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What Kind of Faith Helped People Survive Hurricane Katrina?

A key predictor of resilience is a person's actively engaged faith. There's more to it than just being 'religious.'
What Kind of Faith Helped People Survive Hurricane Katrina?
Image: Getty Images
In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a church volunteer (left) comforts Mary Croom-Fontenot at her Baptist church one year after Katrina.

I’ve spent my career as a psychologist researching connections between faith and disaster resilience. I didn’t set out to be a disaster psychologist. I had planned to build a career studying rural health disparities.

Then just six days after moving to South Mississippi to teach at a large state university, something happened: Hurricane Katrina struck. I knew very little about disaster resilience at the time. However, I made an observation that changed the course of my career. I noticed that there seemed to be a link, some sort of connection, between faith and disaster resilience.

I saw faith spur congregations and organizations into action, from mucking out houses to providing much needed spiritual care. I heard clients report how central their faith was to their recovery. I met an out-of-state volunteer as we were both peering over the edge of what was left of the US 90 bridge in Biloxi. He remarked that it looked like Katrina had tossed the giant concrete slabs that had once been a bridge into the water, much like one might toss down a losing hand of cards in disgust. I asked him why he was volunteering and he replied, “My faith.” Lastly, I observed instances where faith either had the potential to or did cause significant distress. I remember attending a large congregation where the pastor taught that emotional struggles after Katrina were nothing more than signs of a weak spiritual life.

As a researcher, I felt compelled to empirically test my observations about faith and disaster resilience. I began collecting data for my first Katrina study 2 months after the storm. Even now, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’m still studying faith and disaster resilience among Katrina ...

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