Abstract: Hurricanes and Indigenous Families: Understanding the Vulnerabilities and Strengths of Those Living on the Margins (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Hurricanes and Indigenous Families: Understanding the Vulnerabilities and Strengths of Those Living on the Margins

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jenn Miller Scarnato, LMSW, MA, Doctoral Candidate, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Catherine Burnette, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Jessica Liddell, MSW/MPH, Doctoral Candidate, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Background and Purpose: Recent hurricanes have devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, an area that is particularly vulnerable to both tropical storms and hurricanes. Extant research on the differential consequences of natural disasters, particularly hurricanes, on ethnic minorities highlights the salience of ethnic and cultural differences in hurricane survival and recovery, yet literature examining the experiences of Indigenous families remains limited. To fill this gap, the purpose of this study is to explore Indigenous families’ experiences of hurricanes and draw implications for policy and practice that might support Indigenous families’ resilience. We utilize the culturally grounded Framework of Historical Oppression, Resilience, and Transcendence (FHORT) to understand how a context of historical oppression has set the stage for living on the margins – both in terms of geography and vulnerability to natural disasters—along with access to the resources, privileges, and quality of life that are afforded to those with greater economic, social, and political power.

Methods: A critical ethnography was used to understand tribal community members’ experiences of hurricanes. A total of 208 Coastal Tribe members participated in the study through individual interviews, family interviews, and focus groups. We gained perspectives from participants across the lifespan (elders, adults, youth, and professions). Research questions derived from our research aims were developed into a semi-structured interview guide for focus groups and interviews. Collaborative, team-based data analysis methods were used given the extensive ethnographic data collected. The theme “hurricane” was coded across 34 sources (20 individual interviews, 10 family interviews, and 4 focus groups) and referenced 91 times. Reconstructive analysis, a specific method of thematic qualitative analysis, was used throughout.

Findings: Qualitative findings reveal several themes that illustrate how Indigenous families in the Coastal Tribe have experienced and navigated their recovery from the impacts of multiple hurricanes, namely (a) the Impact of Federal Recognition on Hurricane Affected Communities; (b) Rapidly Changing Landscape, Lives, and Communities; and (C) Family and Personal Effects of Hurricane Experiences.  From the perspective of Coastal tribal members, the context of historical oppression that pushes Indigenous families to the margins significantly impedes their ability to successfully recover from hurricanes, which has important implications for policy and programs that might promote equitable disaster relief for ethnic minority groups in vulnerable social and geographic locations.

Conclusions and Implications: This study’s findings point to needed policy changes that will better support Indigenous families impacted by hurricanes. For the Coastal Tribe, despite repeated efforts to obtain federally-recognized status, excessively-demanding procedures for gaining federal recognition have resulted in their continued status as a non-recognized tribe, which has created significant barriers to hurricane recovery. Compounding this situation, tribal members rely on a rapidly changing coastal environment for their livelihood, suffering land losses due to hurricanes, flooding, and industry. As a result, hurricanes force many tribal members to relocate despite limited options for doing so. The tribal community is thus becoming increasingly dispersed, which adversely impacts their levels of family and community support, which have proven vital to hurricane recovery.