Finding the Calm after the Storm

New Oreans East Map - Source:

When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf region in August 2005 it took more than 1,800 lives and caused more than 1.2 billion dollars in damage to communities along the coast. Among the hardest hit was the city of New Orleans, which suffered through the battering of the storm followed by massive flooding when the city’s levee system failed.

The community of New Orleans East, a very large section of the city situated east of the Industrial Canal, north of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Pontchartrain, was hit hard by the storm and struggles to recover from its impact to this day.

Samueli Institute’s Well Community Project teamed with local non-profit organization, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), in New Orleans East to help residents recognize the effect Katrina was having on their lives almost ten years later, and through that understanding begin to heal. IWES hosted Wisdom Circles to help neighbors connect with each other and themselves.

Photo of Denese Shervington, MD, MPH, on stage at WCP event

Denese Shervington, MD, MPH, president & ceo of IWES

“Wisdom circles have been around for a long time. They are a very ancient technique that indigenous people throughout the planet have used to bring a community together to tell stories again and to learn from each other,” explains Denese Shervington, MD, MPH, president & ceo of IWES. “What’s slightly different in Wisdom Circles opposed to the public health focus group is that we create rituals to help people tap into a more sacred space. We are really going for truth telling and not advice giving. People just want to be heard and that in itself can be healing.”

For more than a year, Shervington’s team hosted monthly circles of 20-25 individuals from across the community and encouraged them to tell some of the stories that have been painful in their lives, or to share celebratory stories of overcoming adversity. Through this process, IWES has helped residents of New Orleans East begin to come to terms with how the storm is still affecting their lives.

IWES’ efforts are having an impact.

“People frequently approach me in the neighborhood and say their lives have changed since participating in one of our sessions,” says Dr. Shervington.

They tell her they are interacting differently with their children, and are starting to realize that perhaps their children are acting out as a result of struggling with their own experience from the storm.

“They just never thought that this terrible thing that happened had a significant impact on their being and their lives.”