Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Lived Coping Experiences of South Mississippi and New Orleans Clergy Affected by Hurricane Katrina: An Exploratory Study

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Lived Coping Experiences of South Mississippi and New Orleans Clergy Affected by Hurricane Katrina: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

Over seventy percent of Americans identify with some faith community and use their faith as a means to cope with life experiences, especially following disasters (Weaver, Flannelly, Garbarino, Figley, & Flannelly, 2003). Clergy have been found to play a significant role in responding to disaster needs, including providing pastoral counseling, crisis management, and serving and meeting the overall needs of others (Darling, Hill, & McWey, 2004; Pector, 2005). Though clergy play a major role in attending to disaster needs, little is known about how clergy cope with disasters. The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the ways in which clergy in South Mississippi and New Orleans coped with Hurricane Katrina using a phenomenological approach.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating and expensive natural disasters in American history (Cain & Barthelemy, 2008). Floodwaters caused multiple levees to break surrounding New Orleans, which caused roughly 80 percent of the city to flood. Approximately 100,000 homes were destroyed in New Orleans alone. Mississippi experienced hurricane-force winds and rain that produced 11 tornados and maximum reported storm surges of 26 to 28 feet that penetrated over six miles inland (US Department of Commerce, 2006). Every county in Mississippi was declared a disaster area; almost 60 percent of counties (49 of 82) received full federal assistance (FEMA, 2005). Estimated insured losses amount to $34.4 billion (Cain & Barthelemy, 2008) and total costs of damage to the entire Gulf Coast exceed $200 billion (CNN Reports, 2005). Though over one million people evacuated Hurricane Katrina (CNN Reports, 2005), more than 1,300 deaths resulted across the Mississippi-Louisiana Gulf Coast from this catastrophic storm.

Traumatic Effects of Disasters

In addition to the physical devastation of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, they impose numerous psychological consequences, such as posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety (Smith, Pargament, Brant, & Oliver, 2000). The most common response to natural disasters is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Rogers, 2002). Overall, disasters have been found to affect survivors' spiritual, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical functioning. Common reactions to a catastrophic event include anger, hopelessness, panic, questioning of core belief systems, confusion, withdrawal, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and headaches (Roberts & Ashley, Sr., 2008). Harvard Medical School reported that mental health issues continued to worsen two years after Hurricane Katrina; specifically, individuals experienced delayed-onset PTSD and reported thoughts of suicide (Kessler, Galea, Jones, & Parker, 2006).

Religion, Spirituality, and Disasters

For those who experience a traumatic event, turning to faith and religion may help restore a sense of control that was lost (Meisenhelder & Marcum, 2004; Spence, Lachlan, & Burke, 2007). Over 70 percent of Americans identify with a faith community and use their faith as a means to cope with life experiences (Weaver et al., 2003). Religion is thought to establish meaning and provide purpose in life, fulfill needs for relationships, and offer support during illness or suffering (Darling et al., 2004; Guthrie & Stickley, 2008). People turn to religion and spirituality for a number of reasons, especially during times of distress or catastrophe (Lord, Hook, & English, 2003). Weaver et al. (2003) noted that people in crisis involving the death of a loved one are five times more likely to seek counsel from a clergy person. Figley (1989) reports that people often reach out to faith in order to make sense of why a disaster occurred. In addition to understanding the "why" questions surrounding life events, individuals need to trust that the world is just and kind, despite the specific events that call their beliefs into question (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). …

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