In the Wake of the Hurricanes Research Coalition: A History

By Susan Roach


In the first week of September 2005, appalled by the horror we were seeing in our state, a group of historians, folklorists, anthropologists and others were thinking the citizens of the Gulf Coast needed to document their experiences. I will provide an overview of efforts to organize these researchers to collect oral history from both the survivors and responders of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to create research materials, and to develop partnerships among universities and state government and other organizations. It will also consider and evaluate how the coalition functioned, how the materials were actually used in both student and professional interviewing projects, and issues of authority, authenticity, and insider and outsider perspectives.

First, a look at the background of the project shows what led to this idea. Being situated at Louisiana Tech as one of three regional folklorists in the state, I was out of the way of the storm and, therefore, able to provide assistance to scholar friends who had evacuated to our area. One of them, Shana Walton, who was the associate director of the Deep South Humanities Center at Tulane University, had driven to Tennessee on a camping trip, just B. K. [before Katrina] and was unable to return to New Orleans. Desperate for information and access to email, she came to my office to use computers. By Sept. 7, our outrage at the situation demanded an outlet. At first, I thought that people needed to tell their stories immediately, so offering a means for them to do this would be a service; however, email discussion with others convinced most of us that it was much too early. After volunteering at a local Red Cross Evacuation center trying to help people register with FEMA via computers (a nightmare), I found that evacuees, indeed, were not ready for long interviews, nor was there a quiet, appropriate place to conduct them. Nevertheless, the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism housing the Folklife Program, which funds my position as Regional Folklorist, directed us regional folklorists to work on hurricane-related issues. In networking to do this, we found tremendous stress on Gulf Coast scholars, ranging from damage and loss of homes and family, health problems, and job loss. We could not even find some of our colleagues and folk artists we had worked with-we didn't know if they were alive, and some did not know if they had a home or office back on the coast. For example, it was three days before we knew for certain that my regional colleague at University of New Orleans had driven to Houston, where she stayed for two weeks before going to Florida for several weeks until she was able to return to New Orleans. Only then was she able to confirm what the satellite images had indicated early on that she had indeed lost her belongings in her home near the levee breach. With many of our Gulf Coast researchers going through similar trauma, we all wanted to use our training to help with recovery.

We used email and cell phones since most of the Gulf Coast academics were displaced with little land line phone service. As academics and public folklorists got in contact, we found we shared a common response to the hurricanes-a need to focus on collecting the stories and oral histories of peoples in the disruption and diaspora caused by Katrina and its aftermath. Given the brief, sensationalized media treatments of people, we also agreed on the need to document these stories from an insider's point of view with interviewers from the region. With all the chaos, we thought that by pooling our energy to create a collaborative documentation project, we could help each other focus, avoid duplication of effort, and create a project that could be adapted to serve various research interests, so Walton set up a discussion group that would eventually grow to 95 members, ranging from academics to the general public. This group allowed us to discuss documentation strategies, ethics, and best practices, and to develop goals and materials. The coalition, as we began to call ourselves, was simply an informal group of scholars from universities, state government, museums, and other organizations. Some such as Jocelyn Donlon, an independent folklorist in Baton Rouge, and Carl Lindahl, folklorist at the University of Houston, were developing similar projects, and we all decided to share information and in drafting materials and adapt them as needed. Lindahl and Pat Jasper's project included folklorists, oral historians, hurricane survivors, and the public working on a project, echoing the WPA documentation projects. It provided interview training for some of the hurricane evacuees from the Houston Astrodome and would go on to become the model project.

After group members' discussion and feedback, Walton and I drafted a project description, including the following goals: (1) to envision the continued viability of traditions, in both the diaspora and a rebuilt Gulf coast, (2) to aid in understanding the links among cultural identity, social groups, race, class, home ownership, and decision making in a crisis, (3) to locate and track tradition bearers, and (4) to inform future public policy. The project also planned a centralized clearinghouse database (still unfunded) and collections deposited dually in regional archives and the American Folklife Center. At the outset, Walton thought the Tulane Humanities Center could function as the clearinghouse; however, in November the Center was closed, and Walton's job was terminated, leaving no program to take this role, nor available funds.

