Two storms of opportunities

Researchers head to Gulf Coast to study recent hurricanes' effects within society



HOUSTON -- For all the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, the upheaval wrought by the storm is producing unusually rich research opportunities for academics and scientists.

Researchers from throughout the country have descended on the Gulf Coast to explore topics as disparate as communications among victims and first responders, use of family networks in sheltering the displaced, and the provisions made for pets during disasters.

Social scientists are scrambling to put together research-grant proposals, says Vincent Gawronski, an assistant professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. Their interests include everything from the psychological and political effects on Katrina's victims, to how communities across the country are absorbing these newcomers.

"Of course, they will all be welcomed with open arms in communities and homes around the country during the emergency phase of the disaster," Gawronski says. "But what will happen down the road? What will be the social strains and stresses?"

Gawronski has teamed with Richard Olson of Florida International University to examine media coverage of the catastrophe.

"Disasters provide all sorts of opportunity to do interesting research from all sorts of different perspectives," he says.

If that's true of disasters generally, Katrina has opened access to information unique in U.S. history. The near-total evacuation of a major city is unprecedented, as is the sudden dispersal of as many as 1 million Americans to all corners of the country.

That outflow compares with the dislocations that followed the Civil War, the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North at the beginning of the 20th century, and the exodus of farmers and laborers from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

But this time, the flight unfolded in days, not years. With history in the making, analysts are getting to work learning what they can.

"These kinds of crises represent more or less natural laboratories, situations where, because of their difference from everyday life, give you an opportunity to see the inner workings of society, of groups, of organizations," says retired University of Southern California sociologist Robert Stallings, president of the research committee on disasters of the International Sociological Association. "Presumably these situations expose something fundamental about the human condition."

When Katrina victims began arriving in Houston last month, John Barnshaw hurried down to meet them.

As a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Delaware, Barnshaw studies inequality among races, classes and genders. Hurricane Katrina provided an unprecedented opportunity for research.

A graduate assistant at Delaware's Disaster Research Center, Barnshaw spent four days at the Reliant Park shelter complex in Houston interviewing more than 40 evacuees about how they were making decisions to either return to the Gulf Court or resettle elsewhere.

"I was really able to start understanding a little bit of the processes that evacuees go through," Barnshaw says. "It is a unique experience."

Barnshaw's project is one of 20 funded so far through a quick-response-grant program at the University of Colorado. The funding enabled him to reach Reliant Park while it still held thousands of people.

"They offer an opportunity for researchers to get in there and collect highly perishable data," Barnshaw says.

The Natural Hazards Center, based at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, has been issuing immediate grants of National Science Foundation money to speed researchers into the field.

Hillary Potter of the University of Colorado is pursuing a project titled "Reframing Crime: Race, Gender, Class, Criminality and Enforcement of Laws in a Natural Disaster." Lauren Barsky of the University of Delaware is examining "Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the Looting Myth."

"This is information that would be lost, memories that would change over time," says Greg Guibert, program manager at the Natural Hazards Center. In addition to the 20 grants already issued, he says, another 10 proposals are being reviewed for approval. "And with [Hurricane] Rita," he says, "we'll probably have another round.

Guibert says several of the researchers are from areas affected by the storm.

"So this is a very difficult time for them," he says. "But this is information that needs to be captured."

Gawronski says the lessons of Katrina can broaden understanding of everyday life.

"Disasters provide a window for looking at all sorts of things within a society because they lay bare underlying weaknesses and strengths in institutions, in the social fabric, even in the psychological makeup of a community," he says. "You can see so many things so quickly. ... It's just a revelatory event."

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