When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, Nicole M. Stephens didn’t think the media, government officials, or even relief workers understood the plight of the people left behind. “The question everyone asked was, ‘Why did those crazy people choose to stay?’” says Stephens. She also noticed that no one actually bothered to ask this question of the so-called stayers.

As a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University, though, Stephens decided to ask the stayers...

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