs of humans needed to be met, and it was only through adaptation to and confirmation of a new standard of normalcy that life continued. Even though "community functions [were] sharply and concurrently interrupted" (Rodriguez et al., 2006), signaling a catastrophe, recovery began: "a catastrophe also generates emergent behavior in locations far away as outsiders try to help or get involved in some way during the aftermath of the disaster" (Rodriguez et al., 2006). However, the task of recovering from and adapting to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina necessitated a response characterized by organization, strength, sacrifice, and resilience. Brad Fair, the head of the housing efforts supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stated that the magnitude of recovery efforts "may not be quite on the scale of building the pyramids, but it's close" (as cited in Jordan, 2005). Responses to the needs created by Hurricane Katrina were geographically diverse; in addition to the response of federal agencies and organizations, crews of Navajo Scouts from Arizona joined the efforts to clear debris in the French Quarter of New Orleans (Appel, 2005). Furthermore, Chris Moore, a volunteer from Georgia, joined the efforts of debris removal, and he stated that the destruction was not dissimilar to a warzone: "The streets are blocked off, there's a lot of damage to the buildings. Nothing but darkness in the depth of the city where there should be lights…But I'm glad to see so much good coming out of the darkness" (as cited in Appel, 2005). Though catastrophe, by definition, produces devastation, it brings together victims and outsiders in order to create lasting change.


Catastrophe, then, forces change – but eventually, changes that once seemed so foreign and alien become normal once again. Catastrophe involves others on a national level, and whether the state and national governments were to blame for the heightened destruction of Katrina, the nation came alongside of the victims of the hurricane in solidarity, offering an outstretched arm. Even though "every day is the day after the hurricane" (as cited in Osofsky, 2008), in that new world, the victims can find a new identity. Mr. Irvin Mayfield, a Katrina victim and survivor, emphasized the importance of resilience and recovery: "Tragic situations give a person the mandate to define themselves of what they're going to be and who they are…this is just another major catastrophe that we're going to have to deal with and we have to endure" (as cited in Montagne, 2005). The poignancy of his comments applies to every catastrophe: tragic, catastrophic situations disrupt normalcy, but such circumstances allow the victims to respond with unforeseen measures of strength and resilience that ultimately produce lasting change.


Appel, A. (2005, September 27). Still Struggling, Katrina's victims tell stories of survival. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com

Jordan, L. J. (2005, September 13). Bush takes blame for failures; says disaster raises questions on ability of government to handle emergencies. Buffalo News. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic.

Montagne, R. (2005, September 2). Katrina victims share their stories. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org

Osofsky, J. D. (2008). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: A personal story of a psychologist from New Orleans. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(1), 12-17. doi:0.1037/0735-7028.39.1.12

Parker, C. F., Stern, E. K., Paglia, E., & Brown, C. (2009). Preventable catastrophe? The Hurricane Katrina disaster revisited. Journal of Contingencies & Crisis Management, 17(4), 206-220. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5973.2009.00588.x

Rodriguez, H., Trainor, J., & Quarantelli, E. L. (2006). Rising to the challenges of a catastrophe: The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 604(1), 82-101. doi:10.1177/0002716205284677




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