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“There's No Place Like New Orleans”: Sense of Place and Community Recovery in the Ninth Ward After Hurricane Katrina



 This study contributes to the literature on the strength of place attachment, identity, and dependence in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. It also engages the literature concerning the role of sense of place in community engagement and the disruption in place attachment, identity, and dependence that natural disasters can cause. By drawing on interview data collected from residents who returned to New Orleans after the storm and from former New Orleanians who evacuated to Houston but did not return, this article investigates the “sense of place” that residents in Ninth Ward New Orleans neighborhoods identify in their narratives about their pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina experiences. The data considered here suggest that returning residents believe that New Orleans in general (and their Ninth Ward neighborhoods in particular) possess a unique bundle of characteristics that, when taken together, cannot be found or replicated elsewhere. While sense of place is an important motivator for returning residents, the data also suggest that complementary factors must be in place if the full potential of this social resource is to be realized.
Electronic copy available at:
Beloit College
George Mason University
ABSTRACT: This study contributes to the literature on the strength of place attachment, identity,
and dependence in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. It also engages the literature con-
cerning the role of sense of place in community engagement and the disruption in place attachment,
identity, and dependence that natural disasters can cause. By drawing on interview data collected
from residents who returned to New Orleans after the storm and from former New Orleanians
who evacuated to Houston but did not return, this article investigates the “sense of place” that
residents in Ninth Ward New Orleans neighborhoods identify in their narratives about their pre-
and post-Hurricane Katrina experiences. The data considered here suggest that returning residents
believe that New Orleans in general (and their Ninth Ward neighborhoods in particular) possess a
unique bundle of characteristics that, when taken together, cannot be found or replicated elsewhere.
While sense of place is an important motivator for returning residents, the data also suggest that
complementary factors must be in place if the full potential of this social resource is to be realized.
Scholarly accounts of the combined effects of racism, poverty, and geography suggest that
residents within Ninth Ward neighborhoods were among the most vulnerable populations in the
city pre-Katrina and find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the rebuilding process post-
Katrina (BondGraham, 2007; Brunsma, Overfelt, & Picou, 2007; Colten, 2006; Dyson, 2006;
Elliott & Pais, 2006; Hartman & Squires, 2006; Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006; Moreau,
2006; National Hazards Center, 2006; Sastry, 2007). Both scholarly and popular accounts suggest
that institutional racism played a role in the disappointing government response to the immediate
crisis and continues to play a role in the slow pace at which recovery assistance is administered
(Bosman et al., 2007; Henkel et al., 2006; Herring, 2006; Lipsitz, 2006).1The evacuation of storm
victims scattered many of New Orleans’ poorest residents to distant cities without consideration
for where they might have a support network of family or friends who could assist in their return
Direct correspondence to: Virgil Henry Storr, The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 3301 N. Fairfax Drive,
Suite 450, Arlington, VA 22201. E-mail:
JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS, Volume 31, Number 5, pages 615–634.
Copyright C
2009 Urban Affairs Association
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
ISSN: 0735-2166. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9906.2009.00479.x
Electronic copy available at:
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Vol. 31/No. 5/2009
(Haney, Elliott, & Fusell, 2007). While most Gulf Coast residents were allowed access to their
property within weeks of the storm, residents in the Lower Ninth Ward were not permitted access
for 3 months, when the contents of the homes continued to fester causing further damage. At the
one-year anniversary, many Ninth Ward neighborhoods still had no electrical or water service,
which meant that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would not deliver trailers
to residents hoping to repair their homes. Damage related to termite infestation, mold, and looting
of any remaining value (such as copper plumbing) proceeded apace. Further, at various points the
redevelopment planning process has thrown into doubt whether some Ninth Ward communities
would be permitted to rebuild at all and, at the present writing, uncertainty regarding the rules
for how residents will be allowed to rebuild continues to hold the recovery process in a state of
suspended animation for many residents (Chamlee-Wright, 2007).
It is not surprising then that recovery has been far slower in the Ninth Ward than in other
neighborhoods. To be sure, the future of many Ninth Ward neighborhoods is still very much in
doubt. Structural constraints in the form of racism, poverty, government incompetence, and even
government obstruction may mean that some Ninth Ward neighborhoods will never be restored,
at least not to anything like their pre-Katrina state. And yet, it is clear that some people are
coming back. The New Orleans-based consulting group GCR & Associates estimates that by July
2007, 26% of the pre-Katrina population had returned to the Desire neighborhood and 22% to
the Florida neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward. While only 7% of the pre-Katrina population
had returned to the Lower Ninth Ward, overall, 25% of the Lower Ninth Ward’s Holy Cross
neighborhood (situated between the Mississippi River and St. Claude Avenue) had returned.2
What is less clear is why people, especially in the disadvantaged Ninth Ward neighborhoods,
are coming back. The sense of place literature cautions that the magnitude of the devastation
wrought by post-Katrina flooding has rendered the restoration of the physical and community
landscapes an unprecedented challenge (Miller & Rivera, 2007). Further, it is frequently reported
that many evacuees found themselves to be in a better situation once they settled elsewhere
(Wilson & Stein, 2006). Such accounts beg the question of what motivates those Ninth Ward
residents who do return given that so many forces seem to conspire against rebound and recovery
in their communities.
The interview data we collected from Ninth Ward residents who have returned suggest that
sense of place was an important motivator for early returnees. The data also suggest that after
suffering an abrupt and often prolonged evacuation experience following Hurricane Katrina, this
sense of place was transformed from background context into an important cultural resource.
Finally, survey and interview data collected from New Orleans evacuees who were still living
in Houston 3 years after Katrina suggest that there are both differences and similarities between
returnees and nonreturnees that shed light on the role sense of place might play in postdisaster
community rebound.
In our view, the literature on post-Katrina recovery requires greater attention to sense of place
and to the role that place attachment and dependence can play in motivating people to return and
attempt to rebuild their communities. In our earlier study of post-Katrina recovery in the New
Orleans East Vietnamese community, sense of place, specifically the view that New Orleans was
thought of as a second homeland for first- and second-generation Vietnamese immigrants, was
frequently mentioned as the reason they returned (Chamlee-Wright & Storr, forthcoming a). An
important question generated by this earlier work is whether sense of place would emerge as
a critical factor in explaining the recovery efforts of Ninth Ward residents given the very real
structural obstacles to recovery that exist in their communities and the negative perceptions of
their neighborhoods that are frequently voiced by outsiders.
By emphasizing sense of place, we are not suggesting that material resources are unimportant.
We take it as given that homeowners with flood insurance and other financial resources have
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
a much easier time executing their post-Katrina strategies than those who do not. Our point is
that in the absence of abundant material resources, cultural resources take on greater importance
both for the agents themselves (as cultural resources can have a compensating effect) and for
the social scientists attempting to understand how agency unfolds in contexts that are believed
to be inhospitable to it. Nor are we suggesting that high levels of place attachment, identity, and
dependence are the only reasons that we observe some return and recovery in these communities.
Given the complexities involved in rebuilding an entire city, we would argue that such covering
explanations are likely to come up short. Tools must always be combined with other tools and
resources if productive outcomes are to be realized. Displaced residents who return and attempt
to rebuild do so for multiple and often complex reasons. In describing the nature of Ninth Ward
neighborhood residents’ place attachment, identity, and dependence and the role that sense of
place is playing in the recovery of Ninth Ward communities, we hope to add to the literature on the
strength of sense of place in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. We also hope to engage
the literature concerning the relationship between sense of place and community engagement
and the challenge of preserving, and where necessary restoring, a sense of place after a natural
disaster. Finally, we hope to add to the scholarship on how people are employing nonmaterial
resources like sense of place as they develop strategies for recovery (Chamlee-Wright & Storr,
forthcoming b).
Efforts to understand the emotional, psychological, and social connection that people have to
their blocks, streets, neighborhoods, communities, nations, and even leisure sites are common
in urban studies, human geography, and environmental psychology. In human geography, for
instance, the concept of sense of place has been profitably employed to describe the attitudes,
beliefs, meanings, and interpretations that people associate with a particular place (Steele, 1981).
