Recovering from One of America's Greatest Natural Disasters: Hurricane Katrina, 10 Years Later

August 29, 2015 was the 10 year anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States.  Most of us remember the main area of devastation being the city of New Orleans.  We might remember hearing that the levees are breaking, hundreds of people are dying by the hour, and the aftermath that occurred in the Super Dome.  As a result of these traumatic experiences, less than half of the Lower 9th Ward’s original 14,000 residents have returned since Katrina.  This is also the case for a number of people who never returned to their homes on other areas of the Gulf Coast.

Some decided not to return because they knew the place they would be returning to would never be the same again.  And this is very true.  Traumatic experiences change us and our history.  They become a part of our story that can never be removed.  However, just like the city of New Orleans itself, we can continue to make progress towards recovery, following traumatic experiences, and return to a state of thriving within in our lives. 

Progress and change are how trauma recovery becomes possible.  Katrina survivor and local of New Orleans, Artis Turner has struggled through his own process of coping with the hurricane’s aftermath.  His outlook on the progress of the city is that, “If you keep living long enough, you’ll see anything eventually turn into something else.”  Choosing to continuously live in the present, Turner is assisting his own recovery process by not living in the past. 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based treatment that utilizes acceptance and mindfulness to enact behavior change and enhance commitment to move forward in one’s life.    ACT, which was developed over the course of the 1980s, helps one to identify their value system and then work towards consistently living that value system.  This process does not include eliminating or suppressing negative emotions and events that have occurred in our lives.  Instead, ACT focuses on accepting that these events have happened and that they will continue to be a part of our history.  ACT also helps one to live in the present, without trying to change or control the past or worry constantly about the future.  It appears that a number of Katrina survivors, without knowing it, have enacted various ACT principles to recover.   ACT teaches that you can constantly observe and experience different parts of yourself, in spite of whatever positive, negative, or neutral feelings, thoughts, or memories you might be having at any given moment. 

The survivors of Katrina and the city of New Orleans itself can teach us all a lot about trauma recovery.  The city was recently identified by the Rockefeller Foundation as one of the country’s 100 Resilient Cities.  Resiliency uses a number of ACT practices.  Focusing on your values, living in the present, and accepting past events as part of our ever-changing history are all effective ways for humans to return to a healthy level of functioning post-trauma.  Resiliency and community support offers a sense of hope that has been apparent in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina.  The progress New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has made during that time continues to demonstrate that trauma recovery is a process where growth and change are ever present.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD