In the Eye of the Storm
Friday, June 19, 2009
By Wray Herbert
Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, killing more than 1,800 and causing well over $100 billion in damage along the Gulf coast from Florida to Texas. The 2005 storm breached every levee in New Orleans, flooding almost the entire city as well as the neighboring parishes. Yet many residents chose to stay at home and ride out the perilous winds and water.
This perplexed many commentators at the time, including the top officials of the Bush administration. FEMA director Michael “Brownie” Brown blamed the rising death toll on those who refused to take prudent action, as did homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, who told CNN: “Officials called for a mandatory evacuation. Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part.” Many others chimed in, asking in so many words: What were they thinking?
What were they thinking? The general consensus seemed to be that they were irresponsible, indecisive—perhaps even lazy or stupid. Anyone with an ounce of sense would take action in the face of such a threat, make a plan, solve the problem. Passivity was widely denounced as a character flaw.
The problem with these instant analyses is that nobody bothered to ask the people themselves, the ones paddling the boats and clinging to the rooftops. Until now. Stanford University psychologist Nicole Stephens and her colleagues decided to compare the views of outside observers with the perspective of the New Orleans residents who actually rode out Katrina. They suspected that these people had not simply thrown up their hands, but rather that they had a different concept of conscientious action.
To find out, they conducted two surveys, one of observers and one of survivors, to see how they perceived both those who fled and those who did not. The study of observers—including a large group of relief workers, firefighters, physicians, and so forth—basically confirmed the pop wisdom. That is, these close-up observers’ views matched those who watched the tragedy from afar: They perceived those who evacuated their homes in a much more positive light in general—more self-reliant, hardworking. Those who stayed put were described as careless and dependent. Those who stayed were also seen as depressed and hopeless, where the evacuees were characterized as self-righteously angry, primed for action. But here’s perhaps the most interesting point: These observers derogated those who stayed even though they were well aware that these residents lacked the resources to leave—money, transportation, out-of-town relatives. Their disadvantages didn’t soften the view that they were somehow responsible for their own suffering.
The survivors themselves told a very different story, however. When the psychologists surveyed actual Katrina survivors, they found that those who stayed behind did not feel powerless or passive. To the contrary, they saw themselves as connected with their neighbors—communitarian rather than self-reliant. Their stories emphasized their faith in God and their
feelings of caring for others. In short, they didn’t see themselves as failing to take action, but rather as taking a different kind of action—adapting to life’s travails and staying strong despite hardship.
The psychologists also took detailed measures of all the survivors’ well-being—their mood, life satisfaction, mental health, drug and alcohol use. As they report in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science, there was absolutely no difference between those who stayed in New Orleans and those who high-tailed it out. It seems their different “choices” did not reflect differences in well-being. Rather, they were different kinds of actions suitable to different life circumstances.
For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org. Selections from this blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:09 AM