Hay (1998), for instance, has highlighted the similarities between the development of a rooted
sense of place and the development of a stable pair bond (like a marriage). Like marriage, he
suggests, attachment to a place “can provide feelings of security, belonging and stability” (Hay,
1998, p. 25). Like marriage, he also suggests, connection to place is becoming less common
as “modern people” are forming serial pair bonds and developing temporary attachments to
particular places as they pass through the different stages in their lives (Hay, 1998, p. 26).
Where sense of place is strong, however, it has also proven to be a useful variable for explaining
people’s outlooks, perceptions, dispositions, behavioral beliefs, social capital building, political
activity, and community engagement. Jorgensen and Stedman (2001) have demonstrated that
sense of place can explain people’s attitudes. Similarly, Kianicka, Buchecker, Hunziker, and
oker (2006) have argued that differences in sense of place can explain why residents and
nonresidents disagree on measures aimed at altering, preserving, or restoring a particular built
environment. As they suggest, residents and nonresidents can differ on these issues because they
have disparate senses of place as they ascribe different meanings to the same place characteristics.
Sense of place is a general concept that captures at least three narrower concepts which
are frequently discussed in environmental psychology, namely, place attachment, place identity,
and place dependence. First, place attachment is the positive cognitive and affective bond that
develops between individuals and their environment (Altman & Low, 1992). “Place attachment,”
Altman and Low suggest, “involves an interplay of affect and emotions, knowledge and beliefs,
and behaviors and actions in reference to a place” (p. 5). Second, place identity is a part (a
sub-identity) of each individual’s self-identity and includes “those dimensions of self that define
the individual’s personal identity in relation to the physical environment by means of a complex
pattern of conscious and unconscious ideas, beliefs, preferences, feelings, values, goals and
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behavioral tendencies and skills relevant to this environment” (Proshansky, 1978, p. 155). Finally,
place dependence describes an individual’s perceptions of whether or not he can satisfy his needs
and desires in a particular place, compared to alternative places (Stokols & Shumaker, 1981).
Certain places are simply better suited for certain activities (e.g., mountain climbers and bikers
need mountains and trails, boaters and fisherman need oceans or lakes, etc.). Place dependence
captures how suitable an individual believes a particular place is for certain preferred activities.
Homeownership, length of residence in the neighborhood, perceptions of neighborhood cohe-
sion and the frequency of community activities are positively correlated with place attachment,
identity, and dependence (Brown, Perkins, & Brown, 2003; Conway & Hachen, 2005; Hays &
Kogl, 2007; Hern´
andez, Hidalgo, Salazar-Laplace, & Hess, 2007; Lewicka, 2005). Perceived
and observed incivilities (like unkempt lawns and litter), fear of crime, and mobility tend to be
negatively correlated with place attachment, identity, and dependence (Brown, Perkins, & Brown,
2003). Moreover, a strong sense of place can motivate individuals to get involved in collective
community improvement efforts (Manzo & Perkins, 2006) and differences in sense of place can
lead individuals to react differently to potential (environmental) threats to their communities
(Kaltenborn, 1998).
Natural disasters (like hurricanes) and man-made disasters (like terrorist attacks) can dramat-
ically alter the physical and social landscape and, as a consequence, can force individuals to
reassert or alter their sense of place. To see this, consider Milligan’s (1998) interactionist-based
theory of place attachment. Milligan stressed that all social interactions imbue their stage with
some form of meaning, “transforming that site into a known place, but when the interaction
involves a higher degree of meaning, whether or not that meaning is perceived at the time, the
place becomes the site of place attachment.” According to Milligan two components are involved
in place attachment: (a) memories of an individual’s past experiences at a particular place (its
interactional past) and (b) experiences that an individual believes are likely to occur at a particu-
lar site (its interactional potential). Disasters can act to close off a category of past experiences.
They are disruptions that can bring to the fore the unconscious meanings and significance that
an individual has associated with a particular site. As Milligan (p. 6) writes, “place attachments
are formed through the meanings imbued by repeated interactions in a particular site, meanings
that might only be identified as ‘meaningful’ at a later date, for example, when the site is lost.”
Disasters also necessarily change an individual’s expectations, altering the interactional potential
of a site. Dramatic changes in the physical and social landscape, like the changes associated with
natural and man-made catastrophes, might mean both that some of what could once be accom-
plished in a given place can no longer be accomplished there and that new places (evacuation and
relocation sites) are not suitable for certain historically desirable activities (Erickson, 1994).
Disasters can, thus, lead to a decline in place attachment to the recently destroyed site as it is
no longer an appropriate place for preferred activities or, conversely, it can lead to dissatisfaction
with any (temporary) replacement site. As Fried (2000) discussed, place attachment is important
in many poor communities (like the Ninth Ward) and displacement from the community (like what
followed Hurricane Katrina) can result in widespread grief and can motivate efforts to return and
attempt to rebuild communities that have been physically and socially destroyed. Fried (p. 202)
has emphasized that these efforts become dysfunctional when “desire to cling to the fragments
of a home” which has been destroyed persists “against all possibility of living there again.” His
characterization, we argue, is unfair. After a disaster, individuals evaluate whether their desires
will best be served by rebuilding or relocating, that is, they compare the interactional potential of
alternative sites. Where place dependence is high—where the community that was destroyed is
uniquely suited for an individual’s preferred activities—the decision to return and the attempt to
rebuild is understandable.
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
Demographic Information on Ninth Ward, New Orleans Interview Subjects
No. of No. of
Subjects Percentage Subjects Percentage
Ninth Ward residents 35 61%
22 39%
Gender Homeownership
Male 38 67% # Own 41 72%
Female 19 33% # Rent 8 14%
Race # Living in family home 5 9%
African-American 48 84% # unknown 3 5%
Caucasian 5 9%
Latino 1 2%
Arab-American 3 5% 61%
<=29 4 7%
30–39 10 18% Stakeholders
40–49 16 28% Residents 35
50–59 11 19% Business owners/managers 12
60–69 9 16% Government/social services 2
>=70 7 12% Nonprofit directors/
Church pastors 7
Neighborhood Rental property owners 4
Upper Ninth Ward
(including St. Claude
& Florida Areas)
25 44% Total number of subjects 57
Lower Ninth Ward 19 33%
Desire neighborhood 13 23%
Categories add up to more than the total number of subjects because some stakeholders fit into more than one category.
It is our contention that by focusing on the meanings that returnees attach to their neighborhoods
we can learn a great deal about Ninth Ward residents’ sense of place. Specifically, we contend that
the narratives of Ninth Ward residents reflect a particularly strong sense of place, perhaps because
of the surprisingly high levels of home ownership in some of these communities. Returning
residents’ narratives suggest high levels of place attachment, identity, and dependence even
though outsiders have emphasized the supposed negative characteristics and vulnerabilities of
these neighborhoods. Consistent with the predictions of Milligan (1998) and others, we further
contend that residents became more conscious of their place attachment, identity, and dependence
after the storm and that their now conscious sense of place has motivated their return. We also
consider what role sense place plays in determining who returns, and who does not; and in turn,
what this suggests for the role sense of place might play in post-disaster community rebound.
The analysis presented here is based on qualitative interview data collected in the spring of
2007 from residents and other stakeholders engaged in the rebuilding process. The interviews
upon which the present analysis is based are part of an ongoing investigation of community
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redevelopment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To date, the research team has conducted and
recorded 285 interviews in Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes, Louisiana.
