Workers cleaning a damaged school

Workers clean a New Orleans, Lousiana, school after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina.


More than 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, scientists are learning what makes some survivors more resilient than others

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—A muggy quiet has settled over New Orleans, Louisiana's Gentilly neighborhood as it soaks up a late-September rainstorm. Deep puddles hide dips in the street. And in a soggy patch of grass, a wooden kiosk tells a story of catastrophe.

"This place is a memorial to the trauma of the Flood," reads the text, written by a local nonprofit, Near here, a section of concrete levee gave way one August morning in 2005, sending the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina crashing into the neighborhood. Yet the monument is not only a reminder of suffering, but also, the text insists, "a symbol of the residents' resilience and determination to return home."

Resilience and rebuilding—those two appealing themes bring hope after a natural disaster. The reality is more complicated. Many who fled Katrina's destruction never did return home. More than 12 years later, tidy brick houses in Gentilly are interspersed with empty lots while post-Katrina lives play out elsewhere.

Some of those survivors, wherever they ultimately ended up, are proving more resilient than others. "One household or family manages to recover," says David Abramson, a public health researcher who studies disasters at New York University in New York City. "The other remains dysfunctional."

Abramson has been surveying people affected by Katrina every few years since the storm. Poor, predominantly black families on cheaper property in lower-lying areas faced disproportionate damage from Katrina—and a harder road to recovery. But with the passage of years, the paths of survivors have diverged in complex, hard-to-predict ways. "Initially, I thought that those with the least would do the worst," Abramson says. "That wasn't always the case."

Abramson is one of three social scientists leading a project called Katrina@10. It's looking for long-term predictors of resilience—factors that cushion the shock of disaster and set the course for recovery. In their three long-running studies, the researchers have found a range of factors that seem to help, such as financial resources, social and cultural ties, and access to stable housing after the event, which all seem to help. Now, they're combining their cohorts to see whether those results will generalize. If the predictors they identify hold true across other natural disasters—and that remains to be seen—Katrina@10 could help policymakers and disaster recovery programs pick out especially vulnerable groups. It might even steer them toward interventions that do the most good.

Following survivors wherever they end up, year after year, is an unusual and costly proposition for a field in which disaster experts tend to lurch from one catastrophe to the next. Last year alone saw flooding across Houston, Texas; wildfires in California; and a crushing hurricane in Puerto Rico; to name a few. But studying survivors long after the floodwaters recede can pay off, the researchers say. "The 10- to 15-year time frame allows us to see what's real recovery," Abramson says, "and not just fleeting."

Hurricane Katrina breached levees in New Orleans, Louisiana, in August 2005. Long after debris was cleared, families struggled to recover.


Upended by the storm

Katrina slammed into the Louisiana coast on 29 August 2005, and 80% of New Orleans was soon underwater. The city's Superdome, normally home to raucous football games, overflowed with refugees. Some families trudged out of the city on foot; others who couldn't escape waved for help from rooftops. It's estimated that more than 1800 people died and that the damage exceeded $100 billion. The country had never seen anything like it.

Katrina "is a flash point in people's minds about how bad it could really be," says Jeffrey Hebert, a city planning expert who from 2014 to 2017 served as the city's first "chief resilience officer."

Despite his catchy title, Hebert acknowledges that resilience has many meanings, some easier to measure than others. Engineers may gauge a city's physical resilience by the strain a levee can bear. Pinpointing what makes a person or community resilient is harder. But by a stroke of luck, two social scientists who later became leaders of Katrina@10 were uniquely poised to try. That's because both had been following New Orleanians before the storm for unrelated studies, and so were able to pivot and compare subjects' lives before with what came after.

One was Mark VanLandingham, a sociologist at Tulane University here. In 2002, he launched a project in the quiet area of eastern New Orleans comparing the lives of Vietnamese immigrants who had settled here after evacuating from Saigon in 1975 with those of families who stayed behind in Vietnam. In the summer of 2005, his team was wrapping up a survey on the health and well-being of people in 125 Vietnamese households.

Meanwhile, another sociologist, Mary Waters from Harvard University, was part of a nationwide study examining how higher education affects the health of single parents. The team had reached about 500 first-generation college students in the New Orleans area for a phone survey when Katrina sent them fleeing for dry ground.