Developing the Questions and Forms

Because we wanted a dual depository system and preferred using the Library of Congress as one of the depositories, we decided to use the Veterans' History Project as a model. We discussed this with American Folklife Center director, Peggy Bulger, who reviewed and approved (via email) the forms. Reaching a consensus on interviewer/interviewee permission and release forms was fairly simple, but we also had to please various University Human Subjects Committees; for example, my University IRB quickly approved the combined permission letter/release form; however, the University of Houston had to develop more detailed project descriptions and separate introductory letters and release forms for its human subjects committee, but they were able to build on the initial model. Developing the question bank and the separate data forms for survivors and responders also took time. We wanted detailed data forms which would collect the same demographic information for comparison of stories and information gathered by many interviewers, yet we wanted the forms to be simple with check boxes, modeled after the Veteran's History project data forms and the La. Folklife Survey Form. Because of the resident's displacement, even the address question was problematic. We opted for asking for the current, pre-storm, and future addresses, and asked displaced respondents to check all that applied for living arrangements: "motel, rental apt./trailer, state park, stranger's home, rv, tent, temporary government housing, and other." The categories for Race and Ethnicity generated the most controversy for the discussion group; we tried the U. S. Census categories, which were especially ridiculed by the anthropologists in the group. While we couldn't reach a consensus, we compromised and requested "race/ethnicity" (check all that apply): White/Caucasian, black/African descent, Creole, Cajun, American Indian/Alaska Native (specify: ______________), Italian, Slav (specify: ___________), Hispanic, Asian, Other. Then we requested Cultural/Ethnic Identification with a blank. Of all the demographic information requested from education to occupation, the most problematic question was that of income brackets, as we found after interviewing began; interviewers (and some interviewees) did not feel comfortable asking about income brackets.

The question banks for Survivors and Responders established general question topics with specific questions under each topic. For example, Survivors' topics included: History of life near the Gulf Coast and your neighborhood, Hurricane notification and response, Evacuation/ non-evacuation, After the hurricane and evacuation, Casualities, Going home, Work before and after, School and children, envisioning rebuilding, relocation, hurricanes and the coast.

The Coalition developed a field collection kit (modeled on the Veterans History Project from the Library of Congress American Folklife Center and put online courtesy of the Louisiana Division of the Arts Folklife Program) which includes the following:

  • Separate data collection forms for hurricane survivors and responders for entry in a central database;
  • Interviewee and Interviewer permission and release forms to allow for public deposit, with participating scholars designating in-state repositories in their specific regions;
  • Audio, video, and photography log forms;
  • Manuscript data sheet;
  • Question bank and research topics for both survivors and responders;
  • K-12 lessons based on Louisiana Voices Educator's Guide for students to collect data (Hurricane Resources and Opportunities for K-12 Educators);
  • Interviewing protocols to ensure that interviewers do not re-traumatize hurricane survivors.

In addition to these forms available online, the partnering Louisiana Folklife Program initiated the development of a Louisiana Voices unit online for students in to interview hurricane survivors and responders.

When is it okay to interview after disaster?

Although some scholars involved in the discussion thought it was permissible to interview hurricane survivors immediately after their experiences, most in the group were hesitant, fearing that survivors were emotionally raw. Jocelyn Donlon, who set up a hurricane stories website early on, decided to interview family members who were staying with her and responders such Red Cross volunteers in Baton Rouge. Some academics would not begin interviewing until we had received clearance from the university Human Subjects IRB, as was the case when I was contacted by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council who wanted me to do interviews in late September for a photographic exhibition with interpretive information. Since we had just finished the protocol and had not submitted it to the IRB, I declined. The SRAC project proceeded, obtaining interviews with 55 evacuees and responders and photographs of 100 people and using this project's forms which they adapted (Benscoter, Email 12/13/06). The project director writes:

Due to the immediate needs and the threat of missing the opportunity to talk to the evacuees, many here for just a day or two, we were already interviewing with a self-designed release form which we modified as we received day to day advice from you. Regarding questions: this project preferred a "simple, 'Tell me your story' worked best because it resulted in them talking for nearly an hour, uninterrupted. The dialogue flowed from them as a story, which is what we needed for this project, rather than being forced through a series of questions by an interviewer, as one would have for a pure oral history." Benscoter notes that "The average length of the early interviews was very short. In the days immediately following the hurricane, evacuees were in horrendous shock and were not able to easily process what had happened to them. Some simply could not or did not want to talk about what had happened. I believe that is why the later interviews were so much better, lasting an average of an hour or so: people were able to tell the stories of what happened to them, without the immediate and overwhelming primal questions such as where am I going to live, how am I going to get clothes, find my family, eat, etc. consuming their every thought immediately following the greatest personal tragedies many will ever experience.