Fifty-seven of these interviews focused on rebuilding efforts in the Ninth Ward. For demo-
graphic detail on the interview subjects, see Table 1. Technically, the Ninth Ward includes the area
known as New Orleans East, but colloquially, “Ninth Ward” tends to refer to the area bounded
by the Mississippi River on the south, the boundary between Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes
on the east, Florida Avenue to Alvar Street on the north and northeast, to Chef Menteur Highway
to the north, and the west boundary created by Peoples Avenue south of Chef Menteur, merging
into Almonaster and Franklin Avenues toward the Mississippi River. It is in this area that we
focused our interviews. The Industrial Canal is the divide between the Upper Ninth (including the
St. Claude and Florida neighborhoods) to the West and the Lower Ninth to the East. The Desire
neighborhood is carved out by Florida Avenue to the south and Chef Menteur Highway to the
Residents made up the bulk of the Ninth Ward interviews (61%). Yet, recognizing that function-
ing communities depend upon a wide variety of stakeholders, the interview team included non-
resident stakeholders as well, including business owners and managers, church pastors, nonprofit
directors and managers, and rental property owners. Given the sparse and unevenly distributed
population within Ninth Ward communities at the time that the interviews were conducted, pur-
posive sampling within particular neighborhoods and within particular populations was in order.
The interview team identified potential interview subjects by the presence of a FEMA trailer in
front of the residence or other signs of rebuilding activity. In order to increase the team’s exposure
to renters (and people with fewer assets generally), we also solicited interviews in FEMA trailer
parks and apartment buildings in the area. The team also distributed flyers in the community
inviting people to participate in the study, offering an inducement of a $25 gift check. Finally,
many of the pastors we met offered to make our flyers available to members of and neighbors
surrounding their churches.
So that we could compare the sense of place possessed by those who had returned with New
Orleans residents who evacuated but did not return, we also conducted a mixed methods field
study in Houston, Texas in August 2008. The research team administered a 14-question survey to
82 subjects and conducted in-depth interviews with 38 of these respondents. The research team
also conducted in-depth interviews with an additional 21 subjects, for a total of 103 survey and/or
interview subjects. Each of the respondents had been a New Orleans resident prior to Katrina
and was at the time of the field study living in Houston. Again, given the difficulties associated
with identifying potential research subjects, the research team employed purposive sampling,
concentrating in shopping and residential areas where New Orleans evacuees were known to have
settled.4While logistical constraints kept us from focusing exclusively on former Ninth Ward
residents, 19 of the Houston respondents were residing in the Ninth Ward prior to Katrina and
12 additional residents had spent significant portions of their lives in the Ninth Ward. As will be
discussed below, the Ninth Ward respondents showed patterns similar to the other respondents.5
Given our central question concerned why residents choose to return and rebuild after the storm,
qualitative research methods offer several advantages (see Burley, Jenkins, Laska, & Davis, 2007).
First, the open-ended nature of an interview—as opposed to a survey instrument that offers a
finite list of possible responses—invites respondents to play an active role in framing and filling
in their narrative.6There are certainly some research contexts in which a survey instrument is
preferable, but in a context in which the possible range of responses is not well understood,
privileging the respondents’ narratives over the researcher’s advance understanding of possible
responses is more appropriate (Weiss, 1994). Further, by playing a more active role in framing
and filling in the details of their narrative, interview subjects provide the researcher a window
through which they can better discern what mental models (i.e., beliefs and attitudes) are guiding
their action (Denzau & North, 1994).
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
In connection with this point, the audio recordings of the interviews play a particularly important
role. Not only does an audio recording provide a useful check on the researcher’s memory, it
provides a precise record of exactly how the respondent frames problems, assesses their situation,
and crafts their response. By capturing the precise language of the narrative, the oral history is
not only an account of the events that unfold; it is an account of the framework of thought that
guides strategy formation. This level of detail is difficult to absorb upon a first hearing (when
the mind tends to focus on the basic sequence of events). Audio files, on the other hand, can be
transcribed, and once transcribed, they can be systematically coded for patterns within and across
interview transcripts.
In the following section we describe the principal elements that make up sense of place among
Ninth Ward interview subjects. We then describe the process by which this sense of place has
been transformed from background context into a conscious recognition of place attachment,
identity, and dependence, which, in turn, motivates action. We then compare these patterns to
survey and interview data collected from former New Orleans residents who have remained in
There’s a strong sense of neighborhoods here—a very strong sense. ...[O]n the surface ...this
city is racially divided, however, there’s no real difference between the black and white here.
We all love the same things, good food, good friends, all of that stuff. We like the same kind of
music. And we can get along. I mean listen, whatever our troubles are, we ...findareasonto
make a party out of it. We’ll get together with our worst enemy and we just have a good time
together and go back to being enemies tomorrow...I don’t know. It’s just something special
about this city. It’s just the overall culture of this city just makes it hard not to be here.
—Robert Jackson,7Pastor
Respondents overwhelmingly insist that New Orleans in general (and Ninth Ward neighbor-
hoods in particular) possess a unique bundle of characteristics that, when taken together, constitute
a sense of place that cannot be found or replicated elsewhere. In short: “there’s no place like
New Orleans.” Without being asked directly, 84% of the interview subjects who had returned
attributed their decision to return (at least in part) to the bundle of characteristics that make New
Orleans unique in their estimation.
Following the storm, public officials, urban planning experts, and journalists all seemed re-
signed to the notion that the Ninth Ward (particularly the Lower Ninth Ward) had little chance of
recovery. The pessimistic prognosis was based not only on the magnitude of the flood damage,
but on the dismal assessment of life in the Ninth Ward pre-Katrina. Voices on the Right por-
trayed Ninth Ward communities as havens for criminal activity and welfare dependency.8Even
sympathetic accounts suggest that the quality and quantity of social capital within New Orleans’
poorer neighborhoods is inadequate to address the challenges posed by a major disaster (Watkins,
But in contrast to these accounts, Ninth Ward residents who returned described their neighbor-
hood before Katrina as “quiet” and “friendly,” filled with hard-working people. Interview subjects
frequently credited the high rates of homeownership in the area as an important source of neigh-
borhood stability (see Table 2).10 Among those who grew up in the Ninth Ward, descriptions like
the following were typical.
Ed Williams: I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward...on Della Street. [W]e had fun... You
know, my dad worked hard. My mom and dad worked... Everybody on my block was all,
you know, all our parents worked. So we all had a...normal childhood. We wasn’t rich but we
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Homeownership Rates
St. Claude neighborhood (Upper Ninth) 45%
Florida area (Upper Ninth) 59%
Desire area (excluding government housing projects) 48%
Desire development (around government housing project) 13%
Lower Ninth Ward (excluding Holy Cross neighborhood) 59%
Lower Ninth Ward Holy Cross neighborhood 42%
Seventh Ward 33%
Central City 16%
Orleans Parish 46.5%
Louisiana 68%
US 66%
U.S. Census Bureau 2000 Census. Also see the Greater NewOr leans CommunityData Center
wasn’t poor. We was in the middle. If you wanted something you got it. You know, we’d go
to the Saints football [games]. We had season tickets and all this kind of carrying on. It was
pretty good.
And such observations were not restricted to nostalgic childhood memories but extended to life
immediately preceding Katrina as well:
Regina Thompson: [T]he Lower Ninth Ward was a very family-oriented place. We had our
problems because it was part of the urban setting. But this was the more “country part”...of
New Orleans. We have the highest rate of home ownership in the entire city...So even though
these were modest homes, most of them owned their homes outright. For instance, I could
tell you [about] my mother, she’s 84 years old. She owned her own home. And many of my
peers, their parents owned their own homes outright. So this area had ... we had a lot of
general interest ... and concern about our neighborhood. We didn’t have the problem [that]
some people had in other areas of the city where PTA meetings, there was nobody there. We
only had standing room always when we had PTA meetings. Because people were concerned
about their children and there was always parental involvement. They never had problems
about getting parent chaperones and that kind of thing. So we had a community that basically
worked together.
While problems of poverty, violence, and substance abuse were also mentioned, more often
than not interview subjects counted these among the problems likely to face any urban community.
