The Impact of Community on Post-Katrina Recovery in New Orleans


A Research Proposal for a Series of Community Surveys

May 2006


By Frederick Weil

Department of Sociology, Louisiana State University



            What can the communities of greater New Orleans do to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina?  What can they do with limited resources to help their members return and build back?  How many of their members have already returned, how many plan to, how many would like to, and how many have given up thought of returning?  To what extent is this just a question of economics, and how much difference can community members and leaders working together make?  What works, and what doesn’t?


            This study proposes to investigate these questions and to try to provide some guidance.  I present a diagnostic tool – a survey – to help community leaders and members understand what their needs are and what resources they have, both economic and social.  And together with community leaders and members, I suggest an exchange of information and strategies for making the most of (always!) limited resources.


            Post-Katrina New Orleans, and the surrounding devastated areas, present special challenges for doing this work.  In most “ordinary” situations, one could simply do a survey to see what people’s feelings and plans are.  In the present situation, one cannot reach large numbers of people, especially those who have evacuated and have not (yet) returned.


            Therefore, I propose to work with communities – mostly faith-based – that have kept contact with their members, both those who have returned and those who are still away.  These communities have the ability to ask their members what they think and what they plan; and the same communities also have the ability to implement strategies to bring their members back.  A survey can work with and through these communities, and help them see what factors might be most successful in building back.


            I am a member of the Jewish community, and my community and I are implementing this approach.  The Jewish Federations of Greater New Orleans and of Greater Baton Rouge are sending email invitations to community members to take a web-based survey, and the leadership will try to understand which of their efforts and strategies will be most successful in helping their communities recover.


            I hope to extend this opportunity to other communities, as well.  Several communities have already either agreed to participate in this study, or are seriously considering it.  The United Methodists have agreed to take part; the Catholic Vietnamese community of New Orleans East has expressed strong interest.  The Catholic Community Services and community leaders in Chalmette are exploring the possibility.  I have begun discussions with leaders of other communities as well, Protestant and Catholic; African American, white, and Asian.


Research theme.


            The proposed research aims to evaluate the importance of community and social support in the recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – as compared to physical and economic factors.  This question has clear theoretical and practical import.  In a time when community in America is said to be in decline, there is hardly a better opportunity to test its importance.  And if it is indeed found to have an impact, it may be possible to identify organizational and structural factors that can be applied across different communities or cultures to stretch scarce resources.  Possibly, these methods could be useful in other settings, as well.


Research method.


            The proposed research will utilize opinion surveys on the internet, combined with ethnographic and organizational research.  Communities – mainly religious organizations and congregations – will send out emails to their members inviting them to take the survey, and an internet link will be provided.  Community leaders generally seek to maintain contact information for their members, so it should be possible to reach even displaced members who have not (yet) returned.  Community members will also be encouraged to forward the emails to family and friends from their communities who may be out of touch with their communities.  (In close-knit Chalmette, where perhaps only ten percent of residents have returned, community members tell me it is possible to contact almost anyone through at most two or three links.)  In cases where community members either do not have internet access or find it hard to use, other family or community members, or even case workers, can sometimes help them.


Most attempts to poll general populations of New Orleans stayers and leavers are virtually impossible because it is so hard to draw a sample and contact them.  Although polls of community members cannot be generalized to the whole population, they can be generalized to members of the communities; and if a sufficient variety of communities is polled, a great deal can be learned.


Questionnaires and Hypotheses.


            There are two basic questionnaires in this study, one with variations.  The first basic questionnaire is for communities in the devastated zones, mainly in and around New Orleans.  The variants of this questionnaire are for those who have stayed and those who have moved away.  The second basic questionnaire is for “receiving” communities, like Baton Rouge, to which hurricane survivors evacuated.   


The two basic questionnaires have a certain amount of overlap, but they address a number of separate issues, as well.


Questions for communities in the devastated regions include:


  • How much damage did community members sustain?  What will it take to recover?  Do people consider it worth it?  Are they willing?

§         Where will they look for resources for recovery?

§         How important are social/community resources as against material resources?

  • Where did people go if & when they evacuated?  Did their own community care for them?
  • Who is staying, who is leaving, and why?

