The Scientist and the Real World - A Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

 Aug 25, 2015    by Adrienne Wootten

On August 29, 2005, many watched as Hurricane Katrina came ashore on the northern Gulf Coast of the U.S.  The satellite imagery from that day shows us how strong Katrina was.  A category 5 hurricane at its peak, Katrina was a category 3 hurricane at landfall.  This hurricane currently stands as the third deadliest and most costly hurricane in U.S. history (more than 1,000 deaths and $108 billion in damage according to the National Hurricane Center). Ten years have passed since Katrina made landfall.  As a climatologist, I could talk all about the physical development of Katrina and climate connections, but isn’t there something more?  The statistics, physics, and theory are not the only part of the story.  So let me share with you another part of the story, and a lesson this scientist learned ten years ago… in the real world.

Six months after landfall, in March 2006, I was in Louisiana working in St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans.  As with many of the volunteers, we were there to tear homes not condemned down to the frame. My teammates and I got to see more than what pictures and videos could show.  At the time, I was a sophomore undergraduate student in meteorology, so I knew the physical science behind the hurricane.  I chose to go on this trip to help on one hand, and connect the science learned to resulting damage.  This trip showed me so much more than that.  We dug through the rubble and mud, finding family photos and children’s toys.  The stories of those lives lost and escapees from floodwaters would come up as we met with locals at night. From the children playing near the rubble to Mardi Gras beads and lost loved ones, this wasn’t from a textbook, this was from the real world.  The lesson from the trip was clear.  Weather isn’t just about science, it’s about peoples' lives and livelihoods.  It’s easy as a scientist living in a theoretical world to forget that what we study impacts the lives of others.  I studied meteorology at the time.  Katrina was a major weather event in U.S. history, but unlike 10 years ago, now I study climate.

Before I continue telling this story, I have to touch on two things.  Yes I’m discussing how the climate connects here, but not in depth, as it’s not the focus of this story.  The climate dictates much of the likelihood that certain events will occur.  In that context, Katrina itself (or any other single event), cannot be attributed directly and solely to the climate or changes in climate.  As an example, the climate tells us how likely the extremes are.  From there, regardless of who or what is causing change, the frequency of these extremes will also change with time.  The frequency of hurricanes like Katrina is changing over time, and that is connected to physical science.


But there are other related questions, those that are less about physical science and more about human experience.  How much more frequent will finding family memories wrapped in a mix of debris and mud become?  Will farmers face more challenges to keep their livelihood because of it being too dry or too wet to plant what they planted traditionally?  Will my children be able to live in the house and area I lived in, or will fires become too frequent?  The questions asked here are not physical science questions, they are human questions connected to the physical questions.  I don’t  participate in advocacy, but I do care about the impacts to human lives. Uncertainty in projections (among other things) makes answering those very human questions difficult.  My experience with Katrina restoration efforts showed me that we shouldn’t forget the human questions that come with the physical ones, and both sets of questions should guide the use of science in decision making.  

Regardless of what you study connected to climate, I hope this story resonates with you as it did with me. The climate is more than just a collection of natural phenomena; it has impacts on many things, and in turn, an impact on life.  The people who need to know about these impacts don’t know the details of climate models, ecological models, or other models. They have human questions, based on and connected to very human experiences.  If you are thinking of working in extension, or your project will involve engagement or extension, remember that those you work with are people who experience (directly or indirectly) some of what you study.  As we work in science (particularly in climate science) we tend to forget the human part of the story.  In some previous posts, I’ve talked about how important it is to help others use scientific information and data appropriately.  It took me many years to realize it, but this lesson from Hurricane Katrina is one reason why I get worked up about end users (whomever they are) receiving and using climate information (particularly projections).  Climate information as used by others goes beyond answering physical science questions.  It dives into the human story, sometimes in depth by sector, but all with connections to human decisions.  Whenever I’m neck deep in that dissertation research (which is happening a lot lately), Katrina is what I remember, and the human part of the story.

Photo credits: Adrienne Wootten, March 2006, New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

You can access more pictures from Adrienne's volunteer trip to New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish here, via her Flickr account. 



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Holly Padgett's picture

Great story Adrienne! I especially like where you say "They have human questions, based on and connected to very human experiences." I see this being especially true for science related to climate change...and the ability to communicate what we are finding (by connecting with human emotions and experiences) is critical for resiliency. Thanks!

Thanks! This will always be something on my mind, and it was a pleasure to put this together for the ECCF. It's something I don't think can be emphasized enough that whatever any of us does with climate, people should be mindful of the human story, not just the science. Not just in communicating though, I know too many great scientists who will just run in and start talking. Need to remember to listen, not just talk, that's a critical part of engagement.

Many thanks again!

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Hurricane Katrina Satellite Image

Photo credit: National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Environmental Visualization Lab