Their materials have yet to be archived.

Who can or should interview?

One major concern for many of the Gulf Coast researchers has been to give the coastal people, including researchers a voice in the story that is being gathered nationally; this reflects the current scholarship regarding the issues regarding Insider/Outsider researchers. It is interesting to note that most of the coastal scholars who submitted applications for national grants were rejected. Many of the funded outside scholars have come to the Gulf Coast asking local researchers for help in locating folk artists such as Mardi Gras Indians so they could collect their stories. Meanwhile, local researchers were often already working on unfunded projects to collect the same information. The drive for early collection, the plethora of websites publishing stories, and the precarious situation of New Orleans have led to joking; consider an email one New Orleans researcher sent to another: "Why don't we just recommend that everyone store in their attics, right next to their axe, a tape recorder, extra batteries, and the In the Wake oral history guidelines so they can start the documentation process while waiting to be rescued?" (Michael Mizell-Nelson to Laura Westbrook, Email 31 Aug. 2006). This joke suggests that the survivors themselves need to take charge of the interviewing, which is the strategy that the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project is implementing successfully.

Many of the coalition researchers, such as Carl Lindahl and Pat Jasper believe that the most powerful stories are told by survivors to other survivors, instead of to academic professional researchers. This project impressed the discussion group with its report this past August on the progress of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, the first large scale project in which the survivors of a disaster have taken the leading role in documenting it, thanks in part to funding from the Houston Endowment. A discussion of their research and collected stories were featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation and on All Things Considerered. Also Pat Jasper developed a proposal through the University of Houston English Department to apply for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Arts Council of Houston to develop radio programming based on narratives recorded by hurricane survivors. Callaloo, an African American literary journal, published a section of the 2007 winter issue dedicated to New Orleans, in which two survivor interviewers recount their own experiences in introducing transcripts of their recorded interviews with other survivors (Lindahl, email 27 Aug. 2006). Four of the survivor-interviewers involved in the project were on panels at the 2006 American Folklore Society meeting. Glenda Harris, a trainee in the first field school, has has been employed by the Children's Defense Fund representing the children displaced by Katrina. The Defense fund has recently published a booklet titled Katrina's Children: A Call to Conscience and Action, which features the stories of nine child survivors. Harris said that this booklet would not have existed had she not participated in this project. Although the project has received funding for only two field schools, it actually held a third in which two survivor interviewers have completed the training and added twenty recordings to their collection, which now numbers between 250 and 300 interviews. In addition, eight Vietnamese UH students of Dr. Long Le have interviewed 20 Vietnamese survivors. University of Houston is offering related English courses this fall and plans another fieldschool (Lindahl, Email 27 Aug. 2006).

What research has been done?

The developed research protocols have been used by academics, their students, and members of the public in individual projects in La., Miss., Texas, and beyond. These have ranged from interviews with Gulf Coast residents in diaspora or back at home, including residents in a Mississippi FEMA camp, housing mainly displaced New Orleanians (funded by a Mississippi university) to academics and students' interviews with those who were evacuees and residents of New Orleans and responders in other parts of Louisiana. Here are some highlights:

A University project at the Center for Oral History & Cultural Heritage The University of Southern Mississippi, co-directed by Stephen Sloan, who was involved in the early formation of the group, reports that the center used the coalition question bank (adapted somewhat) to conduct interviews with "evacuees, first responders, Vietnamese community, nurses, municipal leaders, those who rode out the storm, long-time residents of the MS coast, etc. "Two recent projects include one to record migrant workers (many rebuilding casinos on the coast) and a project with the Mississippi Center for Justice (non-profit group) to document African American heritage (stories and sites) on the coast, communities that are under increased pressure with grandiose plans for remaking the MS coastal region." He finds that their biggest issue for us is (as it always is) is funding."

