Alice Fothergill & Lori Peek, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4773-0546-1 (paperback)
322 pages $24.95
University of Texas Press

Book review by Elke Weesjes

At a meeting in early August of 2005, sociologists Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek had a long conversation about collaborating on a project someday about vulnerable populations in disaster. The two women had worked together before and had just published an article on poverty and disasters in the United States. Inspired by the late William A. Anderson who, in a 2005 article, called for additional social science research on children and disaster, they decided to heed that call together. A mere two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, causing one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. Peek and Fothergill quickly decided that this event was so important that they needed to start their project immediately.

Over the next seven years Fothergill and Peek set out to understand the experiences of children in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by studying well over 650 children between the ages of 3 and 18 years old, and interviewing roughly 100 adults. Of these respondents the researchers identified a sample of 25 core children and their families whom they followed closely over time. Eventually, they selected seven respondents, referred to as focal children, based on the fact that their individually distinct experiences represented the much broader sample. By opting for this particular methodology, the authors successfully convey their findings based on hundreds of interviews, without cluttering the narrative with endless and above all impersonal statistics and numbers.

Fothergill and Peek identified three different trajectories in their research: the declining trajectory, the finding-equilibrium trajectory, and the fluctuating trajectory. Their book is divided into three parts, each explaining one of these trajectories, exemplified by the experiences of two or three of the focal children and their families.

The children’s stories are heart-wrenching, yet often inspirational. In part one, Declining Trajectory, we meet Daniel, an African American boy who was 12 years old when Katrina struck. He had lost his father in 2003, and as a result, his mother, his older brother, and his baby sister became stuck in what anthropologist Laura Lein has referred to as the “basement of extreme poverty”. After Daniel’s father’s untimely death, the family moved around between run-down rentals located in New Orleans’ most dangerous neighborhoods and homeless shelters. Daniel’s mother, who struggled with mental health issues and no education beyond elementary school, could not find stable employment to support her children. When the Mayor of New Orleans ordered an evacuation of everyone in the city, she decided to have the family ride the storm out in their one-bedroom apartment; after all, she had no money, no car, and no other place to go. As the floodwaters began to rise, Daniel took the lead and guided his mother and baby sister through the water to safer grounds, essentially saving their lives. (His older brother was living in Los Angeles.)

Daniel’s life after Katrina continued to be marked by shocks, setbacks, and instability. For seven years, his family bounced around between disaster shelters, hotel and motel rooms, government-subsidized housing, and homeless shelters in three different states. They even lived on the streets for a period of time. Fothergill and Peek note that many of the issues that Daniel experienced after Katrina can be traced to housing, or the lack thereof. One of the immediate ripple effects of his lack of stable housing was a disrupted academic career for Daniel; he missed almost two academic years and, although a bright boy, was never able to fully catch up.

Housing and school are two of the six spheres of children’s lives that Peek and Fothergill looked at when examining the impact of Katrina. They also examined peers and friends, physical and emotional well-being, recreational and extracurricular activities, and family. Disruptions in any of these spheres are detrimental to children’s ability to recover from disaster, according to the authors.

Fothergill and Peek make it very clear that all the children in their sample went through some period of decline after Katrina. They all experienced destruction and disruption. Yet the depth of this decline and the severity of the disruptions varied significantly. With Daniel’s story, the authors show that the vulnerabilities the children brought with them into the disaster strongly influenced their fate in and after the disaster.

However, not all children who were classified as vulnerable pre-disaster fared the same as Daniel. In part two, Finding-Equilibrium Trajectory, the authors discuss how resource depth and access to helpful and supportive advocates—both before and after disaster—can halt the decline in the aforementioned spheres. We meet Cierra, an African American girl who was 11 years old at the time of Katrina. She lived with her single mother, Debra, who was employed in a low-wage job at a hospital in New Orleans. Cierra’s father was mostly uninvolved in her life and contributed very little financially. As such, Cierra was classified as vulnerable before the disaster.

Debra was unable to evacuate because she had to report for work, and she lacked a car and a social network outside of New Orleans that she could rely on. Cierra and Debra took shelter in the hospital during and in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Their experiences while in the hospital, which had lost power were harrowing; they feared for their lives. After they were rescued by boat—four days after Katrina made landfall—they stayed at a temporary shelter in Lafayette. Thereafter they moved into a FEMA trailer before securing a Habitat for Humanity home in Lafayette, the city where they would permanently settle.

Cierra’s story might resemble Daniel’s: Both grew up with very limited financial resources, had a traumatic experience in the storm, were displaced for a long time, and did not have stable housing in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Nevertheless, Cierra found equilibrium. The authors relate this different outcome to the support and assistance of advocates—such as disaster shelter workers, pastors, and teachers—and institutions, including FEMA and Habitat for Humanity. Another factor was that Debra was able to locate and mobilize these resources. After a period of decline, Cierra and her mother found stable housing and Cierra was able to finish high school with such good grades that she was admitted to both a community college in Louisiana and a university in Texas.

Cierra and Daniel are just two of the seven children whose experiences were meticulously documented by Fothergill and Peek. Through these very personal stories, the authors underscore that disasters are not equal-opportunity events. Children, like adolescents and adults, are positioned differently based on their race, social class, age, and gender before disasters strike. However, the authors also show that recovery trajectories are not necessarily the same even for children who share pre-disaster vulnerabilities. By carefully listening to children, their parents, teachers, and other adults who are involved in children’s lives, the authors identified many of the factors that contribute to a downward trajectory. Fothergill and Peek offer detailed recommendations for improved disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts for children and youth in each of the spheres they studied.

It is important to note that the authors don’t sugarcoat the facts. Without judging or blaming children, their families, or their wider community, Fothergill and Peek describe problems such as virulent crime and drug addiction. From the metal detectors and armed security guards at an elementary school, to the devastating drug addiction of a focal child’s mother, the authors aren’t afraid to paint the full picture. The arresting subject matter and the authors’ thorough and honest approach make this book a critical addition to the field. Although written for a wide audience, it would serve as an especially useful read for policy makers in charge of disaster recovery.