Deconstructing Disaster

Anthropologist and UT professor Gregory Button studies what happens to humans after unnatural events wreak havoc

Over the three-day Labor Day Weekend, Gregory Button spoke to quite a few people who were fleeing New Orleans to possibly avoid the onslaught of Hurricane Gustav—some while they were still in the city, some on their way to refuge, some when they arrived in Knoxville. "All of them were severely shaken and felt like they were kind of reliving what happened before, with Katrina," says the University of Tennessee professor. "I think without a doubt it will bring back up the trauma."

For Button, a self-described "aging hippie" with a wiry build and a graying beard, that's a professional opinion. A medical anthropologist and one of the nation's foremost disaster researchers, he was contacting people he'd spoken to before as part of his research into the sociological and psychological impact of Hurricane Katrina on the greater New Orleans area, starting almost immediately after the hurricane hit August 29 three years ago. In fact, his involvement began before that.

"I worked as a senior research advisor for CHART, the Coastal Hazard Assessment Response and Technology Center at the University of New Orleans—part of what we were doing was studying what would happen if a Category 3 or larger hurricane hit the area. The irony is that after a couple years of research, it happened."

Along with the anguish of knowing that the team's emerging research could have led to preventing some of the tragic loss of Katrina, Button's schedule went haywire on the day the hurricane hit. "I went down there within a couple of days, and I went to the Gulf Coast probably 12 times in the first couple years after that." Based at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he would fly home just to teach a graduate class on Katrina once a week.

A year ago, Button left his job of 15 years to take a position at UT. "I like being around the mountains," he says, "Change is nice."

He made another change, this time of careers, in his early 30s. He'd graduated college with degrees—no minors—in sociology, anthropology, Asian studies, and philosophy, somehow also finding time to be a vehement Vietnam war protester. He wanted to be a filmmaker, but ended up selling his car to sponsor $2,000 worth of professional-grade taping equipment and hitchhiking around as a public-radio producer and reporter, eventually selling some stories to NPR. "I did a lot of environmental health-centered stories, what today we would call disasters," he says. "Mt. St Helens, Love Canal, Three-Mile Island. Controversies like Agent Orange."

But after eight years of that, Button could no longer ignore the limitations of one-to-two-minute radio spots and decided to return to grad school for a Ph.D. in medical anthropology.

"I did my dissertation on the Exxon Valdez oil spill's effect on the surrounding 24 communities," he says. "Once a year for the past 20, I've been traveling to Alaska, working all over the South Central area of the state—1,600 miles of coast line were affected by the spill."

Next, Button was awarded a Congressional fellowship, serving as a policy advisor to the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. "He was a great man," Button says simply. "In that capacity, I wrote the Environmental Justice Act, lobbied and got it passed in 1992. That's my source of greatest pride. It made a dramatic impact on a lot of government offices."

These days, interviewing Katrina victims in New Orleans and evacuees in other regions dominates Button's schedule. "It gets harder and harder," he says. "Many have moved as many as 16 times. Many families are still struggling to reunite. They're very hard to follow. When I interview evacuees in, say, Austin, I may be interviewing an entirely different group the next time."

Already Button sees trends. "The people who are more severely disadvantaged to begin with have a harder time recovering their lives in the face of disaster," he says. "Many never succeed. It's sad thing.

"But I don't know what the outcome will be," he says. "It's only been three years. The fragmenting of the families and community can last for decades."

It's a very difficult research pursuit, says Button. "You witness a lot of human tragedy. At the same time, you witness the positive side of humans caring for one another and complete strangers in a time of need."

After 20 years, Button had a period of five years when he couldn't do any more one-on-one interviews. "I needed time to heal and renew," he says. "I used my old data and continued to write and teach, but I couldn't bring myself to re-enter the field."

Just the other day, Button looked at some videotapes of Katrina evacuees in the Astrodome. "Emotionally it was very moving to hear their stories again and see the expressions on their faces," he says, "I hadn't ever seen some of the footage, because we have so much. There are people talking who watched their son or daughter slip off the roof and never saw them again.

"This tragedy is longer than a day."