Waters, safe and dry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and VanLandingham, who escaped to Galveston, Texas, before his own house took on a meter of water, didn't know each other. They didn't know much about disaster research. But both immediately recognized that their questionnaires documenting the health, social networks, and personality traits of Vietnamese immigrants and mostly poor, black, single mothers before the hurricane had taken on outsize significance.

In the months after Katrina, Waters and VanLandingham, along with their colleagues, began tracking down their displaced participants to see how they were faring. The researchers tried calling the phone numbers on file and sent teams to search New Orleans neighborhoods for participants or friends who might know where to find them.

Meanwhile, Katrina's devastation also drew Abramson in. He had been exploring the impact of HIV/AIDS in New York City, but the storm inspired him to lead a caravan of about 30 researchers, graduate students, and health workers to visit temporary housing sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Mississippi and Louisiana. Their goal was to monitor those families over the coming years as they sought permanent housing back in their original neighborhoods or elsewhere, and to track how disaster and displacement affected health.

In a first round of surveys, Abramson's Gulf Coast Child and Family Health Study interviewed people from 1079 displaced households between 6 and 12 months after the storm. As the team's 12-passenger vans rolled through FEMA housing sites, they found families of six crammed into trailers, uncertain whether they'd be forced to move out on a few days' notice. Some feared for their safety and kept their children inside. "It made for a very claustrophobic and depressing situation," Abramson says.

Abramson would track those families over time and watch their paths diverge. But in another population, a future colleague of VanLandingham's saw a different trajectory from the start. Cam Tran had immigrated from Vietnam as a child, and after Katrina she traveled from her home in Texas to New Orleans to help her in-laws recover. Tran remembers the day she drove into their neighborhood, about a month after the storm.

"It was completely gloomy and dark," she says. "No sound." But as Tran approached Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, she heard music from a car radio and saw neighbors rebuilding the church roof. "We asked them, ‘Is it safe for people to come back?’ and they said, ‘Well, you know, there's no electricity or water or anything like that. But yes, please do come back!’"

Sociologist Mark VanLandingham visits Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in the New Orleans, Louisiana, community he's still studying post-Katrina.


Tran took their advice. She moved here and helped set up a charter school. And she later became a coordinator for VanLandingham's study, Katrina Impacts on Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans, which showed that the optimistic welcome she received from the rebuilders presaged an entire community's long-term recovery. In the coming months, VanLandingham watched members of the community wake at daybreak, drive back to their neighborhood, and rebuild—one house at a time. They seemed to embody resilience.

Two years later, when VanLandingham and Abramson met for the first time at a conference here, they discovered that some of their participants hailed from adjacent neighborhoods. Together, as the pair drove those streets in VanLandingham's Subaru Outback, something started to click: Families in the two studies had similar economic means and their homes had sustained similar levels of damage. Conventional wisdom might have predicted similar recoveries. But it was "as if they had almost suffered two entirely different events," Abramson says.

The neighborhood of Abramson's mostly black participants, the ones who'd wound up in FEMA housing and whom Abramson was now carefully tracking, was still strewn with debris and abandoned belongings. In a preliminary analysis, that group was scoring well below VanLandingham's Vietnamese families in mental health surveys. Why did such gaps exist between those communities when it came to resilience, the researchers wondered, and could anything be done to narrow them?

Survivor paths diverge

Years passed, but the sociologists didn't leave. For Waters, there never seemed to be a good time to stop. "We didn't set it up to be a study that was going to last 10 or 15 years," she says. But in each round of interviews, "it was so clear that we were in the middle of the story."

By 2009, the women in Waters's Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project were scattered across 23 states, and just 16% had returned to their prehurricane homes. The RISK researchers examined mental health trajectories, in particular whether those women had returned to their level of psychological functioning from before the storm. Some had, among them "Keanna," who built a new life in Houston with her husband and five children. She re-enrolled in school and started her own business; she said she had developed a deeper relationship with God. On the other end of the spectrum sat "Belinda," also a mother of five, who spent nearly a year at a friend's house in Arkansas before returning to New Orleans. She became estranged from her partner, struggled to support two unemployed sisters, and faced depression and weight gain.