Further, most interview subjects defined their neighborhood in opposition to such problems. An
Upper Ninth Ward resident characterized the Lower Ninth Ward as a hard-working but “poorer
area” in contrast to her neighborhood that was more “middle class,” for example. A Lower Ninth
Ward resident who lives in the Holy Cross neighborhood south of St. Claude Avenue described the
northern part of the Lower Ninth Ward between N. Claiborne and Florida Avenues as “where most
of the poor people live” but her part of the Lower Ninth Ward as “quiet,” filled with homeowners
and “settled people.” A resident north of N. Claiborne Avenue described her neighborhood as
“comfortable,” “peaceful,” and “relaxed” but the apartment building to the east of her as filled
with “devils” who she could not trust. In short, Ninth Ward residents (at least those who have
returned post-Katrina) seem capable of defining their particular community in such a way that
they resist the dominant narrative that characterizes life in the Ninth Ward as beset with social
ills. Our point is not to settle the implied dispute between outsider and insider accounts. Place
attachment, identity, and dependence and their capacity to frame and motivate action is dependent
on the perceptions of insiders. Of course, for displaced Ninth Ward residents, the perceptions of
outsiders do influence the perceptions of insiders. Repeatedly, hearing journalistic accounts of
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
how bad the crime rates are in their old neighborhoods, for instance, displaced residents might
very well begin to doubt that their communities would likely rebound. Positive descriptions
of daily community life, not concerns regarding violent crime or drug use, however, dominate
returnees’ narratives.
The distinct sense of place interview subjects describe is not one particular attribute, but a
combination of interlocking elements, including thickly woven social networks based on friends,
family, neighbors, and church membership, particular foods and music perceived to be “distinctly
New Orleans,” second line funeral processions, and a climate hospitable to outdoor social gather-
ings ranging from casual conversations on the porch to neighborhood barbecues and block parties.
Supporting these tangible elements, residents also describe an array of social freedoms that ac-
commodate public and quasi-public drinking, social gatherings that spill out beyond porches and
lawns, and music that can be heard across the neighborhood block. Though late night socializing
was a recurrent theme in many of the interview transcripts, even self-described “homebodies” re-
ported regular attendance at Sunday dinners with extended family and/or fellow church members.
In the course of pursuing the larger project of which this field study is a part, we have conducted
interviews in other Orleans Parish neighborhoods, including Gentilly, Central City, Broadmoor,
and New Orleans East. And it should be acknowledged that the interview data from these other
neighborhoods also manifest evidence of a sense of place, but it is to varying degrees and with
different emphases. Residents of Gentilly, for example, a predominately middle-class African-
American neighborhood, expressed appreciation for the distinct New Orleans music and cuisine,
but were much less likely than their Ninth Ward counterparts to emphasize the importance of
block parties, barbecues, and socializing on the porch. Further, Ninth Ward residents were more
likely to describe New Orleans in terms that suggest that it is a “rural city,” providing the social
and cultural amenities of a cosmopolitan urban environment on the one hand, and activities (e.g.,
fishing, hunting, vegetable gardening) and a relaxed pace associated with rural life on the other.
Irene and Jordan Walker, an energetic retired couple, provide an illustrative example. When we
met the Walkers, they were in the process of repairing their Lower Ninth Ward home. The Walkers
described the details of their active social life, including attendance at annual balls associated with
major parades. But it was casual weekend gatherings that allowed them to connect to friends and
neighbors in the immediate area, and also family and friends in the (even more rural) St. Bernard
Parish that lies five miles to the east. Responding to a question about what their community was
like pre-Katrina, the Walkers provided the following description.
Irene Walker: Well, we had our parties and things that was going on. We had barbecues out in
the yard.
Interviewer: How often did people do barbecues?
Irene Walker: Oh, every weekend...You could find a barbecue going on every weekend, every
Jordan Walker: And then like this time of the year, we were trying more like boiled crawfish...
crab. People would go crabbing, ...come back home, boil crawfish and crab, sit down, have
a little social.
Interviewer: And socials, how big do socials get?
Jordan Walker: Everybody on the block... If we didn’t have everybody on the block around
with us eating crabs and stuff, we called friends from [St. Bernard] Parish, called [our] children
and tell them, “We got some crab and crawfish, come on!” We have a good time... Every
weekend... Somebody always had something going on...[Indicating different houses] They
[might] have a christening, they [might] have a party going on for [someone], they [might]
have a barbecue going. They always have something going on and it was always enjoyable on
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the weekend. You can relax on a weekend. You really could. Everybody’s tired of working.
You worked all week, so it’s time to enjoy yourself.
The Walkers’ account is typical in its positive description of community life pre-Katrina, as
references to outdoor gatherings and particular foods were common. This passage also points
to the intersections between various elements that constitute the sense of place in this context,
such as the intersection between the sacred (e.g., christenings) and the secular (e.g., barbecues),
and the porous boundaries between circles of friends, neighbors, and family. This passage also
provides a hint of how different the nightlife culture is for Ninth Ward residents as opposed
to, say, French Quarter tourists. Here and elsewhere in their interview, the Walkers display a
“work hard/play hard” mentality, in which weekend socializing is the reward for a week’s hard
work.11 Further, unlike the socially disconnected nightlife of tourists, nightlife among Ninth Ward
residents grows out of their social networks of family and friends and reinforces their attachment
to their neighborhoods.
Standing alone, any one of the elements that make up the sense of place might be found or
replicated elsewhere, but the interlocking relationship between them reinforces the attachment
that residents have to New Orleans. The phrase “there’s no place like New Orleans” or its near
equivalent was a recurring motif among the sincere:
Ed Williams: No, that ain’t never crossed my mind [not to come back]. This is my home
...Why would I leave? This is my home.
And the cynical:
Ronald Jones: There’s no place like New Orleans. I’ve been in all kinds and parts of the world.
It’s just different... [T]he food, the history, the culture, the architecture, music. There’s no
place like New Orleans. And we have the best politicians money can buy. We elect politicians
that couldn’t get elected as a dog catcher in other states. [Laughter] There’s something about
New Orleans.
Among New Orleans natives:
Robert Jackson: New Orleans is a city that is unlike any other place I’ve ever been...Everything
about it is unique.
And among transplants:
Martin Davis: The flavor of New Orleans is unlike any other, and I’ve been to a lot of cities,
I’ve lived in a lot of cities in my lifetime, and everywhere from the east coast to the west coast,
and there’s nothing like New Orleans.
Of course, it could be objected that the same could be said of any place; that while the particular
configuration of elements might be different, every city, town, or village could claim some unique
set of characteristics that make it feel special to the residents who call it home. But not every place
has been so disparaged as possessing few redeemable qualities and of those communities that
have been so condemned, few if any have suffered a level of destruction on par with post-Katrina
flooding. So, while residents from many contexts can possess a strong sense of place, the Ninth
Ward residents’ insistence that “there’s no place like New Orleans” is somewhat remarkable since,
at least, for those who have returned, it is overriding otherwise negative perceptions that would
lead people to abandon plans of returning. Further, sense of place is doing a great deal of “work”
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
in the context of Ninth Ward neighborhoods in that it is having at least some compensating effect
for the lack of other resources needed to meet the physical, emotional, and financial challenges
associated with rebuilding.
Finally, saying that most contexts could be described as offering a unique set of qualities and
characteristics is not the same as saying that people do describe those contexts in such terms.
Under ordinary circumstances, we might typically possess a vague sense of place. But, for the
most part, it does not command our attention and to the extent that it influences our action, we
are more likely than not unaware of this guidance (Milligan, 1998). The interview data, on the
other hand, suggest that people who have returned to the Ninth Ward are very much aware of
their sense of place. In this context and in this historical moment, sense of place has achieved
a level of articulate knowledge, as opposed to tacit knowledge that operates in the background.
How this transformation happens is the subject of the next section.
I’m just not used to being nowhere but New Orleans because this is my home. And I’m just
used to New Orleans because Shreveport, they have a lot of apartments, not houses. See, we
used to sitting outside on the porch and catching a breath of fresh air and seeing people. In
Shreveport, you don’t see no people. You don’t see nothing...You might see [children] playing
[but] after a while there ain’t nobody out there. They go inside early. They don’t do nothing.
It’s just boring. ... I didn’t like Shreveport...I said, “I wish they hurry up, so I can go home.
I’m ready to go home.”
