‘Building Back Better’ means a different kind of disaster recovery


Aug. 29 is a rotten day for New Orleans. It has been for the last 16 years, when Hurricane Katrina pummeled Louisiana, devastating everything and everyone in its path. 

Living in New Orleans as a mental health professional during the years following that storm, the emotional impact of Katrina was striking. Katrina leveled more than homes and businesses, the storm changed the demographics of the city and leveled the heart and soul of Nola. Such is the long-term mental health impact of natural disasters: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, flooding. Long after the blue tarps and sandbags are discarded, the emotional, relational, and cultural damage remains. We need to learn from Katrina and better support New Orleanians and all impacted citizens now in the aftermath of Ida and other natural disasters. 

If you haven’t lived through a hurricane or its aftermath, it’s hard to express just how devastating these storms can be. Everyone is familiar with the horrifying images of Katrina — families stuck in sweltering heat on their roofs waiting for help. Shelters overflowing with people lacking access to clean water and food. Homes, workplaces, cultural landmarks, the beautiful city and surrounding area of New Orleans under water. Sadly, images of devastation left from hurricanes and other natural disasters are becoming commonplace, which can result in less care and attention being paid to the people and communities impacted. 

Our society’s numbing towards the long-term impacts caused by natural disasters is especially concerning from mental health and cultural perspectives. Consider New Orleans post-Katrina. New Orleanians have strong community ties, often living with or nearby family and friends that they’ve known for generations. Katrina not only destroyed homes but also social networks. The “villages” of friends and family that people relied on for care of children and elderly, jobs, housing, food, and overall social support were forcibly disbanded. The culture of New Orleans that those villages embodied was never the same. Following the storm, Nola was gentrified by those who had the means to rebuild. This gentrification devastated the city’s culture as native New Orleanians — musicians, artists, and creatives of all sorts — struggled to afford the costs of returning to and living in Nola. Those most impacted were the city’s Black population, who pre-Katrina made up two-thirds of residents. After the storm, they accounted for less than 60 percent

Ida and subsequent natural disasters share the chilling capacity to be devastating to our people and culture, now with additional risks. Ida made landfall not only on the anniversary of Katrina but also during a surge of COVID-19 cases in a state where less than 40 percent of eligible people are fully vaccinated. COVID-related concerns played a significant role in many citizens’ decision not to evacuate. Already stressed and strained by Katrina’s anniversary, they were faced with a difficult decision of whether to risk travel to locations and conditions unknown during a pandemic or to ride out the storm. It’s an unenviable choice with inherent risk no matter the decision. 

Now without power for days or weeks and with limited resources within the city, including ice, gasoline, and safe housing, many New Orleanians are stuck trying to find housing outside the city or resources within. In the days following Ida’s landfall in Louisiana, she continued to cause destruction and death as far north as New York, showcasing the far-reaching impact one storm can have.

While we wait for the inevitable next disaster, those of us not directly impacted can prepare to help, and we can respond differently than we did 16 years ago. We can learn from Katrina and our neglectful and damaging response during the days, weeks, and years following. We need to start looking at natural disaster recovery differently. We need to care for those impacted in the longer-term once their physical needs are hopefully met. We need to attend to their mental health and emotional well-being as well as rebuild the culture the storm wiped away. 

We can respond swiftly and with more than enough resources needed to care for our citizens. We can be mindful of how we support the well-being of the people and the culture of communities. We can donate to reputable charities who will help rebuild not only the physical infrastructure, but the schools, the arts, and the culture of communities. Rather than turning away once the next storm enters the news cycle, we can turn towards the longer-term care and ongoing support needs of impacted communities. 

We can do all of this in partnership with the people directly affected by the disaster — those who know better than anyone what they need and how best to respond. We can call on President Biden to remain true to his campaign slogan and to “Build Back Better”, this time with a broader lens on what our people need to thrive once again.

Tracy Vozar is a clinical associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

Tags Hurricane Ida Hurricane Katrina Joe Biden Natural disaster New Orleans

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