§         Is it jobs?  Family connections?  Destruction and loss?

§         Is it the strength and vibrancy of members’ own community?  The general community?

§         Is there a self-reinforcing circle, that if many leave, more will; and that if many stay, more will?

§         Do community members feel safe and protected from future storms?

  • What can leadership do to persuade people to stay?

§         Can job offers be matched?

§         Can scholarships be offered for school children?

§         What is the effect of guaranteeing the survival of community institutions?

§         How important is community event programming?

§         How important is symbolic support, even if/after material support reaches limits?

  • How much did community members work together, cooperatively, during the aftermath and the recovery?

§         Do styles or methods of cooperation differ among communities?

§         What skills do different communities bring to bear?

  • How much cohesion is there within each community?  How important is community and identity to feelings of well-being of the members?  How can leadership make people feel more included, even if they don’t expend more resources?
  • Do community members feel that their community has improved and will continue to improve since Katrina?

§         Do people feel it’s created more closeness or more conflict?

§         Has it brought them closer to other communities or not?

§         What, if anything, can be done to improve these situations?

  • What have the disasters meant to to members spiritually?

§         Have they challenged and/or reinforced beliefs and faith?

§         Do members feel closer to others in their own community, in their regional community, in the larger community?

§         Do members feel secure that others would help them?

§         Have feelings of arrogance, demands, etc. interfered with these feelings?

§         Have the disasters produced more fears and anger, or more optimism and resolve to repair the world?  Or much of both?

  • How much stress is there among community members, and what can help mitigate it?

§         How important are social/communal factors, as against material factors?

§         Most research suggests that people with good social support handle stress better.  But my own recent research shows that socially involved people may be more stressed, for the same reason – they are looking out for so many more people.  Will this hold in post-Katrina communities, as well?

  • Do community members feel supported by their communities outside Greater New Orleans?

§         Has the disaster brought the GNO communities closer to their outside counterparts?

§         Or do GNO community members feel that outsiders have been arrogant, demanding, not understanding?

  • Whom do community members praise and blame?
  • How do the communities compare with each other in their beliefs and actions since the hurricanes?
  • How do the various members of each community differ on these questions among themselves?  Within families, between people who differ in their religiosity, their education, their economic standing, between age and gender groups, and so on. 


Questions for “receiving” areas, like Baton Rouge, include:


  • Many of the above questions.
  • How many people opened their own homes to evacuees, and how much need is left unfilled after people have privately done so?
  • Should members’ churches and synagogues be used for shelter?  Who should be offered shelter?  Do we actually know what community members prefer?
  • How many evacuees will stay in Baton Rouge?  Are the communities growing?  Is growth likely to be permanent?

§         How do Baton Rouge community members feel about the evacuees?  About the FEMA trailer villages?

§         How do community members see the impact on Baton Rouge?

  • How much have community members engaged in relief work, and in what ways?  How much of the effort was made within the faith organizations and how much in other ways?
  • Leaders of the Jewish community conducted a remarkable rescue effort after the storm. 

§         Was it universally admired?

§         Do members feel that Jews should rescue only Jewish community members, or also general community members as well?

§         Do members believe that others would help them if they were in similar need?


Use, Analysis, and Publication of the Results.


            I will make results of the study available to organizational and congregational leaders that participate in the project and will give talks to them and their members, if they desire.  My hope is that members and leaders will see more effective ways to recover from the disaster, and that the lessons learned can be more generally applicable to other community endeavors.


            I will compile the results of the surveys and do statistical analyses of them, and will publish the results in scholarly sociology journals.  If the project goes well, I would like to write a book for a broader audience.


            Certain privacy considerations will apply in the making public of results.  In no case will personally-identifying information be released about survey respondents.  Even if data are made available to the scholarly community, any such information will be removed from the data.  In general, scores for specific congregations (by name) will not be made public unless the congregation gives its permission.  However, leadership will receive percentaged results about its own congregation, which they can choose to share with members in that form.  Comparisons of denominations and/or race/ethnic groups will be done publicly.  In cases where there is only one congregation in the study for a denomination or race/ethnic group, I would have to decide how to proceed, in conjunction with that group’s leadership.  Subject to these privacy considerations, the press will also be given the results of the study.