Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar Mary Waters Helps Lead Study of Hurricane Katrina Survivors

October 2, 2019

Mary Waters, PVK Professor of Arts and Sciences and the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, is a Margaret Olivia Sage Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. A former chair of RSF’s board of trustees, Waters is co-author of the RSF book Inheriting the City (2009), co-editor of the RSF books The New Race Question (2001) and Becoming New Yorkers (2006), and a recipient of multiple research grants from the foundation. Waters is one of the foremost immigration scholars in the United States. She chaired the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that developed the 2015 consensus study report on immigrant integration in the U.S. In collaboration with colleagues Jean Rhodes (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Mariana Arcaya (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Sarah Lowe (Yale University), Waters is now helping lead a study of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. 

The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project is a longitudinal study of low-income parents who lived in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Starting in 2003, 1,019 low-income parents from New Orleans enrolled in a research project originally designed to assess educational attainment among community college students. The study measured participants’ economic status, social ties, and mental and physical health. Although Hurricane Katrina disrupted the project, it provided an extremely rare opportunity to study the consequences of a natural disaster for vulnerable individuals and their families. The researchers have conducted three follow-up surveys and three rounds of in-depth qualitative interviews, with a response rate of more than 75% between 2016 and 2018. The RISK project is distinguished by a number of factors, including its baseline data that provides information about research participants’ health and well-being before the disaster, the focus on a marginalized population of low-income, predominantly African-American women, and its longitudinal nature. The project has received significant funding from the National Institute of Health as well as grants from the MacArthur, Robert Wood Johnson and National Science foundations. 

Findings from the RISK Project paint a complicated picture of what post-Katrina life looks like for the most vulnerable populations. Survivors of Katrina experienced considerable trauma in its wake, including deprivation of food and water, isolation from family members, lack of access to medical care, and bereavement of those killed during the storm. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and serious mental illness surged among survey participants just after Katrina, as did diagnosed medical conditions, overweight, and psychosomatic disorders like migraines and back pain. The project found that the majority of people were able to bounce back after the storm, with steady social support and modest increases in income, while a significant minority (more than 25%) fared worse after the hurricane, even after a period of more than ten years. RISK also investigates the concept of “post-traumatic growth,” which suggests that improved psychological health and personal growth may emerge for some survivors after they experience natural disasters. The RISK Project has the potential to transform how we think about the recovery of survivors of natural disasters, including what resources and strategies are directed to aid them.

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