CARBONDALE — A Southern Illinois University Carbondale researcher’s latest project asks a deceptively simple question: What will Hurricane Harvey reveal to the people of Houston?
Roberto Barrios, associate professor of anthropology at SIUC, has studied disaster reconstruction after major catastrophic events for the past 18 years. He has been awarded an $80,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study disaster recovery in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the city in late August.
“For anthropologists, disasters are what we call ‘revelatory crises,’” Barrios said. “Disasters, I think, in the general culture are often thought of in terms of very acute, specific events … but for anthropologists, disasters are more historical premises. It’s about everything that comes before an earthquake or a hurricane.”
Barrios previously studied housing reconstruction and resettlement programs in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. He also conducted an ethnographic study of disaster recovery planning in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Crises occur at the intersection of geophysical phenomena and human- or society-created vulnerabilities, he said: they bring to light conditions that had been previously ignored.
“Hurricane Katrina occurred in a time when many Americans may have been saying that we were living in a post-racial society, and Hurricane Katrina made us confront the fact that there are tremendous inequities in poverty … that sometimes manifest along racial lines, and also inequities in the distribution of vulnerability — who gets to live in areas that are flood-prone, who is forced to live in those areas,” Barrios said.
After Hurricane Harvey, Barrios and his colleague, Raja Swamy of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, became interested in what the disaster would reveal for different social actors in the city of Houston.
“Often what a disaster reveals is in the eye of the beholder,” Barrios said. “For example, when Hurricane Katrina occurred, for certain televangelists … for them it revealed something different (than it did to anthropologists). For them it didn’t necessarily reveal racial and class inequities in America; for them it revealed the fact that God was angry with America because we are OK with gay marriage.”
He and Swamy plan to conduct intense ethnographic interviews with a wide range of people who represent the diversity of the city to learn how they interpret the disaster and how they hope to rebuild.
“The reason it’s important is because, depending on what the disaster reveals for whom, that’s going to be tied to what a person considers necessary in terms of policy for reconstruction,” he said.
The researchers already made one trip to Houston earlier this month to conduct preliminary research.
“One of the interesting things that we have found … is that for many of residents of Houston, particularly those of lesser means, especially those who are Latino, for them what the disaster reveals is a disaster that is not visible but was already present in the city of Houston, which has to do with issues of environmental justice and the toxicity of many petroleum and petrochemical refinery plants that are causing very high levels of things like childhood leukemia,” Barrios said.
Barrios and Swamy plan to conduct more interviews over the January intercession and return for follow-up interviews in March. The bulk of their research will be conducted over a two-month period this summer, and in the fall, they’ll prepare an ethnographic report of Houston. They hope to get the grant renewed to continue their research the following year.
“We’ll help people understand the socioeconomic diversity of the city of Houston and how socioeconomic sectors experienced the disaster, in terms of who flooded and who didn’t, but also who experienced other forms of disaster, like toxic exposure from those petrochemical companies,” he said.
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