Information Acquisition, Perception, Preference, and Convergence by Gulf Coast Residents in the Aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina Crisis

Article excerpt

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast, especially in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Rushing floodwaters breached inadequate levee systems, flooding parts of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Although New Orleans garnered most of the national media attention because of flooding following the storm, the coastline of Mississippi suffered even greater damage from the storm's wind and powerful storm surge. The cities of Waveland and Bay St. Louis were practically reduced to rubble while Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian suffered extreme damage, especially near the waterfront. The ferocious storm, which made landfall around the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area, had sustained winds of 120 mph, gusts up to 135 mph and an incredible storm surge of 28 feet. Forty-seven Mississippi counties were declared to be in a state of emergency, and about 800,000 residents across the state experienced power outages. Because of its 450-mile width, Hurricane Katrina caused damage for hundreds of miles in every direction (Knabb, Rhome, & Brown, 2006).

The destruction, both physical and emotional, experienced by New Orleans residents is well-documented. The Mississippi Coast, however, was greatly underrepresented in the media coverage following the devastation (Scurfield, 2006). This opinion was expressed vividly by Dave Vincent, news director at WLOX in Biloxi: "People around the country ... can tell you about New Orleans, but most of them wouldn't have any idea about the Mississippi Gulf Coast being hit by a hurricane" (as cited in Sylvester, 2008, p. 106).

In this study, we retrace Hurricane Katrina victims' information-seeking and uncertainty-reduction strategies as they sought to make practical decisions about what they should do in response to the hurricane. In particular, we focus our analysis on the role of media in helping the Mississippi residents engage in practical reasoning to determine appropriate actions during the recovery. We focus on Mississippi communities because, although they experienced extreme damage, they did not receive the degree of national media and federal agency attention given to Louisiana victims (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007). The fact that New Orleans's devastation overshadowed Mississippi's more extensive property damage created a situation in which Mississippi residents were forced to exercise considerably more effort to gather information than would normally have been the case. The communication constraints experienced by Mississippi residents provide an unusual and enlightening case for examining how natural disaster victims actively seek data on which to base decisions during a crisis recovery period.

After crises such as hurricanes or tornados, residents seek advice about what actions they can take to "restore some sense of control over an uncertain and threatening situation" (Seeger, 2006, p. 242). In these cases, formulating warranted conclusions based on provisional and incomplete data really is a matter of life and death. Messages from media outlets and government agencies, focusing largely on self-efficacy or self-protection and recovery, serve as arguments that structure the reality of the crisis for survivors. In other words, the data provided by key sources and the warrants linking that data to recommended actions for self-protection and recovery guide survivors throughout a crisis. Arguments that resonate with crisis survivors have a tremendous influence upon how they perceive and respond to the crisis. Understanding the public's sentiments and their sources of influence after a crisis can serve as "the basis for adapting messages to the public's dynamic needs and for addressing public concerns" (Seeger, 2006, p. 239). Thus, an argumentation perspective enhances out understanding of crisis communication and contributes to the development of best practices for crisis responders. …