Kroll-Smith says disasters create “fissures” in society. “You see what actually makes people tick, what keeps things hanging together.”
With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he and his colleagues spent four years studying recovery in New Orleans. In “Left to Chance,” they focused on two mostly African American neighborhoods, one working class, the other middle class.
More people in the middle-class neighborhood were able to evacuate prior to Katrina’s arrival, and were able to apply for assistance more easily as a result, Kroll-Smith says. Still, relief wasn’t made very accessible for anybody.
“It became a real feat of gymnastics to jump through the necessary hoops to get the money set aside for rebuilding your house, buying new furniture,” he says. “The administration of relief itself became a significant stressor in people’s lives.”
Last year, Hurricanes Harvey and Maria devastated Houston and Puerto Rico, causing hundreds of billions in damage. The coming years, Kroll-Smith says, will likely bring similar catastrophes.
“Katrina was in a lot of ways a school marm, in that she had a lot to teach us about what we can anticipate in terms of severity of storms, and in terms of how unprepared we are for a relief effort,” he says. “I don’t think those lessons were learned, quite frankly. And we need to think of more than infrastructure recovery, as important as that is. There are psychological and social traumas. It’s far harder to recover a self than to recover a structure.”