Psychologist Kermit Crawford, PhD, watched as a New Orleans evacuee stepped off a plane at Massachusetts's Hanscom Air Force Base, hauling a large plastic bag full of food and myriad jars of hot sauces.
Crawford asked her why she salvaged the food, rather than clothes or mementos. She smiled as she said, "As long as I can have the flavors of New Orleans's hot sauces in my food, I'll be okay."
Recognizing evacuees' efforts to salvage the remnants of their culture, like this woman's hot sauces, is among the most important facets of providing psychological first aid, says Crawford, program director of the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston University's School of Medicine. "To think solely of the physical destruction that was done [by the storm] is to ignore the destruction of evacuees' cultural safety net," he says.
As New Orleans evacuees adjust to their newfound homes in cities and towns across the country, they have to rebuild their culture and kinship networks, Crawford says.
And when psychologist responders help those evacuee groups, like New Orleanean blacks, with their adjustment, they need to be aware of the hallmarks of those cultures, like extensive extended family networks, adds Anderson J. Franklin, PhD, a professor at the City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "Responders need to understand that for many evacuees, family extends beyond blood-there's a real sense of community that is like family," he says.
Franklin suggests that extended family provides the best means of preserving evacuees' culture, as well as one of the lone ways in which some evacuees feel secure in their new surroundings.
For instance, one woman that Crawford spoke with said her evacuation was the first time that she had left New Orleans without the 18 members of extended family.
To reach evacuees, psychological and other health-care providers must partner with social networks, such as churches, clubs and neighborhood organizations, to help restore evacuees' sense of community in their new surroundings, says Franklin.
Crawford and other responders also seek to understand the role religion plays in an evacuees' disaster response. Crawford, for example, encountered people who believed that New Orleans was hit because God enacted revenge on the city for its "unrighteous culture." But he also witnessed a strong belief that God will bring them through this, he says. "We have to factor that into our decision-making, as to what kinds of services they will take."