Katherine Browne talks about making the documentary
• See the documentary
• "Still Waiting" Website
• Browne's Website
SMU alumna Katherine Browne was thousands of miles away when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. But she is approaching the second anniversary of the storm with a powerful connection to people still reeling from its blows.
Browne’s documentary, “Still Waiting: Life After Katrina,” was broadcast on Dallas’ KERA-TV on Tuesday (Aug. 28, 2007). The emotional story follows a storm-displaced, extended family of 150 people trying to re-establish their lives temporarily in Dallas, where family member Connie Tipado lives, before returning to the battered New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish.
Having earned an undergraduate degree in English and later a Ph.D in anthropology at SMU, Browne is a professor of anthropology at Colorado State University. She and Dallas filmmaker Ginny Martin, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker who attended graduate school at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, filmed from October 2005 to March 2007.
Browne recently talked about the experience:
What was your original motivation for the documentary?
I wanted to try to understand how a disaster took a particular shape with people who came from a very special, cultural environment. This is one of the cultural realities to people in New Orleans – they’re deeply rooted and broadly connected to each other. That had a very important relationship to how people experienced the disaster. While in the rest of the country we think in terms of nuclear families, this is not the case in New Orleans.
How did you locate Connie Tipado and her family?
Connie was in a breast cancer survivor group with someone who was a friend of Ginny’s. This person knew Ginny and I were already interviewing people in Denver. Connie was open to the idea, and talked to her family about it. That was the launch.
What was the evolution of the family’s response to the situation in their home parish?
SMU alumna Katherine Browne (center) with subjects of her documentary, “Still Waiting: Life After Katrina."
They began with a great deal of hope and resolve to return home. The period they were in Dallas was very difficult, in the sense that there were a number of culture shocks they experienced. There are certain kinds of things you find in a grocery store at home that you cannot find in Dallas. The role of food was important, because this is what really connected them to the bayou. There were churches – but church is where you have a role – maybe president of an auxiliary. But the culture shock was largely counterbalanced by the incredible outpouring of affection, compassion and provisions from the people in Dallas.
As they watched on TV at Connie’s home the pictures of the destruction in Saint Bernard Parish, they knew they had to stay for a while. They started going back in January (2006.) They were back, but not back to normal. They were in FEMA trailers. Besides having to wait for them for such a long time, a lot of them didn’t have electricity. So many people had to buy their own generators. There were all kinds of things - like dealing with the utility companies, the heaps of paperwork, getting on the Road Home list to get funding help aside from the insurance, which ultimately went to pay off mortgages on homes that didn’t exist anymore.
The wear and tear of that – these were people who had jobs and were not used to depending on the government – was something they could manage as long as things were moving forward. But after about a year, the progress they expected to see by then had not happened. The church still wasn’t up. There were no grocery stores around that opened. There were no schools for their kids. And living in these trailers, ultimately, there was no place for them to gather ritually, as they did every week. Where were the grandchildren going to sleep?
There’s not only individual trauma, but collective trauma -- because the people in this area are so connected. The function of kinship is large and rooted, not mobile, so everyone was affected. There was nobody left. If you don’t understand that the paradigm of family is extended, you can’t grasp that.
After becoming personally involved with this story, how do you feel when people talk about “Katrina fatigue?”
It’s very frustrating to hear people of goodwill and intelligence speak about their own Katrina fatigue. I don’t blame them, because I do agree that the government has bungled it badly but then again, how much money are we expected to pour into this? And I understand that the kind of stories and images that have dominated the media coverage have left us with the impression that these are people who have gotten enough help and, two years out, should be able to stand on their own two feet. I don’t blame people for thinking that, because they haven’t had stories that can help them understand another perspective from the trenches.
You recently showed the documentary in St. Bernard Parish. What was that like?
It was a little scary and incredibly exciting. We had one night in the First Baptist Church in Verret – it was a private screening for the family and others involved in the film. No one had seen anything. There were a lot of people crying, who told us they’d cried through the whole thing. There was a hush over the whole church, because I think people were very moved.
What was the reaction from people in New Orleans?
The second night, we’d had a story in the Times Picayune. So it was a full house and there was tremendous excitement. Again, there were a lot of people crying and people just wanted to talk about it. The same thing happened in Dallas.
What do you expect to see in St. Bernard Parish a year from now?
Oh my. I expect to see fewer trash heaps, fewer trailers. Right now, any residential street you go on is either mostly vacant with no activity or it is filled with these little white pillboxes (FEMA trailers) that dot the front yards of all the houses. My hope is the little white pillboxes will disappear and people’s homes will be restored or rebuilt. But I don’t know how realistic that is. I think it’s going to be many, many years before communities and families in the parish look and feel whole again. It may never happen.
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