—Tamara Johnson,Resident
It is in unsettled times that people gain a kind of “cultural distance” and become aware, perhaps
for the first time, of how old cultural paradigms shape their action because they can now “see”
it from the perspective of the new competing paradigm (Swidler, 1986). The meanings that
individuals attach to their neighborhoods sometimes only become articulate when those sites are
lost (Milligan, 1998). The interview data under consideration here suggest that a similar process
was unfolding after the storm. Katrina evacuees were not just physically distanced from their old
environment; they were culturally distanced as well. In the course of the interviews, respondents
were asked to describe their situation after evacuation and before their return. These descriptions
and/or the follow-up question “What made you decide to come back to New Orleans?” triggered
spontaneous comparisons between their evacuation cities and New Orleans. Without being asked
directly, more than a third of the interview respondents compared their evacuation site to New
Orleans, and of these, 85%attributed their decision to return to New Orleans, at least in part, to
how their quality of life had suffered as a consequence of not having access to amenities uniquely
attributed to New Orleans. Stated another way, place dependence factored heavily in decisions to
return and attempt to rebuild after Katrina.
For some, logistical matters weighed heavily in their negative assessment of life outside New
Orleans, citing the lack of public transportation and the need for a car to get to work and shopping.
For others, it was the loss of family in close proximity. More significantly, the transcripts reveal
that the sudden and prolonged separation from New Orleans was key to “seeing” New Orleans
as unique and precious, and in these accounts, the issues went well beyond the logistic and
practical. The following passage illustrates how dislocation allows one to “see” what is otherwise
operating behind the shroud. In response to a question about why people return, Robert Jackson
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Robert Jackson: There’s food here that you will find no place else in this country. Period.
Interviewer: Can you give me an example?
Robert Jackson: We have red beans and rice, hot sausages, pickled pork, gumbo. We have
the best sea food in the country, bar-none. There’s po-boys. I mean you don’t have po-boys
anyplace else. Gracious, I mean ... Shrimp etouffee, crawfish bisque... You can’t get that
anyplace but New Orleans. You just can’t. I found out—this was interesting to me—we use
pickled pork a lot in seasonings. It goes in beans. It goes in greens. It goes in all kinds of stuff.
It’s a seasoning meat. And rather than fresh pork, it’s pickled. I found out after the storm that
the only place that you can buy pickled pork is in New Orleans. I mean I was in Ville Platte,
Louisiana which is maybe 130–140 miles from here. Cajun country, heart of Cajun country.
Of course [you’d think] you’re going to find it there. [But you] couldn’t find it anyplace. Went
to Alexandria, Louisiana... trying to find pickled pork. I went to the meat market, a guy told
me. I said, do you sell pickled pork? He said normally we sell it. I said, do you have any?
He said no. He said to come back in about six weeks I’ll have some. And I thought he was
being funny you know. I said yeah right. He said no I’m serious. He said we normally stock it.
But the only place that you can buy the pickled pork is in New Orleans. And the factory got
flooded. But they’re rebuilding and they say they’ll be back up in business in about six weeks.
So you come back in six weeks, I’ll have you some. And that was the first time that I knew
that pickled pork is a uniquely New Orleans thing. I grew up with it all of my life. You won’t
find or you’ll hardly find coffee with chicory anywhere but in New Orleans. ... I mean those
kinds of things you won’t find in any place. So the food is different. The seasonings, the spices
that we use is just different.12
The physical distance away from New Orleans provided displaced residents the opportunity to
recognize their place dependence, which, while they were living in New Orleans, escaped notice.
While anyone finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings might feel a sense of loss, the
social and cultural distance the evacuation experience creates is likely more pronounced among
residents who have deep familial roots in New Orleans. While transplants could rely on extended
kin in other parts of the country, large extended families all living in New Orleans were unable
to render aid to one another as they were all caught in the same predicament. As Ninth Ward
communities are the site of dense family networks, it is not surprising that many found themselves
in a rented apartment in an unfamiliar city over the course of their evacuation experience rather
than in a relative’s home (Nigg, Barnshaw, & Torres, 2006).13 What once seemed ordinary and
just a mundane aspect of daily life now was revealed to be particular to life in New Orleans and
was now viewed as precious and valuable.
Margaret Scott: A lot a people be confined in different places. Like Tennessee, people just go
home from work and they don’t come outside. New Orleans people come outside...because
the weather is nice here. And they come outside. They do their flowers. They wash their car,
and they just sit out on their porch. You notice how a lot a people sitting out now? ...And
even in the evening, they do their work in the morning and they come out and they sit out and
they listen to their music and their radios and stuff like that. And it be pretty outside and they
fellowship with one another. They just don’t stay confined in their house.
Apartment life also meant that there were few to no social buffers between evacuees and their
native counterparts. Without Houston-based relatives and friends available to mediate relation-
ships between Katrina evacuees and native Houstonians, for example, displaced New Orleanians
had to read the new context on their own, no doubt frequently reading the context in such a way
that emphasized their status as outsiders. In turn, activities New Orleanians associated with the
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
“good life” were often seen as deviant by their new neighbors. As appreciative as he was for the
help he received in Houston, Ed Williamsdiscovered how constrained his social liberties were
outside the New Orleans context:
Ed Williams: That’s just a part of who we are, part of our culture. We sit down, we barbecue,
we have our crawfish. I went out there today and washed the pot out, we barbecued last week.
It’s just something we do. We get off from work early, go spend $30, $40, $50, $60 buy a sack
of crawfish, cook them, and sit outside and eat. Like I said, that’s just New Orleans. That’s
what we couldn’t do when we went to Houston, Texas or wherever. You know? It feels good,
don’t get me wrong. I love what they’ve done, but at the same token, it’s not home. We not used
to [living in apartments]. With the help of people we got our apartment. But see, we couldn’t
even sit outside. It was the rules—you don’t sit outside. [I would say...] “This is my apartment
here. This is my front door. I can’t come outside?” If me and my wife want to sit in our lawn
chairs, and sit here and drink us a beer or something, and watch the kids play in the street. It’s
just something they don’t do. And I couldn’t get adjusted to that.
The fact that so many Ninth Ward residents were kept away from their property for much
longer than residents of other neighborhoods (at first through restrictions and then through the
slow delivery of municipal services) likely made the effects of their social and cultural distance
even more pronounced as the experience wore on. The length of time that Ninth Ward residents
spent in receiving cities took its toll. Not only did the unfamiliar environment wear on evacuees
as time passed; time also seemed to erode the initial wave of sentiment and support offered by
residents in receiving cities. One interview subject observed that in addition to length of time,
social distance played an important role in the erosion of sympathy:
Renee Lewis: After a time we were not welcomed in [Baton Rouge]. It was kind of like—you
ever had a relative come unexpected and stay too long? That’s what happened. And because
we were so infiltrating in the schools and in the [various] systems and in the churches and in
the community. And we refused to assimilate to them. Not in any conscious way, but it was
assaulting, which morphed into insulting... We are a brasher, more assailing group and it’s
okay when you’re in your own element, but when you take that outside of your element, it’s
received and perceived differently.
Given a comment Lewis had made earlier in the interview about Baton Rouge being “a rather
beige city,” the interviewer asked if, in her view, race was the primary factor that made people
feel like unwelcome guests. She responded that the lack of racial diversity in Baton Rouge was
part of what made her miss New Orleans, but the sense of being an outsider in Baton Rouge
was prevalent even when she was among other African Americans. For example, like many other
people we interviewed, Lewis recoiled when she heard herself described as a “Katrina refugee,”
suggesting that the insider/outsider dynamic was more complex than race alone:
Renee Lewis: When my 16-year-old granddaughter came from school and she said to me,
“They call us the Katrina children, the Katrina kids,” and I looked at it grow and grow and
grow to a resentment. Like, she was not used to being poor. And we were always economically
deprived, but we were never poor. She was not used to people looking at her in a pitiable kind
of way. And people called us refugees. That still hurts. That still hurts because implicit in that
term is that I’m from someplace other than here. A refugee is a foreign person who has been
evacuated or dropped to another place. And so there’s a “benevolent benefactor” that is there,
too. I’m 55 years old; I’ve always lived in the United States of America. I have never received
public benefits of any kind except for food stamps that I received after Katrina. I paid my
taxes; I contributed to my community. I go to PTA meetings; I give to the poor. I ain’t no damn
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refugee; never been no damn refugee. In the churches, as people give you that look...and it
goes from [a sympathetic] “Oh, you’re from New Orleans,” to [a reserved] “Hmm, you’re from
New Orleans” to [a hostile] “I could tell you’re from New Orleans.” [It’s] very, very subtle. So
it was not only a white and black thing, but it was a cultural thing.14
This passage suggests that the evacuation experience separated people not only from their
homes, but from their identity. Indeed, interview subjects exhibited and expressed a strong place
identity. In New Orleans, Renee Lewis, though economically deprived, was a solid citizen who
met her financial and emotional responsibilities to her family and was a leader in her church
and community. To the residents of Baton Rouge, she became a “poor refugee on government
assistance.” For Lewis, returning to New Orleans was not just about recapturing “home,” it was
about recapturing her sense of identity.
