Home will always be there: afterlives of hurricane recovery and community engagement

July 2, 2024
Figure 1. The left picture shows a home with a blue tarp in August 2022, and the right image shows a home with a torn and tattered blue tarp in March 2024.

Figure 1. The left picture shows a home with a blue tarp in August 2022, and the right image shows a home with a torn and tattered blue tarp in March 2024.

Oftentimes, the longer you spend somewhere, the smaller it feels. My time in Lake Charles, a city with a population of about 80,000 in southwest Louisiana, has been marked by this feeling – but the opposite is also true. For the past seven months, I have been living in Lake Charles, where two Category 4 hurricanes – Laura and Delta – struck in 2020, damaging a significant portion of homes. It’s common knowledge along the Gulf that in the aftermath of a hurricane, a tarp is used to protect a home until the roof is repaired. Given how widespread the damage was, there was a sea of blue tarps on homes. When I first visited Lake Charles, almost two years after the hurricanes, blue tarps were still on rooftops scattered across the city. Today in 2024, the tarps that remain are torn, having clearly outlived their shelf life, and concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods of color. As I’ve spent more time here, that feeling of a ‘smallness’ of place that comes with familiarity has also been met with an expansion of place as I learn the details of just how different recovery can be within a single community.

Part of my research uses satellite imagery to map blue tarps from space to track recovery, as indicated by the removal of tarps. I then synthesize this information to map disparities in neighborhoods where blue tarps disappeared more quickly than others. While this approach offers a systematic way to map recovery, I was also compelled to understand what household recovery means for people, including those who still have blue tarps today and those who got new roofs to replace their tarps years ago. By collaborating with organizations that provide recovery assistance to residents, I gained valuable and necessary context about the resources available to people, and I was able to interview residents about their experiences. 

One of these collaborating organizations was the Pauline Hurst Mercy Center which provides food and clothing to local residents. I volunteered there to become familiar with the everyday challenges these residents face. The relationships I formed while volunteering at the Center and with other organizations helped me connect with people of various backgrounds for my research, but they also opened many worlds I otherwise would not have known. I rode on a shrimp boat, attended various Sunday church services, community town halls on gun violence, permit hearings for the hotly debated Liquified Natural Gas facilities, and listened to Zydeco music. From the courthouse to poetry readings in backyards, each of these settings offered valuable connections and revealed what was at stake for Southwest Louisiana on its long-term path to recovery.

Being seen and never heard

Nowadays, I could have chosen just about anywhere to study disaster recovery, but I chose southwest Louisiana. Notably, I was alarmed by the delayed disbursement of federal long-term recovery funding and subsequent disparities in recovery progress. I assumed there was a single glaring characteristic that could explain the continued presence of blue tarps on homes I saw in satellite imagery hundreds of miles away at my desk in Tucson. Now that I’ve gotten to spend time here, I realize how complex the situation is. 

As I’ve become more familiar with southwest Louisiana, I’ve learned there’s no single explanation but instead that a place holds multiple competing truths simultaneously. Places like Lake Charles are forged and remade by the variation in people’s experiences that have either enabled them to recover quickly or continue to recover today. I have also learned just how much I will never get to know, how many streets I will never drive down, and how many stories I will not hear. 

In qualitative field methods, a general rule of thumb indicates your task is complete when you reach redundancy in interviews. While I’ve encountered common threads across people’s experiences, everyone’s story is unique and additive. I grieve the absence of the stories I won’t hear. In a certain way, this absence parallels what originally drew me to this place. How many stories will not be told but should be heard? 

In between the field and the desk

As an academic researcher studying hurricane recovery – hailing from a state where hurricanes don’t make landfall – I anticipated experiencing the “insider” and “outsider” roles so commonly discussed in identifying one’s relationship to their site of study. I had many experiences in Louisiana that clearly exposed my “outsider” role, like when I was unsure if I should join the kids and adults chasing a chicken thrown into the air at the Chicken Run, a Cajun tradition that is held in the runup to Mardi Gras in rural towns in southwest Louisiana. There were likely many other unfamiliar encounters and conversations where my ‘you’re not from around here, are you?’ persona was evident. Yet, these instances feel small and irrelevant compared to the interactions I had with people who were eager to share their experiences about rebuilding and reclaiming their homes many times over. I am routinely struck by the feeble nature of the terms “insider” and “outsider.”

Instead, the contrast between being “in” and “out” of the field feels harder to reconcile. Just as much effort goes into prepping for the field as does pulling myself out of the field. Maintaining connections with people while I’m away turns digital. It’s a cleaving across time zones that requires relearning how to maintain connections to people and places that now feel particularly familiar. What happens when a place starts to resemble home more than your permanent address? Becoming invested in a place will do this to you; at least, it has for me. 

This feeling has incited a greater need to share what I’ve witnessed and heard from southwest Louisiana while doing justice to the richness of time and patience people have afforded me in sharing their experiences with recovery. While maps of blue tarps continue to be refined and fieldnotes wait patiently to be reread, the Gulf South enters what forecasters are calling an “unprecedented” hurricane season. The original goal of this work was for groups to use maps of blue tarps to identify unmet recovery housing needs. Engagement with collaborators still entails discussing how to utilize the maps of blue tarps to support their efforts. But community engagement has expanded my goals to include a broader analysis of how tarps fit with rates of insurance coverage – a pressing concern among residents – and how people’s experiences can be elevated to supplement policy legislation for insurance reform. 

As my connections with people and places strengthen and the research evolves, the work continues, both in and out of Lake Charles. Like a pendulum, the scale of my own engagement with the work swings from ten thousand-foot views from satellites to stories shared at the kitchen table. Similarly, the swings between being in and out of the field involve reconfiguring what relationships with collaborators look like and what they can and should look like. As southwest Louisiana takes on the character of another home for me, I am reminded it will always be there. Holding on to that feeling and tapping into that familiarity requires the ‘Sunday calls to home’ and occasional visits. Or does it require something else? 

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