Also at the Center, Linda Van Zandt reports on her work with the coastal Vietnamese communities. She writes, "What started out as my own personal relief effort in the east Biloxi Vietnamese community has blossomed into an oral history project documenting not only their hurricane experiences and recovery/rebuilding efforts but, in a much broader context, their experiences living through war in Vietnam, fleeing their native country, and reinventing life in their new country. . . Most of my interviews have been with Vietnamese whom I've met just by visiting the boat docks where the fishermen are repairing their boats (now some are out at sea), attending Mass, the temple, and the local French bakery; basically becoming involved in the community. Over the past year, I have been working with 2 NPR producers (from their documentary division). The finished product just aired on Aug. 29th and can be heard on their website: 'Rebuilding Biloxi.'" Van Zandt hopes to present the results of her work in a photographic/text/audio exhibit (and possibly a documentary) highlighting the contributions of the Vietnamese to the Coast (Van Zandt; Email 29 Sept. 2006).

New Orleans Regional Folklorist, Laura Westbrook, conducted a field school to train Friends of the Cabildo to do hurricane-related interview, which will be archived at the Louisiana State Museum and the UNO library, and will provide material for a January 2008 exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum (Westbrook, email 30 Sept. 2006). In addition, Westbrook also conducted food-related interviews, now available on the Southern Foodways Alliance website . Her interviews and photos, all in digital format at the request of the alliance, are not yet archived but are in two locations. Westbrook reports, "I was relieved that SFA wanted things in digital format. Since I lost all of my equipment I went to Best Buy near our evacuation site and purchased a digital recorder and everyday digital camera. At that time I didn't know that my office had been emptied [looted] as well. Realizing that my region, what was left of it, was in chaos and that all of the projects I'd been working on were moot, I said yes so I'd have something useful to do. . . I began the interviews a few weeks after returning to New Orleans and quickly lost my taste for it." Westbrook recounts an unrecorded experience in her research which reveals the trauma suffered by interviewers as well as interviewees:

One thing that didn't come out on tape was that one of the interviews conducted in the Ninth Ward, where the air was discernibly toxic, was done at the site where residents gathered for their 'look and leave,' the bus ride that allowed them to see their homes but not get out and touch anything. I'll never forget how stunned they looked as they got off the buses--saying nothing or repetitively praying, walking in circles, requiring assistance to make it to the folding chairs set up in the church parking lot. A volunteer group had provided food but nobody could eat it. (Westbrook, email 30 Sept. 2006)

Some of our discussion group members from out-of-state also used the project protocol to interview evacuees in their regions. Oral historian, Holly Thomas, based in Washington D. C. reported "a gratifying experience" with her 14 evacuee interviews, which were donated to the Center for Oral History & Cultural Heritage. One of the members who had helped develop the materials, she found that the "forms and questions, which I tweaked a little, worked extremely well" (Thomas, email 5 Oct. 2006). Frank Nickell, Director, Southeast Missouri State, Center for Regional History got caught up in the documentation of evacuees in their areas. After he left a conference in NO on Saturday before the hurricane, he was already involved. Then he learned that "approximately 195 evacuees from the Superdome were transferred out of the Superdome in busses leased from a Missouri company. They ended up in a Baptist campsite north of Kennett, Missouri; some had mistaken the place they were going for Kenner, La. A friend who is an attorney in New Orleans is from the region and she called me to come down and help, possibly doing some oral interviews with those who were living in the cabins at the camp. He did several hours of oral interviews there, but he has not processed his material yet (Nickell, Email 28 Sept. 2006).

Other academics such as Rebecca Hankins, Texas A&M archivist, reports that she and her sister are still interviewing family and friends from the coast, using Coalition forms, and modifying the questions to bring out issues of ethnicity, resources used, and information literacy prior to and after the hurricane. She hopes to deposit the interviews with the LOC and share them with repositories in Louisiana too (Hankins, Emails 28 Aug. 2006, 11 Sept.2006).

In my supervised research, I have hear chilling, spell-binding, touching interviews with both responders and survivors conducted by my college students and public volunteers, such as Sharon Jones, from Monroe. She interviewed a New Orleans evacuee, security guard Giselle Rogers, who cared for her wheel-chair bound elderly mother and auntie until they were rescued and finally flown to Monroe, thinking they were in Detroit. Rogers has decided to stay where she landed, as have many evacuees, including Samuel Moore and his son Raymond, with whom I am planning a major documentation project. On the day Katrina struck, the Moores were planning a grand opening of their New Orleans restaurant, Thumbs Up Chicken; however, the flooding destroyed the new business, along with their automobile salvage business and homes. They evacuated in cars to Monroe to relatives, and decided to open their restaurant in nearby Ruston, when they could not go back to New Orleans. While they had planned to open this past March, the death of Sam's wife delayed the opening until last month.