Since August 2005, Ninth Ward residents have certainly been in the throes of unsettled times.
As a result of the abrupt and frequently prolonged evacuation to an unfamiliar context, residents
were able to recognize their place attachment, identity, and dependence, that is, they were
able to identify distinguishing characteristics of their home environment. Once identified and
articulated, recapturing their sense of place became an important factor in their decisions to
While the interview data drawn from those who have returned to New Orleans demonstrate
clear patterns of place attachment, identity, and dependence, these data alone do not tell us
whether those who have not returned to New Orleans possess similar or different patterns of
attachment. It could be that those who did not possess a strong sense of place attachment to the
Ninth Ward (or New Orleans generally) saw their relocation to another city as an opportunity to
begin a new life in a better place. Alternatively, it could be that people still living in evacuation
cities several years after the event place as high a value on life in their New Orleans neighbor-
hood as those who have returned, but face circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to
In order to understand whether sense of place is important in determining who returns, the
research team surveyed and/or interviewed 103 former New Orleans residents who evacuated to
Houston, and were still living there in August 2008. We asked respondents to recall their plans in
the first few months following the storm, that is, was their initial plan to return to New Orleans,
stay in Houston, move to another city, or were they uncertain. We asked them why this was their
plan (or why they were uncertain). We then asked them to describe their current plan, again,
whether they now planned to stay in Houston, return to New Orleans, move to another city, or if
they were still uncertain, explain why this was their plan (or why they were uncertain). Further,
we asked respondents to rank their preference for life in Houston versus life in New Orleans and
to provide reasons for their preference.
When asked to rank their preference, nearly half (47%) of the Houston respondents preferred
Houston to New Orleans (see Table 3).15 The principal reasons cited for preferring Houston over
New Orleans were that in Houston respondents had found better schools, better jobs, an improved
quality of life, lower crime, better housing, and/or better healthcare (see Table 4).
For some, the realization that life would be better in Houston was immediate. Of the 48
respondents who expressed a preference for Houston over New Orleans, 22 (46%) indicated that
by November 2005 they planned to stay in Houston permanently. It was this group that was most
likely to express sentiments like “Katrina turned out to be a blessing,” and “this was a chance for
a fresh start.” For others, the preference for Houston grew over time. By August 2008, the number
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
Houston Field Study, City Preferences
No. of Respondents Percentage
Respondents living in Ninth Ward just prior to Katrina 19
Respondents who preferred Houston over New Orleans (overall) 48 47%
Respondents who preferred New Orleans over Houston (overall) 55 53%
Respondents who preferred Houston over New Orleans (respondents
living in Ninth Ward just prior to Katrina only)
9 47%
Respondents who preferred New Orleans over Houston (respondents
living in Ninth Ward just prior to Katrina only)
10 53%
Total number of respondents 103
Most Common Reasons for Preferring Houston/New Orleans
Respondents Preferring Houston over Respondents Preferring New Orleans over
New OrleansHouston
Better schools in Houston 17 35% New Orleans is home 38 69%
Found a better job in Houston 17 35% Prefer New Orleans’ unique culture 27 49%
Overall quality of life better in Houston 16 33% Overall quality of life better in New Orleans 19 35%
Lower crime in Houston 15 31% Family/friendship networks in New Orleans 15 27%
Better housing in Houston 13 27% Better transportation in New Orleans 13 24%
Better access to healthcare in Houston 10 21% People are friendlier in New Orleans 10 18%
Number of respondents 48 Number of respondents 55
Respondents were asked to name as many reasons as they liked, so responses are not mutually exclusive.
of (Houston-preferring) respondents planning to stay in Houston grew from 22 to 41 (85%). In
short, nearly half of the respondents appear to have self-selected away from New Orleans because
they found a better life in Houston.
But what of the 55 respondents who expressed a preference (and more often than not, a strong
preference) for New Orleans, but nonetheless found themselves still living in Houston 3 years after
the storm? Like their counterparts who had returned, they attributed to New Orleans qualities
that could only be found there, such as the feeling of home, a unique culture, and extended
networks of friends and family (see Table 4). Even the seemingly mundane attribute of “better
transportation” loomed large in the minds of people who depended on public transportation to
lead independent and productive lives—something many found harder to do in Houston. The
self-selection explanation that seems to fit the Houston-preferring respondents does not help us
understand why these New Orleans-preferring respondents remain in Houston.
As we might expect, practical considerations emerged as critical factors. Houston respondents,
for example, were much less likely to be homeowners (31%) than respondents who had returned
to their Ninth Ward neighborhood (72%). Without a property to return to, uncertain employment
prospects, and a FEMA trailer program that favored homeowners, many renters could no longer
afford New Orleans rents, even in previously affordable neighborhoods. Further, issues of path
dependence (such as long-term lease agreements and employment contracts) have kept people in
Houston who might otherwise have returned to New Orleans. That said, and as seen in Table 5,
the lack of quality schools in New Orleans and the sense that New Orleans is “just not the same
New Orleans” were the most dominant factors respondents identified as inhibiting their return.
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Most Significant Factor Inhibiting Return among Those Who Prefer New Orleans to Houston
Number of Respondents 55
1. Lack of quality schools in New Orleans 15 27%
2. Just isn’t the same New Orleans 12 22%
3. Path dependence issues (locked into a lease, employment contract, etc.) 11 20%
4. Cost of living (including cost of housing) 6 11%
5. Health issues 47%
6. Other 47%
Not clear what the inhibiting factor is preventing return 3 6%
These two factors hold particular relevance for the potential role sense of place can play in
postdisaster community rebound. In describing the overriding issue of schools, it was often made
clear that the schools were the only reason people were willing to stay in Houston. As one
respondent remarked,
Latreece Cook: My body [is] here, but my heart and mind [are] still in New Orleans...I’m
kind of just sticking it out [in Houston] for my daughter. The schools here are better. ... I
mean lately I’ve been going home [to New Orleans] every other weekend because most of my
family is still there, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to go home right now because schools are
scarce and everything and I don’t want to just put her in a classroom of forty children [just]
because I want to go home. ...I don’t want to do that to her. So I’m just kind of sticking it out
for her, but I really, really, really want to go home.
As this respondent suggests, the specialness of New Orleans has to do with family, and it is
only another family-related concern (in this case, her daughter’s education) that could trump the
pull of home. A similar sentiment was expressed by people who wanted to return to New Orleans
but had to care for an elderly or sick relative who was not physically able to manage life in
post-Katrina New Orleans. The very things that constitute a sense of place (such as family) can
prevent people from returning home if key institutions like schools and hospitals are lacking. This
suggests that the failure to swiftly reopen schools and hospitals has left a potentially important
social resource (the sense of place possessed by many people who remain in evacuation cities)
The refrain “it’s just not the same New Orleans” heard so frequently in the Houston-based
interviews points simultaneously to the strong sense of place many respondents attribute to
pre-Katrina New Orleans and to the devastating toll the flood has taken on the sense of place
post-Katrina. The magnitude of this toll is widely acknowledged by returnees and nonreturnees
alike. But a key difference suggests itself when returnees and nonreturnees describe their po-
tential role in recreating what has been lost. Those who have returned were far more likely to
describe a particular role they could play in restoring (at least a small part of) what was lost. For
example, because they are able-bodied retirees with construction skills, Irene and Jordan Walker
could play a key role in restoring the extended network of family and friends that defined their
pre-Katrina life. In contrast, Houston respondents were more likely to express a feeling of pow-
erlessness in recreating their pre-Katrina life, because of poor health, or the fact that extended
family was now scattered across different cities, or because they didn’t know where to begin
when faced with the challenge of repairing their damaged property. Thus, the ability to imagine
“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”
one’s role in recreating a sense of place after it has been devastated by disaster may be just as
important in determining who returns as the overall level of commitment one has to a particular
What people believe to be true about the world (and not just disembodied facts) tends to guide
our behavior. The sense of place that Ninth Ward residents articulated during our interviews is
not the only sentiment shared among the interview subjects but it was far and away the most
widely held and most richly detailed. We argue that the interview data considered here suggest
that the evacuation experience created a context in which Ninth Ward residents’ sense of place
was raised up to the level of consciousness and that the disruption in their place attachment made
return desirable since their sense of contentment, well-being, and even self could only be found
in New Orleans.
