‘God sent Hurricane Katrina’ – culture, faith and disasters

What role does culture play in people’s reaction to disasters?

Why do people choose to live near an active volcano? Why do those affected by floods and earthquakes return to the risk areas so soon? Why are international disaster prevention measures unsuccessful or met with a lack of understanding and even rejection among those affected? A team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Fred Krüger from FAU’s Institute of Geography have made a key contribution to the latest disasters report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which looks at the significance of culture and social processes in affected areas. – This is an important aspect which has not yet been considered sufficiently in disaster relief efforts.

Who has failed?

The influence that culture in the broadest sense – and often religion – has on how societies assess and deal with disasters should not be underestimated. To outsiders, this can give an impression of irrationality and fatalism – something which Krüger believes is often an arrogant and dangerous misconception. A recent example is traditional burials in Liberia where people say goodbye to the dead by holding their hand in prayer or kissing them on the forehead. In the current Ebola outbreak, these traditional burials put people at high risk of infection, but relatives do not want to give up these rituals despite warnings. But who has failed here – those affected or the international humanitarian community?

This phenomenon, where religious and cultural beliefs have such a strong effect that they put people in danger or make help and prevention efforts difficult, is not limited to indigenous cultures. It is also seen in supposedly enlightened Western societies. For example, some people in New Orleans interpreted Hurricane Katrina as the wrath of God aroused by the inhabitants’ behaviour. Politicians in the USA and Great Britain deny the existence of climate change and its consequences due to their beliefs, ideologies or strategic interests, and therefore refuse to take measures to counteract and prevent it.

How can disaster relief be adapted to cultural practices?

How should aid workers deal with such phenomena? What changes must be made to the culture of intervention? And what should the role of research be regarding this? These sensitive questions are at the heart of the most recent World Disasters Report (WDR), published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the topic of which was discussed last year at an international conference at FAU which was organised by the Institute for Geography. In the latest WDR, FAU geographers Prof. Dr. Fred Krüger, Dr. Alexandra Titz, Benedikt Orlowski, Prof. Dr. Perdita Pohle, Dr. Klaus Geiselhart and Dr. Henning Füller examine the relationship between culture, risk and how people deal with disasters, and how disaster relief can be adapted to the specific cultural beliefs and every-day practices of the affected communities.

It is important to identify elements of every-day life in the community which can be of use for disaster relief efforts. In order for aid to be effective, areas where compromise is necessary must be recognised. For example, Christian communities in Tuvalu used to deny the existence of global warming and its relationship with severe flooding. They saw this as a punishment from God.

Through intense work focusing on providing information and considering the cultural and religious beliefs of the population, aid organisations were able to reconcile local beliefs with scientific fact. The population received information about the immediate consequences which severe flooding could have on their existence, and were shown that global warming and its effects are the result of human beings’ actions. At the same time, the aid organisations learnt to treat the local population’s convictions and practices with increased sensitivity and respect. As a consequence, it was possible to introduce disaster prevention projects which made the situation in Tuvalu significantly safer.

The latest World Disasters Report

The World Disasters Report has been published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since 1993. It includes analyses, facts and the latest developments regarding disasters and disaster zones, and highlights the most urgent problems. The WDR 2014 is free to download at

More videos on this topic on the FAU video portal

The Cultures & Disasters II conference took place at FAU in July 2013. Videos of selected lectures are available on the video portal.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Fred Krüger
Phone: +49 9131 8522641