Some of my other work has been with responders, including a group of northwest Louisiana women, who operated a multi-parish relief center in an old Wal-Mart building. These women organized and staffed the center in the months after the hurricane. When the center finally closed, they took the leftover clothes and made quilts to sell to raise funds for the La. Recovery effort. Calling themselves the Quilting Queens, they not only raised money but also made a quilt to send to Oprah to thank her for what she had done for the state.

Another major Louisiana project, The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank does not rely on interviews, but uses self-submission for a website . The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University and the University of New Orleans organized this project in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and other partners . According to director Michael Mizell-Nelson, the project has about 600 entries, with many of them being from students. While projects such as this allow for democratization in both collecting and making the information available, they also raise the question scholars such an Eco have about a new crisis of history: "We have amplified our capacity to record information, but we have not yet discovered a new parameter of filtration" (Eco 190; quoted in Karen Worcman). Also some of the most deserving stories may not be obtained if people do not have computers, do not hear about the project, or don't think their experiences or writing efforts are worthy enough. Consequently, we still have a major need to pursue oral history efforts and a centralized clearinghouse to process and analyzed our interviews. To that end, Michael Mizell-Nelson and those of us in the La. Folklife Program are pursuing funding for doing more oral history interviews and establishing a major database to process the information in all the interviews.

Functions of Oral History

We believe we need more interviewing to give voice to our people. Carl Lindahl and Linda Van Zandt believe the telling is therapeutic. "I have found, across the board, that individuals welcome the opportunity to voice their concerns, wishes, ideas, and just generally tell their stories. After all, talking about a traumatic experience is part of the methodology of learning to cope, and beginning the healing process." (Van Zandt; Email 29 Sept. 2006). Some of our researchers think that the resulting publication of the research leaves something to be desired, as one survivor/researcher said of documentary articles she has read, mostly written by outsiders, "Many of the articles I read have a self-congratulatory air, like articles written by people who make a trip to Africa with grain and antibiotics and then write articles about themselves afterward" (Westbrook; Email 11 Sept. 2006).

Because of the sensitivity of the coastal residents, it makes sense that if we can indeed manage to develop a centralized place to process the huge amount of documentation from this disaster, it would be good if it can be done from within the region, to give the region itself a leading voice in its own history. As I see it what is needed is a way to fund these efforts and to find new and better ways to coordinate our national research efforts to support the regional clearinghouse. As it stands now, there is a chorus from all over the country. We could benefit from a conductor to lead that chorus of voices.


Appleby, Joyce Oldham, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. Telling the Truth About History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Benscoter, Wendy. "Re: Hurricane Research Answers." E-mail to Susan Roach. 13 Oct. 2006.

Eco, Umberto. "Para todos os fins úteis" In: Jean Claude Carriere et al. Entrevistas sobre o fim dos tempos. Rio de Janeiro, Rocco, 1999. pp. 171-200.

Hankins, Rebecca. "Re: Research in the Wake: Oral History ." E-mail to Susan Roach. 28 Aug. 2006.

_____. "Re: Research in the Wake: Oral History." E-mail to Susan Roach. 11 Sept. 2006.

Worcman, Karen. 2002. Digital Division is Cultural Exclusion. But Is Digital Inclusion Cultural Inclusion? D-Lib Magazine Volume 8 Number 3.

Lindahl, Carl. "Re: Survivor Project Update." E-mail to Susan Roach. 27 Aug. 2006.

Mizell-Nelson, Michael. E-mail to Laura Westbrook. 31 Aug. 2006.

_____. The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, .

Nickell, Frank. "Re: Hurricane Research Questions." E-mail to Susan Roach. 28 Sept. 2006.

Thomas, Holly. "Re: OHA in Little Rock." E-mail to Susan Roach. 5 Oct. 2006.

Van Zandt, Linda. "Re: Hurricane Research at USM." E-mail to Susan Roach. 29 Sept. 2006.

Westbrook, Laura. "Re: It Takes a Nation." E-mail to Susan Roach. 11 Sept. 2006.

Westbrook, Laura. "Re: Hurricane Research Questions." E-mail to Susan Roach. 30 Sept. 2006.

This article was first published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17, 2008,a special issue on folklorists responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Susan Roach is a folklorist at Louisiana Tech, Department of English. She was a Regional Folklorist from 1999-2009.