Hurricane Katrina precipitated two different sets of experiences—those lived by the people who scrambled to evacuate and those endured by the survivors who stayed behind. Those who stayed behind to weather the storm left an indelible mark on the American psyche. In the richest nation in the world, thousands of people were stranded on rooftops, hospitals looked like war zones, and survivors overwhelmed New Orleans’ Superdome. Perhaps shockingly, the people who stayed behind have been blamed for their unenviable situation. But were those people really at fault? Why did they stay behind? And why have so many judged them so harshly?

Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security at the time, called their actions a “mistake.”  He assumed that people who stayed had a choice, a flawed assumption many Americans seemed to make. Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, wanted to know if those who rode out the hurricane saw their actions differently than did those who left. And given Chertoff’s and other’s reactions, she also was curious as to how unaffected individuals interpreted the two groups’ actions. In interviews with Katrina survivors and surveys of rescue workers and other Americans, Stephens and her co-authors discovered a difference in perspectives between the Katrina survivors who stayed, those who evacuated, relief workers who provided aid, and observers who watched the disaster from afar.

“There’s this mismatch between the way that the event was seen from the outside and the way that the people themselves actually experienced it,” Stephens says. “The people who stayed, who didn’t influence the situation and evacuate—they were seen as bad people. They were basically seen as passive and lazy.”

“The people who stayed, on the other hand, experienced their actions very differently,” Stephens continues. “They didn’t just sit there and do nothing, as they were perceived. They didn’t just wait around for the hurricane to destroy them. They did the best that they could given the situations that they were in. People worked together with other people. They cared for their families and communities. They tried to maintain strength and resilience. They had different ways of responding—they did what they could with what they had available to them.”

Varied Viewpoints
Stephens and her co-authors, MarYam Hamedani, a program coordinator at Stanford University, Hazel Rose Markus, a Stanford professor, Hilary Bergsieker, a graduate student at Princeton University, and Liyam Eloul, a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, began by interviewing over 450 observers who were not directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Of those, 144 were relief workers who had direct contact with survivors. When asked to describe survivors, the majority of observers—relief workers included—referred to people who evacuated as “self-reliant” and “hardworking,” while they denigrated those who stayed behind, calling them “lazy,” “negligent,” and “stubborn.”

Stephens and her colleagues then asked the same observers to read two stories, one about a family that evacuated to “stay with a friend” outside Katrina’s path and another about a family that stayed behind because they “didn’t have any close friends or family to stay with who lived outside the hurricane-threatened area.” These two details were central to the stories themselves, details that were meant to summarize the disparate situations of survivors who left and survivors who stayed. Despite the clear disadvantage of the second family, both relief workers and other observers were unable to understand or identify with them, Stephens says.

Stephens and her colleagues then shifted their focus to the Katrina survivors, interviewing 41 who had stayed behind and 38 who had left. The researchers noted when themes of agency—or how the survivors viewed their own actions—arose during the hour-long interviews. Survivors who evacuated consistently spoke of independence, choice, and control. Those who stayed emphasized their interdependence with others, their strength in the face of adversity, and their faith in God.

“The perspective of the observers was much more consistent with the people who evacuated,” Stephens says, in part because both groups belonged almost entirely to the American middle class. Observers and those who evacuated both shared notions of independence and control—common elements of the independent model of agency that permeates mainstream American culture. Not only do such people tend to believe they can change their circumstances, they also possess the means to do so.

American Independence
Independent agency is deeply rooted in American society. The sense of personal independence and control began with the revolution against the British and became firmly entrenched with the closing of the Western frontier. It is also visible in the Protestant Ethic and the American Dream, two cornerstones of American culture. “Independent agency doesn’t really allow for the possibility that there are different ways of doing things,” Stephens says. “Mainstream American culture…tends to focus on this particular model and assumes that individual actors are responsible for their behavior.”

The people who stayed during Katrina were often judged by the independent model of agency, but they experienced their own actions differently. Relief workers and other observers interpreted their staying behind as lacking agency, something Stephens says could not be further from the truth. Survivors who stayed possessed their own agency, valuing interdependence over independence, standing strong in the face of adversity rather than being headstrong. These qualities are elements of interdependent agency. Most other countries in the world identify with the interdependent model, Stephens says. “The US is actually very peculiar in the world in terms of this focus on the individual.”

Relief workers sympathized with Katrina survivors who stayed behind more than did other observers, but not to a great degree, Stephens says. “The idea is that if you’re helping survivors, you have more exposure to their worlds, you might have a better understanding of what it is that they’re doing… and see that they have tons of constraints,” she says. “We were actually hoping that the relief workers would be much more empathetic and charitable… So we were surprised to find that they didn’t have a better understanding of or more empathy for the people they were helping.”

Stephens thinks one potential solution would be to train relief workers and people in similar situations to better recognize the interdependent perspective. “Perhaps they would be more effective in offering aid or in helping people if they were better able to understand the people’s situation that they’re helping,” she says.