Hurricane Katrina's aftermath shed light not only on the deep racial and socioeconomic divides in the Gulf Coast, but also opened the curtain on how little experience many disaster relief workers have working with diverse communities, noted presenters at an APA Annual Convention workshop on multicultural disaster relief training, sponsored by APA's Disaster Response Network (DRN) and Div. 31 (State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs). Media coverage of Katrina revealed that many of the relief workers-including mental health teams-couldn't connect emotionally with those receiving aid, particularly poor African Americans. That disconnect led to a "cultural mistrust" between relief staff and those affected by the storm exacerbating an already calamitous situation, noted panelists. But if relief workers had come on the scene with a deeper understanding of survivors' sociocultural history, their rescue efforts might have been more supportive for survivors, speakers said. "The attitude of a first responder is very important," said Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, EdD, a native of South Africa who deployed to Baton Rouge, La., with a disaster mental health team after Katrina. "A disaster is not the arena to test your multicultural competence for the first time."

History repeated

A community's or group's historical trauma-such as centuries of racial oppression or multiple prior crises-has dramatic effects on its members' response and healing amid a disaster, said Elizabeth Boyd, PhD, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians who is on the faculty of the University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute. Policies of extermination, relocation and assimilation, which have been termed the "American Indian Holocaust," led to generations of traumatic losses for Native communities-losses that tend to resurface in the wake of a disaster, she said. Similarly, the mistrust the African-American community expressed during Katrina had its roots in centuries of racial inequality, noted panelist Robert L. Atwell, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and past president of the Association of Black Psychologists. For "culturally congruent" care to be a reality, Atwell explained, relief staff should grasp the importance of sociocultural history during a crisis, work hard to get to know the people they are serving, recognize their own racial biases, and be willing to open up to survivors more than they would in traditional therapy.

"Challenge yourself to be outside your own comfortable environment and sit down and have a meal with someone who doesn't look like you," he said.

Find the 'super-copers'

Disaster experts can also better serve diverse communities by befriending them well enough to know who the local spiritual or religious leaders are. That can go a long way toward helping survivors and aid workers connect, noted presenters.

Likewise, first responders need to be able to team with the "super-copers"-those survivors who seem to gain strength during a crisis and even organize relief efforts, said trauma expert Francis Abueg, PhD, a clinical psychologist who runs a trauma-focused practice in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Responders aiding American Indian communities need to observe patiently certain "protocols for access" before offering or providing aid during a crisis, noted Boyd, who said she often visits with Native families for hours as she waits for the person whose "role" it is to talk about a crisis to come forward.

It's a little-known fact, noted Boyd, that Katrina severely damaged the communities of six federally recognized American Indian tribes and several smaller unrecognized tribes. Most of the support and aid they received came from other tribes throughout the country.

Additional speakers included panelist Benson G. Cooke, EdD, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, who outlined many of the media-related and disaster-relief problems that surrounded Katrina, and Laura H. Barbanel, EdD, who spoke on culture-specific aspects of disasters and trauma.

Discussant Henry Tomes, PhD, formerly APA's Executive Director for Public Interest, acknowledged that no one psychologist can prepare multiculturally for every disaster.

"If I was a clinical psychologist, I would feel overwhelmed right now," said Tomes, of the myriad challenges panelists posed. A good starting point, he said, is to reach out to groups such as the Association of Black Psychologists, the National Latina/o Psychological Association, the Asian American Psychological Association and the Society of Indian Psychologists for guidance on how to prepare now to help diverse communities when disaster strikes again.

Further Reading

For more information, visit APA Disaster Relief Network.