Mary C. Waters (M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology) and Jean Rhodes, (Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts, Boston) have been awarded a three year Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research for The RISK study—Resilience in Survivors of Hurricane Katrina. This is a longitudinal study of 1,019 largely female African American poor people in New Orleans. They were part of a study of community college students that began a year before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. So the study includes two waves of pre-disaster data on physical and mental health, social support, social trust, socioeconomic status and many other indicators. With support from NSF, NIH and the MacArthur Foundation, the participants were located and surveyed in 2006 and again in 2010, back in New Orleans and in the 31 different states where they now lived. The study also included 150 in depth qualitative interviews with a subset of the respondents, geocoded analysis of neighborhood attainment, and the collection of genetic material from respondents in order to look at gene by environment interactions. The overall aim of the study is to understand the mechanisms by which disasters affect the mental and physical health of vulnerable populations over the long-term, as well as how policy interventions can prevent resource loss and promote recovery. The project has involved a group of 17 post-doctoral and doctoral students in addition to the senior investigators.
Major findings include long term negative mental health effects five years after the storm (Paxson et.al. 2012); a large effect of pet loss on depression after the storm (Lowe et.al. 2009); the first evidence of gene by environment effects on post traumatic growth (Dunn et. al. 2014); reductions in neighborhood poverty over time (Graif 2012); increases in obesity among people who relocated to areas with more urban sprawl (Arcaya et.al. 2014); evidence of a happiness set point (Calvo et. al. 2014); different contexts of reception in cities where people relocated (Asad 2014) and challenges for African Americans living with large numbers of Hispanics for the first time (Tollette 2014).
In the next few years Waters and Rhodes will examine other disasters around the globe and plan to develop evidence based practices for immediate responders that will contribute to long term recovery for disaster survivors.