Some of the factors widening that divide were predictable. In the RISK Project, researchers found that stressors such as going without food or water after the storm or, worse, losing a loved one predicted longer-term mental health struggles, as did reporting a weak social support network before Katrina. But other findings took Waters by surprise—such as the fact that, controlling for all other factors, the loss of a pet because of the storm had lasting negative effects.

The faster you move somebody into stable housing, the faster, more accelerated, and more durable their recovery will be.

David Abramson, New York University

Abramson, meanwhile, developed an analytical tool to gauge recovery on the basis of measurements in five areas: physical and mental health, economic stability, stable housing, and "social role adaptation," or how people feel that they fit into their community. That framework allowed him to identify prestorm factors that most contributed to long-term recovery. For example, measures of "psychological strength"—which included religiosity and the perceived ability to adapt to stressors—were most predictive of a strong recovery. Having a household income of at least $20,000 was close behind. Being older than 50 or disabled had strongly negative effects on recovery, as did spending a prolonged period displaced from one's home. How returning home versus resettling elsewhere influenced recovery remains an open question.

VanLandingham's study took yet another tack: It became a deep dive into the role of culture and history in resilience. Interviews with some of his original study participants and community leaders suggested that the shared experience of the Vietnam War and immigration had united neighbors, motivating them to rebuild. In a book published last year, Weathering Katrina: Culture and Recovery among Vietnamese-Americans, VanLandingham also suggested that this community's members bounced back faster than many black residents of similar means because they faced less discrimination.

The long view

Long-term resilience studies such as these are unusual, in part because funding for them is hard to sustain. And in 2012, VanLandingham's prospects for continuing his project looked bleak. His application for new funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) was rejected. Reviewers were mostly positive, but they complained that he had no comparison group, no way to put his findings into context. Then, an NIH program officer told him that he wasn't alone.

"She said, ‘There's this woman at Harvard having the same problem,’" VanLandingham recalls. He contacted Waters, and they recruited Abramson. In 2015, the trio won about $6 million in NIH funding over 5 years for what was finally, a decade after the storm, a unified effort: Katrina@10.

The study has an ambitious goal: to build a crystal ball that uses a few characteristics to predict disaster recovery in the long term. The effort includes a new round of standardized surveys in the three original cohorts, plus two other data sets to put them in a broader context. One data set is from the U.S. Census Bureau and covers New Orleans's changing demographics. The other is drawn from a random sampling of people who had lived there before Katrina and includes information on health and well-being. The study's findings could help other communities traumatized by fires, floods, and earthquakes, by identifying people at highest risk and how best to help them.

Abramson already has a hunch about one factor that will rise to the top, on the basis of unpublished data from his cohort, which started off in those FEMA trailers. "The faster you move somebody into stable housing, the faster, more accelerated, and more durable their recovery will be," he predicts. If he can confirm that suspicion in the larger Katrina@10 cohort, it could help improve how emergency response agencies operate. For example, recovery programs could invest in more durable housing for evacuees rather than provisional camps, he says.

But the researchers also come back to what they've seen firsthand: Different communities have different needs, and different strengths and weaknesses. Abramson envisions a future in which organizations that step in to help after a disaster can gauge how resilient the person sitting in front of them is likely to be.

For now, Katrina@10 has a more prosaic task at hand: rounding up its megacohort of the roughly 2200 participants from the three original studies for one last interview. A team of graduate students has helped track participants online when the numbers and contacts on file led nowhere. One student found a participant by tracing the auto body shop uniform he was wearing in a Facebook photo.

In the most recent round of interviews, some participants seemed befuddled that the researchers were still at it. But Tran noticed a change in their attitudes after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, a city that welcomed many New Orleans refugees in 2005. Harvey's landfall last summer, almost exactly 12 years after Katrina's, brought back memories—and nurtured a grim camaraderie. "It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now we've got to find some way to help the Houston community because of what they did for us,’" Tran says.

Abramson is plotting studies of resilience in Hurricane Harvey survivors—along with people coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico weeks later—to compare their trajectories to what he's seen in Katrina survivors. If common drivers of resilience emerge across varied disasters, Katrina@10 participants may end up helping fellow survivors in more ways than they ever imagined.