The Example of Disaster Survivors Encourages Us in COVID-19

An interview with Dr. Katie Cherry on lessons learned from hurricane survivors.

Posted May 29, 2020

Kaite Cherry, photo courtesy of James A. Harvey, used with permission
Source: Kaite Cherry, photo courtesy of James A. Harvey, used with permission

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been called "unprecedented," disasters have been occurring across the globe for all human memory. Looking back on the experiences and fortitude of those who have survived natural disasters can give us hope and help us cultivate resilience.

Dr. Katie E. Cherry is a Professor of Psychology at Louisiana State University. Her research expertise is adult development and challenges to healthy aging after disaster. She has over 177 publications including peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and three edited books. Her work has been funded by the National Institute on Aging, the National Science Foundation, the Louisiana Board of Regents, and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. In 2002, she was awarded the Emogene Pliner Distinguished Professor of Aging Studies professorship for her contributions to the field of adult development and aging.

JA: Why did you set out to write your book?

KC: Residents of the US Gulf Coast lost homes and a way of life in the 2005 Atlantic Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Five years later, I embarked on a research project to study post-disaster resilience and long-term recovery in Katrina survivors from the New Orleans, LA area. The idea for this book emerged during interviews with adults who lost everything they had acquired in life in the hurricanes.

Listening to current coastal residents who had rebuilt their devastated homes and communities, as well as former residents who relocated permanently inland after the 2005 hurricanes, was enlightening. They talked about grief and great loss, displacement from home and family, and how they created a “new normal” after Katrina.

Collectively, their stories brought six healing principles of healing into sharp focus: faith and humor; respect and gratitude; acceptance and silver linings. I set out to write The Other Side of Suffering because I wanted to share these evidence-based principles and a central message: Disasters happen but there is hope. Survivors can find their way to the other side of suffering after a natural disaster (or other tragedy), despite catastrophic losses.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

KC: Despite comprehensive material and emotional/psychological losses, I believe that disaster survivors have gained something of great value: The knowledge that there is hope and healing after tragedy. Disaster survivors can show the world that post-disaster grief is real, but life goes on. There is joy in everyday living after a disaster as people discover their own paths to peace after tragedy.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently during this pandemic?

KC: A key takeaway is that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to coping with stressors and fostering resilience. Living resiliently during this pandemic means working through new challenges and coping with uncertainty.

For example, humor is one way that people cope with stressors. Whether humor will help depends on the disposition of the person (some people naturally gravitate to humor for relief of stress) as well as others in the social environment who may be exposed to humor (some people enjoy humor and can laugh easily at themselves and their circumstances, others don’t).

For someone who is naturally funny, laughter would be authentic, having the potential to lighten the burden for self and others. For people who are struggling with overwhelming losses during this pandemic, however, grief may be a more likely behavioral response to COVID-19. Recognizing the variety of responses people may show, as well as points of vulnerability and exhaustion, is arguably critical for promoting resilience during the pandemic.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one, especially during COVID-19?

KC: In this book, I showcase stories of survival after disaster based on the Katrina example. Survivors’ stories illustrate in a concrete way that there is hope and healing after disaster. Current and former coastal residents of south Louisiana will tell you today that feelings of loss are real, but situations improve. Things do get better.

Social support helps and it can come in many forms: tangible (“I have hand sanitizer and face masks you can have), appraisal (“here’s how to submit an unemployment claim”), and emotional (“your friends and family love you”). Stress, depression, and disrupted sleep may happen. Seek help when needed.

Katrina and Rita survivors remind us that long-term disaster recovery unfolds over time. Pacing and taking breaks are necessary for navigating the pandemic. New frustrations and uncertainties emerge, but be patient with yourself and with others. It does get better.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

KC: In August of 2016, another severe weather event happened in south Louisiana. A week of non-stop rainfall created flash flooding and new catastrophic destruction as homes and businesses took on as much as seven feet of water. For Katrina and Rita veterans who had relocated permanently inland to presumably higher and safer ground, the 2016 flooding meant a second round of displacement, losses, and rebuilding.

As a social scientist, I wondered how a second catastrophic disaster would impact Katrina and Rita survivors who had already lost homes and properties a decade earlier. In October of 2016, my colleagues and I began a new study to measure the combined impact of prior hurricane experience and current disaster stressors on health and wellbeing. We have included two phases of testing to track how initial responses may change over time. Our hope is that this project will provide a wealth of new evidence on the role of prior catastrophic losses on current cognition, health, and wellbeing after the 2016 flooding.

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

KC: I believe that survivors of natural disasters can provide an authentic and inspiring example of how to manage current stressors and cope with pandemics as well as severe weather events. Ironically, people who have lost everything once before may possess exactly what we need right now—the hope of a future and the knowledge that everyday life and a sense of normality will be restored again in time.

References

Cherry, K. E. (2020). The Other Side of Suffering: Finding a Path to Peace after Tragedy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.