Many studies of the impact of natural disasters have focused primarily on immediate stress reactions and PTSD symptoms rather than evacuees' stories of grief and loss. Grief and loss is experienced and expressed in a variety of ways that include physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and spiritual dimensions (Corr, Nabe, & Corr, 2003). Understanding the multilayered nature of these dimensions as described by Katrina evacuees is challenging and complicated. Research indicates natural disasters result in an immediate “immeasurable impact on the mental health” of survivors (Bourque, Siegel, Kano, & Wood, 2006, p. 143). Findings from both the bereavement and disaster literature note that research is needed about the plight of the individual survivor in addition to family systems, communities, and neighborhoods (Keane, Pickett, Robinson, Lowery, & McCorkle, 1998). The purpose of this qualitative research study was to identify the themes of grief, loss, and family survival from interviews with Katrina evacuees.
In this qualitative research study funded by a National Science Foundation grant, interviews were conducted in the first months following the Katrina disaster, with 67 participants from 55 households of Katrina evacuees located in Austin, Texas. The interviews were transcribed, coded by a team of coders, and entered into N6, a qualitative software program. Themes and sub-themes of grief, loss, and family survival were identified.
Katrina evacuees' experiences of the evacuation process and their stories of ensuing loss are multifaceted and complex, layered by PTSD symptoms as well as cultural/ethnic characteristics. Themes of grief and loss that emerged include loss of family and friends, loss of home/house, loss of pets, loss of belongings, loss of job or employment, loss of neighborhood, loss of culture, loss of identity, loss of health, loss of time, loss of dignity, and loss of hope. Additional emergent themes encompass feelings of pervasive sadness, anger, and fear. Descriptions of the evacuation experience involve details of incidents and events that would not have been seen or heard within the scope of an ordinary day. Important to note is what evacuees were able to carry as well as what was necessary to leave behind.
Conclusions & Implications
The implications for social work practice and research are vast as evidenced by the level of grief and loss experienced by Katrina evacuees. The results of this study suggest important themes for social work educators and field instructors as they prepare students who will be working with populations who experience traumatic loss due to social and environmental disasters.