Though the arguments we make about sense of place are situated within one particular context
in one particular historical moment, we believe that the analysis presented here points the way
toward a larger discussion about the role sense of place can play in guiding action at an individual
level and in overcoming complex social coordination problems, particularly those presented by a
post-disaster context.
After the storm and subsequent flooding, the collective action problem loomed large throughout
New Orleans. Without the assurance that others would also return, residents, businesses, and other
stakeholders were reluctant to commit to the rebuilding process. Many communities benefited
from the signaling effects of “first movers” like schools, churches, and key businesses returning.
The interview data examined here and data from other neighborhoods in Orleans and St. Bernard
Parishes suggest that the return of key services has a positive anchoring effect (Chamlee-Wright,
2008). When a grocery store returns, for example, people come to expect that the community will
rebound. In turn, this positive expectation reduces the perceived risks of returning. Unfortunately,
such signs of life were far slower to emerge in much of the Ninth Ward. And each day that
government restrictions kept residents from their homes and delayed the provision of municipal
services, it became more likely that residents would anchor their expectations around the negative
outcome—that the community would not rebound.
The belief that there is “no place like New Orleans” is significant not only because so many
of the respondents held it to be true, but also because they expected others to hold it as well,
suggesting some hope of a positive anchoring effect. The fact that half of the Houston-based
respondents expressed a sense of place that closely resembles the sentiments expressed by Ninth
Ward returnees suggests that it is not only those who have returned who place a high value on
their New Orleans neighborhoods. But the Houston-based data also suggest that in order for a
strong sense of place to be effective in fostering community rebound, key logistical problems
(such as schools and hospitals reopening) are critical if this potential is to be tapped. Further, the
Houston-based data suggest that in order to foster community rebound, a strong sense of place
must be complemented by an ability to imagine how one can play an active role in recreating the
sense of place that disaster destroys. Whether these complementary factors will align in favor of
a robust recovery in Ninth Ward communities has yet to be determined and the question can serve
as a guide for future inquiry.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: We would like to thank the members of the research team who helped us conduct the
interviews for this project and Kathryn Linnenberg for her assistance in training the interview team. We would
also like to thank the Mercatus Center for their generous financial support. The usual caveat applies.
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1 For earlier discussions of the intersection between race and disaster, see: Bolin and Bolton (1986); Peacock,
Morrow, and Gladwin (1997); Erickson (1994); Fothergill, Maestas, and De Rouen Darlington (2002); and
Klinenberg (2003).
2 See GCR & Associates Population Estimates for Orleans Parish July 2007:
According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, in June 2008 the rate of return was 32% in
the Desire area, 34% in the Florida area, 66% in St. Claude, and 59% in St. Roch (all in the Upper Ninth
Ward), 35% in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, and 11% in the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward.
3 Because of the comparatively lower flood depths in the Bywater and Marigny areas south of St. Claude and
Burgundy Streets, the research team concentrated on residents living outside these particular parts of the Ninth
War d .
4 As the surveys were brief, no compensation was offered to these survey respondents.
5 Demographically, the Houston field study respondents were similar to the New Orleans-based Ninth Ward
respondents in that both groups are predominantly African-American and demonstrate a similar distribution
in age. Two telling differences do exist, however, between the Houston and New Orleans field studies. The
gender balance favoring males in New Orleans (67%) was reversed in Houston (30%). This difference may
be due, at least in part, to the physical demands associated with rebuilding. Second, the predominance of
homeownership among Ninth Ward returnees (72%) was reversed in the Houston study (31%). Again, this is
not surprising, and consistent with the sense of place literature, given that homeowners have an incentive to
preserve and redevelop the value of an important asset in the wake of catastrophic damage.
6 The interviews conducted for this study were structured around the subject’s pre-Katrina history, including
family, work, social, religious, and community life, the subject’s experience during and immediately following
the storm, their experience away from New Orleans, and their eventual return.
7 Whenever possible, we protect the identity of the interview subject. Names with the “” superscript are
8 See, for example, Thomas Brewton’s commentary posted just days after the disaster: http://www.
9 For an alternative perspective, see Rodr´
ıguez, Trainor, and Quarantelli (2006).
10 Pre-Katrina Ninth Ward homeownership rates that ranged from 42% to 59% (excluding government housing
projects), may not seem remarkable given the Orleans Parish average of 46.5%, but this range stands in stark
contrast to other poor communities in Orleans Parish, like the Seventh Ward with a 33% pre-Katrina rate of
homeownership or Central City with a 16% pre-Katrina homeownership rate.
11 “Hard work” at the time we met the Walkers was the work of repairing their home. In the interview, Mrs.
Walker discussed how she learned to hang sheetrock and Mr. Walker referenced his own efforts to repair their
12 See Storr (2008) for discussion of the market as a social space.
13 The fact that Superdome and Convention Center evacuees (among whom the poor were disproportionately
represented) were scattered to cities they had no part in choosing meant that they were exposed to the new
context without the “buffer” a network of family and friends would provide.
14 Similar sentiments were echoed in the Houston-based interviews, suggesting that the expressions of resentment
toward New Orleanians grew more intense as time passed.
15 As seen in Table 3, the rate of preference among those who had been living in the Ninth Ward just prior to
Katrina is the same as the overall rate of preference across the sample.
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... Likewise, several investigations observed that sense of place is related to connection with nature and environmentalism [50,55]. Since this correlation is positive, sense of place may be a potential indicator for understanding the migration flows of victims who leave their homes due to a natural disaster [56,57]. In general, people who have a high sense of place tend to stay in their residences despite the consequences of the natural disaster [58]. ...
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Social commitment to the environment, ecological attitudes and sense of place are essential indicators for the development of public policies aimed at environmental sustainability. Natural disasters are major events that affect people's well-being and perception of their environment. The objective of this research was to test the effects and consequences of the eruption of the volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma on 502 participants during a 10-month follow up. Of the total sample, 281 were direct victims of the volcanic eruptions and 221 participants formed the control group. Multiple analyses of variance were applied with repeated measures and by distinguishing the victim group and the control group participants. Three quadratic functions were also fitted relating the time variable to the following indicators: ecological attitudes, sense of place and perceived anxiety levels. In addition, the degree of commitment to nature was measured. The results found that this natural disaster predicted reductions in pro-ecological attitudes with an overall weight of 30.8% (43.9% for the victim group only) and 26.3% (36.8% for the victim group only) in sense of place. On the other hand, when analyzing stress levels, the natural disaster was able to explain 21.2% overall (92.8% for the victim group only) of the increases. The quadratic functions indicated that reductions and increases tended to stabilize two months after the natural disaster. We discuss the theorizing implicit in these effects and the implications they have for the development of public policies for environmental sustainability.
... Whereas Fried (2000) asserted that rebuilding efforts can become dysfunctional when communities "cling to the fragments of a home" that cannot be rebuilt (p. 202), Chamlee-Wright and Storr (2009) argued in favour of individual agency. After a disaster, individuals decide whether to relocate or to rebuild a community that is well-suited to their needs. ...
