Effects of Hurricane Katrina on Displaced
vs. Regular College Students
David W. Shwalb & Barbara
Southeastern Louisiana University Department of Psychology
On the weekend preceding August
29, 2005, college students in southeastern Louisiana who had just begun
their fall semester learned that a Category 5 hurricane was heading directly
toward New Orleans. All universities in the area closed and many
students evacuated their homes. Yet few foresaw the possibility that
three months later their universities would still be closed and their lives
upended by Hurricane Katrina. After the disastrous landfall of Katrina,
thousands of students from New Orleans colleges enrolled temporarily at
displaced student sample consisted of 207 women and 108 men (68% Caucasian,
18% African American) who had relocated from ten New Orleans area colleges
to a public university in southeastern Louisiana. A comparison group
of regular college students at the same university was randomly selected
and 400 women and 110 men (84% Caucasian, 9% African American) participated
in the same Internet-based survey.
Measures. The questionnaire
was first developed by a team of researchers from both Mississippi and
the New Orleans area, working with Dr. Duane Gill at the Social Science
Research Center of Mississippi State University and with technical assistance
by Angela Maggard. The Mississippi group is now completing a white
paper about the survey.
Procedures. A link
to an on-line questionnaire was e-mailed to displaced and regular students
in November of 2005, and 78% of those who opened the survey completed it.
Items focused on (1) experiences of evacuation, injury, and damage to homes;
(2) financial impact; (3) physical health impact; (4) psychological effects;
(5) sense of optimism, life satisfaction, control, and faith; (6) impact
on education; (7) demographics; and (8) personal stories and opinions.
The quantitative results
(see Table) showed that many students in both the displaced (“D” hereafter)
and regular (“R” hereafter) student groups continued to suffer physically
and psychologically, two months after the disaster.
Injuries and damage.
respondents were personally injured, but significant numbers experienced
serious damage to their places of residence, had either close friends or
family missing following Katrina, or knew family members or friends who
had died because of the hurricane. On a 10-point scale (1 = no fear;
10 = uncontrollable fear), the D group reported a moderate mean score of
5.7 and the R group a mean score of 5.3 at the time of the hurricane.
Financial impact. More
of the D group was harmed financially than of the R group, losing their
homes, jobs, automobiles, and incurring added expenses.
Physical health impact.
students in either group saw a physician specifically because of Katrina,
but many reported declines in general health and eating habits. One-fifth
of the D and R students reported such symptoms as backaches, headaches,
response to a battery of items, a significantly greater proportion of students
in the D group reported reactions to stress, e.g., sleep difficulties,
anxiety, and depression.
On measures of positive
mental health, however, the R and D groups were similar. For example,
on the Optimism/Pessimism scale, both D students and R students were evenly
divided between optimists and pessimists. On the Satisfaction with
Life scale, slim majorities of both groups generally were dissatisfied
with life. Third, on the Personal Growth/Initiative scale, a majority of
both R and D students expressed a positive sense of control and direction.
Faith and religion were
important to a majority of students in both groups as they coped with the
disaster. Although church attendance decreased in more students than
increased, about one-third of students reported an increase in prayerfulness.
Educational impact. Majorities
of both D and R students reported adverse effects on their academic performance.
About half the students in both groups reported a decrease in achievement
motivation, while 21% of D students and only 9% of R students reported
increased motivation. Withdrawal from classes was reported by large numbers
of D and R students, and a greater number of D students reported increased
worry about financing their education.
These descriptive comparisons
were the first phase of analyses, which will focus on individual differences
in the physical and psychological impact of the Katrina disaster. Comparisons
of displaced and regular student groups made it clear two months following
the hurricane that sizable numbers of students suffered financial, physical,
psychological, and educational after-effects. On most measures, significantly
greater numbers of students in the displaced student group had negative
effects, compared with regular students. Many displaced students
may be in a tenuous psychological state, reporting symptoms of stress,
physical ailments, and memories of recent terror. Yet pluralities
of both displaced and regular students described themselves with positive
characteristics of resilience, control, and optimism.
In response to the essay
question of “describe an event related to Katrina that has most affected
you,” D students expressed more pain and continued anguish than did R students.
Yet it was clear also that many so-called “regular” students were also
strongly affected by Hurricane Katrina, even though they did not have to
relocate to another university. Content analyses of these stories
and students’ open-ended responses to the question “Is there anything your
college/university could have done differently to prepare you for Katrina?”
will be the basis of policy recommendations that may benefit displaced
and regular students alike.