A Gender Comparison of Resiliency among Older African American Katrina Survivors

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the past decade, resiliency among African Americans has been a major research topic. For example, studies have explored the resiliency of African American military families (Kaslow, 1993; McCubbin et al., 1998), investigations have documented the resiliency of African American families in general (Franklin & Boyd-Franklin, 2000; McAdoo, 2007), and previous research has examined psychological and social adjustment following a life-threatening event (Becker & Newsom, 2005; Brown & Keith, 2003; Bullard, 1990; Ortega, Rosenheck, Alegria, & Desai, 2000).

Although studies have indicated that older Black people exhibit post-disaster cultural resiliency philosophies (Rubinstein, Kilbride, & Nagy, 1992), other research has reported that older racial/ethnic minorities experience a severe post-event disadvantage (Sundet & Mermelstein, 1996; Williams & Williams-Morris, 2000).

Few studies have explored the coping strategies of older African Americans following a natural disaster. As a result, scant attention has been paid to gendered coping strategies among African Americans. Most studies have assumed that older men and women develop similar coping resources and cultural strengths due to exposure to social marginality (Dunlap, Johnson, Golub, & Wesley, 2000; Ellison, Hummer, Cormier, & Rogers, 2000; Masten, 2001; Mattis, 2000, 2004; Steffen, Hinderliter, Blumenthal, & Sherwood, 2001). This article pays particular attention to gendered coping variations while exploring the capacity of African Americans to rebound following one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

Katrina, a category 5 hurricane, caused catastrophic damage (Campanella, 2006; Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, 2006). Breached levees flooded 80% of New Orleans, resulting in $75 billion of damages. Katrina was responsible for 1,417 deaths (Roig-Franzia & Husa, 2005; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were missing, and 1.5 million were displaced as of October 2005. Approximately 50,000 households comprising mostly poor, Black American residents had no plans to return to New Orleans (Herring, 2006; Mann, 2006). If that number is accurate, Katrina-induced migration will be the largest internal migration in a generation (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006).

As the New Orleans levee system collapsed, the aftermath of Katrina deteriorated into a social debacle. Thousands of people, mostly Black and poor, many of them older men and women, were trapped in the New Orleans Superdome and the city's convention center or on rooftops. They suffered without electricity, water, or food. Older residents plummeted to the bottom of the Katrina response priority list. Many bodies that emerged from the floodwaters were of people age 50 years or older (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Furthermore, corpses that remained in the streets, hospitals, nursing homes, collapsed houses, and on porches were of mostly poor, older African Americans. Sadly, rescuers later found more than 154 bodies in nursing homes (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

The consequences of Katrina were grave; 1.5 million people decided where to live or work and pondered if they would return to their homes. While coping with an incompetent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), they also grieved deaths of family members and friends and dealt with survivors' guilt. The relatively few professional survivors confronted temporary unemployment while adjusting to an identity as an evacuee. Property owners often refused to accept FEMA temporary housing vouchers. Older Katrina survivors were often forced to live in isolated upper-class retirement apartments, where residents resented living next to poor African Americans (CNN.com, 2005; Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, 2006; Mann, 2000). Thus, survivors were distressed from Hurricane Katrina, traumatized by breeched levees, exploited by a federal agency created to provide assistance, and often lived in unwelcome retirement complexes (CNN. …