It's been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and the vivid images ofdestruction and despair have begun to fade from public memory. But Katrina's legacy still affects the daily lives of city residents as they struggle to rebuild homes, businesses and the city itself. Some industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists are helping New Orleans businesses and institutions-and the people who work in them-get back ontheir feet.
Shortly after the hurricane hit, APA's Div. 14 (Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology-SIOP) formed the Katrina Aid and Relief Effort (KARE) committee to help members, student affiliates and business owners who were devastated by the storm. Div. 13 (Society of Consulting Psychology) joined SIOP in offering pro-bono consulting through KARE's Web-based "Help and Response" center, where individuals and businesses could ask for or offer assistance. KARE also sponsored atwo-day outreach program at APA's 2006 Annual Convention in New Orleans. But the psychologists' efforts didn't end there-over the last few years they have teamed up with organizations such as the police, the Audubon Nature Institute and the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA-SPCA) to help the New Orleans business community rebuild and revive the city.
When 911 needs help
During Katrina, many members of the New Orleans police force strived to save others, while they themselves lost their homes and loved ones in the storm. Hundreds of police left the city after the storm, and the force is now struggling to keep the city safe, despite their reduced staff.
Police department officials approached KARE at the two-day event in August about developing a selection system for sergeants, says Leaetta Hough, PhD, SIOP past-president. She and Donna Denning, PhD, a consultant for the Los Angeles city civil service department, conducted a study to identify the skills and abilities candidates need to do the job well.
The psychologists interviewed sergeants, patrol officers and supervisors, and they helped the civil service identify a suite of tests to use for the sergeants exam.
In a parallel effort, Damon Bryant, PhD, a visiting professor at Tulane University, refined the interactive portion of the sergeant's exam. What used to be a passive, VCR presentation is now an interactive, video-based simulation that gives applicants job-related tasks such as writing reports or answering questions about a traffic stop. Bryant also arranged for the tests to be administered on Tulane's campus, so that 100 to 120 applicants can take the test at once. The previous testing facilities could handle only eight test-takers.
Bryant and Denning both anticipate working with the police force for the next few years.
"It's pretty amazing to realize how long it's been since the storm and how much still needs to be done and hasn't been," says Denning.
Sheltering people and pets
As Katrina headed toward New Orleans, the staff of the LA-SPCA successfully evacuated all animals to the Houston SPCA before the shelter was destroyed. A handful of staff members returned to the city to search for the animals left behind, shelter them and reunite the animals with their owners. For two weeks the 15 remaining staff members worked from an ersatz headquarters at the local fairgrounds, where they took in more than 7,500 rescued animals. They were then able to move into a warehouse outside of the city, where they continued to take care of animals displaced in the storm. The total number of rescued animalsin the weeks and months following Katrina would reach approximately 15,000. This May, the LA-SPCA finally began the move into their brand new building.
The SPCA leadership contacted KARE several months after the storm, says Vicki Vandaveer, PhD, former chair of the committee. The trauma of conducting rescue efforts combined with upheaval and personal losses left the staff physically and emotionally depleted, Vandaveer recalls. When the KARE group began working with them, thepsychologists knew their work was cut out for them.
"The stress of the staff was unlike anything I, or any of us, had ever seen," Vandaveer notes.
The KARE consultants, which included Vandaveer and fellow I/O psychologists Stefanie Spera, PhD, a corporate consultant in Phoenix, and Tracey Rizzuto, PhD, a psychology professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, planned to work with the SPCA staff on team building, but realized when they arrived that they needed to help individuals first.
"Before we could do the organizational we had to work on the personal," explains Rizzuto.
After interviewing everyone to identify issues, the team held a stress-management workshop. They also analyzed working relationships to identify conflicts and helped staff members improve their communication skills.
The stress of the SPCA workers was compounded by the fact that immediately following the storm, the shelter had 50 fewer employees than before and had only managed to hire 30 replacements, so the psychologists redesigned jobs to redistribute responsibilities so that the workload was more evenly distributed.
Though they have now returned to their homes, Rizzuto, Spera and Vandaveer continue to consult with SPCA staff by visiting about every two months to help them transition to the new shelter and weather upcoming leadership changes.
"We will continue to work as long as they need and want us to," Rizzuto says.
Before Katrina struck, the Audubon Nature Institute, a complex that includes the New Orleans Zoo, an aquarium, a research facility, golf courses and an IMAX theatre, employed over 1,000 workers. When KARE member Diana Clarke, PhD, started consulting there last fall, only 100 were left on staff. Some relocated, some died in the storm and some quit their jobs because they were overwhelmed by the trauma of the storm.
The few employees on hand had more work to do than ever. Flood water obliterated the nature site and thefacility lost many animals to the storm. Power loss caused the aquarium's aeration system to fail, and the staff only managed to save the penguins.
No power also meant no paychecks, notes Clarke. Without computers, theinstitute didn't have a record of hours or the ability for printing checks.
"That was something that nobody ever thought about-if the electricity runs out, the system goes down," she notes. "Nobody had really been prepared for this level of disaster."
Clarke and six Audubon employees and consultants are working to relievesome of the staff's stress by scaling down some of the many tasks facing the facility.
"We're doing the things that human resources doesn't have time to do," she notes.
Clarke is helping the nature institute recruit new employees, and other team members are trying to find housing for employees. They're also creating a way to accept job applications online and are backing up all records in offsite servers, she notes.
The entire Audubon complex is now up and running, but remains understaffed. As a result, progress has been slow, Clarke explains.
"I never anticipated that it would be a two- or three-year project," she says.
However, she and the other KARE members are ready to help out for the long haul.
"I've been so impressed with their [SPCA employees] commitment," says Rizutto. "It's given me an appreciation of what work life can do for people."