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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Researchers Find Social Networks Help People Recover from Disasters


Researchers and government officials have known for two years that Hurricane Katrina caused population shifts across the Gulf Coast region, but University of Mississippi researchers have quantified just how sharp the decline has been in affected areas. Their work also has provided new insights into the importance of social networks and family connections in helping people prevail through disastrous circumstances.

David A. Swanson, director of UM’s Center for Population Studies, plans to share these findings with more than 200 researchers next week at a two-day gathering of scientists and policymakers. “The Gulf States Alliance: Network Science and Recovery Forum” is set for Aug. 19-21 at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Biloxi.

Dr. David A. Swanson

Dr. David A. Swanson

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation EPSCoR programs in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, the forum brings together research leaders from all three states to synergize discussions and actions aimed at propelling the Gulf States region to global competitiveness and leadership. The forum provides focused opportunities, such as posters and breakout sessions, in which regional researchers interact and learn more about the research strengths and resources available in each state.

Swanson teamed with faculty colleagues Mark Van Boening, chair of economics, and Richard Forgette, chair of political science, to prepare a poster presentation based on preliminary research that assessed Hurricane Katrina’s demographic and social impacts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“Hurricane Katrina represents the greatest natural disaster in American history and stretched 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Great Britain,” said Swanson, also professor of sociology and anthropology.

The professors compared the number of houses in the Mississippi counties of Hancock and Harrison from Census 2000 and after Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. They worked on a block-by-block basis to determine the total number of houses destroyed or damaged, also breaking the figures down by type of housing unit.

Their research found that just before Katrina 18,105 people occupied approximately 7,100 housing units in the area. By January 2006, that number had fallen to approximately 10,950 people residing in 3,938 permanent and temporary housing units. Thus, the hurricane resulted in a population decline of 7,155 people in these 346 blocks.

Also, Swanson, Van Boening and Forgette collected data to determine whether social and kinship networks played roles in determining respondents’ success; that is, the capacity for respondents to sustain their physical and emotional well-being after the hurricane.

The study found that individuals with a large network of friends and family experienced less post-traumatic stress following the storm, Forgette said.

“Most people consider individuals with physical limitations, limited finances or the elderly as those most vulnerable to unexpected events like a natural disaster,” Forgette said. “Our research shows that people with low social networks or relationships reported disturbance in financial, economic, physical and professional well-being.”

Swanson agreed, adding, “Our data indicates that social isolation increases perceptions of disaster disturbance. “Our findings show that a person with a large personal network group, including friends, church, plus immediate and extended family, was more able to deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina on an economic, health and social well-being level than a person with a smaller personal group network,” Swanson said.

For more research results, contact David Swanson at 662-915-7430, Richard Forgette at 662-915-5423 or Mark Van Boening at 662-915-6942. For more information on the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, go to

For more information on the Center for Population Studies, go to