Longhorns remember Hurricane Katrina uniting communities


Dr. Holly Bell (left) facilitates a panel of Katrina evacuees and scholars that included Heather Godwin, Shawn Lemieux and Jo Kathryn Quinn. The panelists discussed the survivors’ specific experiences in Austin and how the local community dealt with disaster relief.

Photo Credit: Raveena Bhalara | Daily Texan Staff

Austin social workers said despite the human and economic losses that came with Hurricane Katrina, evacuees have come together as a community in Austin seven years after the storm.

UT’s School of Social Work and College of Liberal Arts held a remembrance-day panel Monday based on “Community Lost,” a book of interviews with displaced survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Sociology professor Ronald Angel and UT research scientist Holly Bell collected 73 interviews of survivors immediately after the storm and combined them with follow-up interviews with 25 of the same survivors.

Bell, lead author for “Community Lost,” said many of the people helping evacuees in Austin were not prepared for the faith the survivors had in each other. Austin volunteers experienced firsthand the willingness of members of a community to put the needs of other victims above their own, she said.

“It was the people that made it possible to create a new start,” Bell said. “This moment of tragedy brought people together in a way that events of everyday life cannot.”  

Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin, said that despite the known instability of families evacuated from New Orleans, Katrina fostered a sense of unity among the victims. Caritas of Austin, which serves the needs of the poor, homeless and refugees of the community, helped displaced families locate new homes and join community support groups once they got to Austin.

Quinn said the unique challenge of helping evacuees struck social workers and volunteers from the moment the evacuees arrived in Austin.

“You literally did not know what was going to come across your desk in the next five minutes, but at the same time, there was this extraordinary pull of unity from these people coming in looking for help,“ Quinn said. “We watched them come out of that crisis and just immediately grab hold of helping one another.”

Mimi Mayer, Federal Emergency Management Agency employee who attended the panel Monday, said the federal government’s focus was on rebuilding infrastructure, while the victims were more concerned with rebuilding community ties.

“These people are not victims anymore,” Mayer said. “One of the most important things to understand is to so many people this is a chance to rebuild and change their lives in the best way possible. This, as well as countless other natural disasters, is a testimony to human resilience and the idea that disasters can truly be an opportunity.”

Printed on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 as: Katrina survivors share stories