Placemaking is a fluid term with various conceptualisations, but individuals’ understanding of the term may shape the impact of placemaking projects. This paper aimed to identify conceptualisations of placemaking from two perspectives, theory and practice in the Australian context, and develop an analytical framework for categorising placemaking understandings. Through a systematic literature review (SLR) of 77 articles, a set of four placemaking themes was developed. These themes were expanded through the coding of placemaking definitions from 26 Australian placemaking practitioners gathered through a survey, thus creating a Placemaking Understanding Framework (PUF). The PUF highlighted gaps and overlaps amongst academics and Australian practitioners, showcasing how academia tends to frame placemaking as a process producing relational outcomes (like place attachment, sense of belonging, and connection to nature), whereas Australian practitioners focused on both the relational and physical outcomes of placemaking. By illustrating the breadth of perspectives in placemaking, this study builds on the academia-industry nexus for future placemaking strategies.
... Participants described feeling their community underwent such extreme changes and had not recovered, so it was not the same place anymore. Numerous studies found that the level of damage to the built environment affected whether people rebuilt or relocated (Bukvic, Smith, and Zhang 2015;Chamlee-Wright and Storr 2009;Cong et al. 2017;Green and Olshansky 2012;Kirschenbaum 1996;Miller and Rivera 2007;Myers et al. 2008;Wilson and Stein 2006). Most cases reported a positive relationship: the more damage done by the disaster, the more likely the household was to relocate. ...
Household relocation decisions after disasters are influenced by many factors. Among others, these include pre- and post-event community conditions, disaster experience, available financial and social resources, place attachment, risk perceptions, and demographics. This paper provides a synthesis of the body of knowledge surrounding voluntary household relocation decisions. Simply stated, we are focused on better understanding what influences the decision to stay somewhere that has been affected by disaster or permanently leave it. This work provides two main contributions by characterizing and synthesizing research exploring relocation drivers. First, we provide several new directions for the study of this issue by proposing theoretical models not commonly used in this area of research with potential to provide insight. Second, we critically discuss the need for improvements in the conceptualization and measurement of these concepts.
... Previous literature confirms that a community-specific survey of public opinion could fill those gaps and it has been used widely to evaluate the individualistic response to natural disasters and identify a set of community capacities that could predict a resilient response (Buikstra et al. 2010;Chamlee-Wright and Storr 2009;Kulig et al. 2008;Madsen and O'Mullan 2016;Sherrieb et al. 2010Sherrieb et al. , 2012Wyche et al. 2011). However, most of the field survey studies on measuring resilience often derive the community-factors from subjective survey items. ...
... Amid these factors, there is an undeniable 'sense of place' felt by many New Orleanians. As described by Chamlee-Wright and Storr [25]. when referring to Lower Ninth Ward residents returning after Hurricane Katrina, "Returning residents believe[d] that New Orleans in general (and their Ninth Ward neighborhoods in particular) possess[ed] a unique bundle of characteristics that, when taken together, [could not] be found or replicated elsewhere (p. ...
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Objective: We employed the Our Voice citizen scientist method using a mobile application (app) to identify and contextualize neighborhood-level features influencing food access and wellbeing in New Orleans, Louisiana. Design: A three-phase, multi-method study comprised of: (1) a researcher-assisted tag-a-long neighborhood walk (referred to as a 'journey') with the Discovery Tool (DT) app to document neighborhood-level features via geo-coded photos and audio-recorded narratives; (2) a post-journey interview to enable citizen scientists to share their lived experiences; and (3) a community meeting with citizen scientists and local stakeholders. Setting: Various neighborhoods in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Participants: Citizen Scientists (i.e., residents) aged 18 years and older. Main outcome measure(s): Features that influence food access and health behaviors. Analysis: Descriptive statistics and a thematic content analysis were conducted to assess survey and app data. Results: Citizen scientists (N = 14) captured 178 photos and 184 audio narratives. Eight major themes were identified: safety; walkability; aesthetics; amenities; food; health services; neighborhood changes; and infrastructure/city planning. The post-journey interview provided insights around the abovementioned themes. The community meeting demonstrated the willingness of citizen scientists and stakeholders to convene and discuss issues and relevant solutions. Conclusions and implications: Findings demonstrate the ability of technology and citizen science to help better understand the complexities of New Orleans' past, present and distinct culture-and implications for food access and wellbeing in the context of trauma in an urban ecosystem.
Climate change-related shocks and stresses are prompting the movement of hundreds of thousands. The purpose of this study is to understand the experiences of climate change migrants, people displaced from these crises from the initial impacts of the hazard to their recent arrivals in a new location. To do so we draw on focus group discussions with Puerto Ricans in South and Central Florida displaced by 2017 Hurricane Maria. We document the factors leading up to the hurricane that shaped their preparedness, their relocation decisions, and their post-relocation experiences in the initial seven months following the hurricane. We find that for these Puerto Ricans, underlying neglect, discrimination, and other social processes transformed Maria from a hazard to a disaster with devastating economic, social, and physical and mental health effects, while also creating challenges in early recovery. However, migrants were also able to draw on their faith, community and educational institutions, and new neighbours as sources of strength and coping. We argue that since these factors are socially produced, a vulnerability perspective is critical to understanding the experiences of climate migrants. We draw on this perspective to conclude with research and policy implications.
Elinor Ostrom studied the ways in which communities organize themselves to overcome collective challenges such as management of a common-pool resource or the provision of safety, highlighting co-production between citizens and police. Similarly, Viviana Zelizer has identified “circuits of commerce,” or communities of exchange that arise within the larger economy to solve specific problems confronting the group. Both Ostrom and Zelizer engage case studies and also have considered the general characteristics that allow for communities to engage in social coordination. Post-disaster recovery presents a collective challenge. Although there is great diversity in how communities organize, still, there are, arguably, general characteristics that support social coordination and in turn, bring about recovery. This chapter considers those characteristics drawing on case studies from Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, LA, 2005) and Superstorm Sandy (New York, NY, 2012).
Social science research on disaster-affected communities uses social capital to explain a variety of post-disaster outcomes. A promising recent line of inquiry looks at how disasters generate new forms of social capital, and reinvigorate place-based social networks and place attachment. Using survey data collected from 407 Calgary residents affected by the catastrophic 2013 Southern Alberta Flood, as well as interview data from 40 residents, this article examines factors that contributed to residents’ expansion of their social networks during the disaster, and the impact of expanded social networks on residents’ post-disaster place attachment and civic engagement. Findings reveal that people most affected by the flood, i.e., those who experienced house flooding and longer evacuations, were most likely to make new contacts during the disaster and immediately after it. However, results also indicate that these new forms of social capital did not translate into greater place attachment, even though they did engender some post-flood civic engagement. Overall, inundation, evacuation, and displacement are predictive of lesser post-disaster place attachment. The article concludes by discussing the relevance of the findings for theory and disaster scholarship.
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This report is an overview of a year-long study of Katrina evacuees living in Houston. Respondents were interviewed at three different times. The questionnaire was self-administrated (although respondents who could not read had the questionnaire read to them). The findings reported here constitute a brief overview of a large project involving 1,081 respondents.
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Using several data sources including an extensive database of media reports and a series of government documents, but relying primarily on the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center’s field research in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the authors describe the nontraditional behavior that emerged in that catastrophe. They also discuss the prosocial behavior (much of it emergent) that was by far the primary response to this event, despite widespread media reports of massive antisocial behavior. Their study focuses on individual and group reactions in Louisiana during the first three weeks following the hurricane. The authors limit their systematic analyses of emergent behavior to five groupings: hotels, hospitals, neighborhood groups, rescue teams, and the Joint Field Office. Their analysis shows that most of the improvisations undertaken helped in dealing with the various problems that continued to emerge following Katrina. The various social systems and the people in them rose to the demanding challenges of a catastrophe.
Culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a repertoire or "tool kit" of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct "strategies of action." Two models of cultural influence are developed, for settled and unsettled cultural periods. In settled periods, culture independently influences action, but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action. In unsettled cultural periods, explicit ideologies directly govern action, but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run. This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic, differentiated arguments about culture's causal role in shaping action.