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Effects of Hurricane Katrina on Displaced vs. Regular College Students

David W. Shwalb & Barbara J. Shwalb
Southeastern Louisiana University Department of Psychology
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       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 other universities. 

       Participants.  The 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. Few 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. Few 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, and fatigue.
       Psychological impact. In 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. 

TABLE: Comparisons of Displaced and Regular Students
Displaced Students
Regular Students
Personally injured by hurricane
Damage to their places of residence
Close friends or relations were missing
Knew family members or friends who had died
Lost home
Lost job
Lost automobile
Lost money
General decline in health
Poorer eating habits
Felt stressed out
Sleep difficulties
Religion and faith important to coping
Increase in prayerfulness
Negative effects on academic performance
Decrease in motivation to study/achieve
Withdrew from classes since September
Increased worries about financing college education