Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project (Story Telling)

The Surviving Katrina And Rita In Houston project uses storytelling to capture the experiences of hurricane survivors through interviews conducted by other hurricane survivors.

In 2005, back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the US mainland, causing widespread loss of life, destruction, homelessness, chaos, and social tension. After Katrina the president of the University of Houston asked the faculty to consider how they could help the survivors. Carl Lindahl, a professor at the university and an expert in folklore, was looking for an idea to use his expertise to help those affected and came up with the idea for the “Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston” project. The idea was to give survivors the opportunity to interview each other and record their stories.

During and after the crisis, the media repeatedly portrayed those affected in a negative light. The project aimed to give survivors the opportunity to tell their own stories. Through this process, affected communities were given the opportunity to create a self-portrait. They were trained in interviewing and recording and were paid for this process, which helped them financially at this difficult time, but also psychologically to come to terms with what they had experienced. The data collected is not only for themselves and future generations, but also for their neighbours in Houston and around the world to hear not just media reports of ‘criminals’ or ‘victims’, but personal stories from family, friends and neighbours.

From his previous work and research, Carl Lindahl knew how healing it was for people to tell their stories. From previous interviews, some of the interviewees had contacted him later to thank him and tell him what an impact telling their story had had on them. Even during his spontaneous post-Katrina work in evacuation centres, people told Carl Lindahl their stories without him actively asking them. During the training programme for interviewers, the organisers noticed how the trainees formed a fellowship of their own, taking care of each other and starting to build new communities for the future. project’s goal is to,on the survivors’ own terms



The degree of formalisation is not easy to determine, as the idea, the organisation, the donations and the implementation were handled by different parties with different levels of formalisation:

The idea came in response to a call for ways to help those affected, but from a professor who had no official mandate in crisis management or anything like that. Donations came from existing and formal associations. An expert training programme was prepared for the people affected by the hurricane to conduct and record the interviews themselves.

The whole project is considered to be the largest storytelling project carried out by the affected people themselves. It therefore promises to be an important new database, also for research. All in all, the project took four years to complete and has received much public attention and praise.

There have also been various artistic projects in response to the two hurricanes. For example, there were several plays about the events.


In the aftermath of a major natural disaster, where the official response has been inadequate and the media have portrayed the victims in a false light, with chaos, loss of life, struggle to survive, homelessness and social tensions, there are many different ways to offer help. This exceptional project struck a particular chord and responded well to the needs of those affected. Storytelling had already been used as a processing method in psychology, where the interviewers were mostly professionals. Although psychologists initially doubted whether it was a good idea that affected people would interview other affected people, fearing that the participants would overreach or come under pressure, the method used worked well. Both the interviewers and the interviewees were aware of their own limits and those of their counterparts, so that no one overstretched themselves. In general, but especially in this situation with social tensions and poor media coverage, the methods even seemed to gain a lot from the fact that affected people were chosen as interviewers. The interviewees easily trusted the interviewers and the possibility to tell their story unaltered and honestly and supported the project.

While some people would have preferred the approach of shaping the stories and finishing them with a happy ending, the project experts taught the interviewers the natural narrative method. The interviewees were asked to tell their stories naturally, without any changes. This approach also met the needs of people who had just had a bad experience with the changed presentation of stories in the media.


Copyright ENGAGE Project 2021