Information acquisition, perception, preference, and convergence by Gulf Coast residents in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

Author:Anthony, Kathryn E.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast, especially in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Rushing floodwaters breached inadequate levee systems, flooding parts of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Although New Orleans garnered most of the national media attention because of flooding following the storm, the coastline of Mississippi suffered even greater damage from the storm's wind and powerful storm surge. The cities of Waveland and Bay St. Louis were practically reduced to rubble while Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian suffered extreme damage, especially near the waterfront. The ferocious storm, which made landfall around the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area, had sustained winds of 120 mph, gusts up to 135 mph and an incredible storm surge of 28 feet. Forty-seven Mississippi counties were declared to be in a state of emergency, and about 800,000 residents across the state experienced power outages. Because of its 450-mile width, Hurricane Katrina caused damage for hundreds of miles in every direction (Knabb, Rhome, & Brown, 2006).

The destruction, both physical and emotional, experienced by New Orleans residents is well-documented. The Mississippi Coast, however, was greatly underrepresented in the media coverage following the devastation (Scurfield, 2006). This opinion was expressed vividly by Dave Vincent, news director at WLOX in Biloxi: "People around the country ... can tell you about New Orleans, but most of them wouldn't have any idea about the Mississippi Gulf Coast being hit by a hurricane" (as cited in Sylvester, 2008, p. 106).

In this study, we retrace Hurricane Katrina victims' information-seeking and uncertainty-reduction strategies as they sought to make practical decisions about what they should do in response to the hurricane. In particular, we focus our analysis on the role of media in helping the Mississippi residents engage in practical reasoning to determine appropriate actions during the recovery. We focus on Mississippi communities because, although they experienced extreme damage, they did not receive the degree of national media and federal agency attention given to Louisiana victims (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007). The fact that New Orleans's devastation overshadowed Mississippi's more extensive property damage created a situation in which Mississippi residents were forced to exercise considerably more effort to gather information than would normally have been the case. The communication constraints experienced by Mississippi residents provide an unusual and enlightening case for examining how natural disaster victims actively seek data on which to base decisions during a crisis recovery period.

After crises such as hurricanes or tornados, residents seek advice about what actions they can take to "restore some sense of control over an uncertain and threatening situation" (Seeger, 2006, p. 242). In these cases, formulating warranted conclusions based on provisional and incomplete data really is a matter of life and death. Messages from media outlets and government agencies, focusing largely on self-efficacy or self-protection and recovery, serve as arguments that structure the reality of the crisis for survivors. In other words, the data provided by key sources and the warrants linking that data to recommended actions for self-protection and recovery guide survivors throughout a crisis. Arguments that resonate with crisis survivors have a tremendous influence upon how they perceive and respond to the crisis. Understanding the public's sentiments and their sources of influence after a crisis can serve as "the basis for adapting messages to the public's dynamic needs and for addressing public concerns" (Seeger, 2006, p. 239). Thus, an argumentation perspective enhances out understanding of crisis communication and contributes to the development of best practices for crisis responders. This study provides a case study of those arguments and sources that were perceived as most credible by Mississippi residents following Hurricane Katrina.

We base our study on extended interviews of Mississippians who experienced damage to their homes as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Our analysis begins with a review of research concerning message convergence and divergence during and after disasters, focusing specifically on the role of media in providing warrants used in the practical reasoning of disaster survivors. We also provide a brief overview of the role of media in disaster recovery. Next, we describe the methods and database used in the study. We progress with our analysis of the interview data and end with an overview of the study's conclusions and implications.


During risk and crisis situations, messages disseminated to the public from different sources often appear to present seemingly contradictory arguments (Sellnow, Littlefield, Vidoloff, & Webb, 2009). Prior to a hurricane, for example, controversy in the form of competing arguments occurs regarding preparation and whether or hot evacuation is necessary (Vanderford, Nastoff, Telfer, & Bonzo, 2007). Similar debate often occurs during the disaster recovery phase (Lachlan & Spence, 2007). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) explain that opposing arguments of this nature are best understood systematically because the argumentative situation "shifts each moment as argumentation proceeds" (p. 460). As competing arguments interact, the strength and weakness of the claims are assessed by those who comprise the audience for the arguments. In other words, stakeholders such as hurricane victims engage in, and attend to, an informal dialogue about whom to believe and which recommendations should be followed.

Pereleman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) focus primarily on practical reasoning that leads to actions and behaviors (McKerrow, 1990). As such, they are concerned with the process by which individuals prioritize some messages over others. In sorting through multiple arguments on a given subject, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) explain that individuals identify those arguments that converge or "lead to a single conclusion" (p. 471). This convergence engenders the concept of association. Association is understood through "schemes which bring separate elements together and allow us to establish a unity among them, which aires either at organizing them or evaluating them, positively or negatively, by means of one another" (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyeca, 1969, p.190). Message divergence then engenders dissociation. Dissociation is a strategy that allows for the breaking of connections between ideas. Specifically, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) define dissociation as:

techniques of separation which have the purpose of dissociating, separating, disuniting elements which are regarded as forming a whole or at least a unified group within some system of thought: dissociation modifies such a system by modifying certain concepts which makes up its essential parts. (p. 190)

Those arguments that converge are consistent among credible sources and plausible in their recommendations. Those arguments that diverge lack consistency, credibility, or both.

Individuals directly affected by a natural disaster need information and advice to help them navigate the complex recovery process. Unlike audiences observing the disaster recovery from afar, disaster survivors have a sophisticated understanding of their needs based on their presence within the context of the recovery. This knowledge empowers them to assess the plausibility of the information around them. In doing so, survivors are able to associate with agencies and media resources that have messages converging in a plausible and helpful manner. Conversely, survivors have an understanding of the crisis event that enhances their capacity to recognize inconsistent and implausible recommendations. This recognition enables survivors to dissociate from the sources of these divergent messages. In short, a highly informed audience recognizes plausible arguments that converge. During disaster recovery, audiences tend to associate with those sources that provide such credible information. These audiences are also able to discern from the whole those sources and messages that diverge and lack plausibility. Recognizing this inconsistency leads an informed audience to dissociate from such questionable sources and their claims.

The perspective of interacting arguments poses a key challenge for risk communicators following natural disasters. Specifically, which arguments are most likely to converge in an associative manner and influence behavior? And, conversely, which arguments are most likely to foster a divergent and dissociative response? The answer to this question is based largely on the warrant provided in the arguments. Venette (2008) contends that, in risk communication related to natural disasters, "particular attention should be given to the means by which the audience assesses the probability of the claims affecting their lives" (p. 206). He explains that "focusing on the warrant of the claims related to risk communication is of particular relevance to parties who are attempting to alter a given audience's reactions to risk" (Venette, 2008, p. 206). McKerrow (1990) agrees, observing "an action may be right according to the standards of theoretical reasoning, without being justified in a practical sense" (p. 19). For example, prolonged evacuation may be reasonable, but doing so is not practical if one lacks the resources necessary for sustenance away from one's home. Without consideration of the listeners' perceived capacity to respond, risk communication is likely to fail in its ultimate goal: "to provide information and assistance so that people decide that the preferred course of action is what they want to do, and thus what they will do" (Venette, 2008, p. 206)...

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