Unnatural Disaster

Recovery remains elusive for Hurricane Katrina survivors, researchers say

Aug. 18, 2008

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Tommy and Mia, an African-American couple in their late 40s, had lived in New Orleans all their lives, working three jobs between the two of them. Life was a struggle, but they made ends meet–barely.

That was before Hurricane Katrina.

Karin, an African-American single mother of four children, also lived in New Orleans. She had found a job as a deputy in the jail system and had acquired a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). She remembers this as the best job she ever had.

Home razed during Hurricane Katrina
Some New Orleans neighborhoods, like this one near the levee, have not been rebuilt, says Dr. Laura Lein, who took the photo in April 2007. Only the cement slabs remain.

That, too, was before Hurricane Katrina.

Over the Labor Day weekend of 2005, the worlds of Tommy, Mia, Karin and hundreds of thousands of other residents of the Gulf Coast were uprooted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. More than 250,000 survivors came to Texas, 10,000 to Austin alone. The majority of those who evacuated to Austin were from New Orleans.

Unfortunately, many Katrina survivors possessed multiple risk factors–poverty, poor health and limited education–prior to the storm, making them more vulnerable to short-term and longer-term adjustment problems, say University of Texas at Austin researchers. Hurricane Katrina was the “perfect storm” in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

“A confluence of meteorological, social, racial and economic factors came together to make it the disaster that it was and continues to be for many residents of the Gulf Coast,” they said.

It’s been three years since the storm and families remain fragile. Recovery for many remains elusive.

During the first weeks after the evacuation a team of researchers, many of whom had volunteered their services as survivors arrived, came together to plan a research project to track survivors through their first year in the host community of Austin.

With support from the National Science Foundation, the researchers met a diverse group of survivors and began a series of interviews with 71 evacuees. Through additional studies supported in part by the city of Austin, the Entrepreneurs Foundation, Lutheran Disaster Services and Catholic Charities, they also interviewed more than 80 service providers in Austin.

Laura Lein
Dr. Laura Lein, a poverty expert from the School of Social Work and Department of Anthropology, hopes the Katrina research will lead to improving ways of thinking about services for disaster victims.Photo: Christina Murrey

“Given the years of lower funding by the federal government and increased dependence on non-governmental sources of support, we wanted to explore some of the implications of this trend for survivors’ long-term recovery,” said Dr. Laura Lein of the university’s School of Social Work and Department of Anthropology.

The researchers looked at families’ situations and activities before, during and after the storm.

“We wanted to learn how their positions prior to evacuation–related to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and personal resources–as well as how their strategies afterward affected their experiences in Austin and their decisions about how and where to resettle,” said Dr. Ronald Angel, a professor in the Department of Sociology and the principal investigator on the project.

Evacuation to Austin

The interviews with the survivors were very open-ended.

“We said, ‘Tell us what happened from the time the storm hit to landing in Austin,’” Lein said.

The survivors were eager to talk about their Katrina experiences–of making their way to the Superdome or convention center after the levees broke, of the chaos that ensued. They told stories of unsafe, unsanitary and humiliating conditions, seeing floating dead bodies, witnessing suicides and enduring rumors of rapes and murders occurring around them.

After New Orleans was flooded, some thought the waters would recede. But their desperation increased as the days passed and the flooding did not stop. As they ran out of food and water in their homes, many took food and supplies from neighborhood businesses.

Research team member Shanti Kulkarni, a recent School of Social Work doctoral graduate and now a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, vividly remembered one survivor’s story.

Ronald Angel
Dr. Ronald Angel of the Department of Sociology believes the Katrina evacuation, which was beyond the scope and scale of other social crises, overtaxed the system of community organizations.Photo: Marsha Miller

Linda, a 43-year-old African American mother told interviewers how she had taken infant formula from a corner store in order to feed her 10-month-old son and 8-month-old granddaughter. A National Guard helicopter eventually rescued Linda and her children from the roof of their home. She was flown to the New Orleans airport strapped into the harness, “screaming in terror, as she held tight to her child.”

Many left New Orleans after traumatic days waiting for the most basic assistance. Most residents were eventually transported to the New Orleans airport where they boarded planes with little understanding of their ultimate destination, said Lein.

“Few people we talked to knew where they were heading until they disembarked the plane,” she said, adding that many had become separated from other family members in the course of the evacuation.

One elderly African-American man described the process of boarding the airplanes as dehumanizing since “you don’t have a choice–it’s like you’re in the hull of a slave ship.”

In addition to being separated from family, survivors also were traumatized by the uncertainty of the evacuation process.

Twenty-one year-old Tiffany recalled: “This is the end. Our life is over. We don’t know where we are going. How are we going to do this? No money, no information, no nothing. We get on the plane. Still we don’t know where we are going. No one will tell us. So, when we get off the plane, everybody was saying, ‘Welcome to Austin.’ That’s when we knew where we were.”

Hungry, exhausted and often numbed by the relentless trauma they were experiencing, the survivors felt especially relieved to be in a safe and clean environment when they arrived in Texas.

Evacuees were separated from their New Orleans relatives, friends and neighbors—the people they had depended on when times were hard. Many continued to face substantial difficulties. Dr. Laura Lein

“It was nice, it was a weight lifted off your shoulder but you still were remembering what you had lost,” said Tiffany. “So, it wasn’t home, but it was better than what we had been going through in the last few days.”

Survivors were particularly impressed that the large Austin shelter seemed to provide everything they needed under one roof. Evacuees could apply for emergency assistance, register for a post-office box and Medicare and prescription drugs were available as were clothing, laundry services and food throughout the day. Children were enrolled and transported to school. A computer bank was set up to help survivors trying to unite with family.

Many survivors were very proactive and resourceful in garnering needed resources, but survivors who were more physically or psychologically fragile risked being overlooked, said Lein.

“With all the efforts being made, it was still possible for an individual to slip through the cracks of the service net–for a variety of reasons,” she said.

Life in Austin

During their first weeks in Austin, a large corps of professional and volunteer helpers assisted survivors in applying for services, locating housing and getting the basic care they needed. The convention center, however, closed in a matter of weeks, and survivors were placed in a range of housing across the city.
They were removed from a central source of services, sometimes placed in remote neighborhoods without access to transportation.

“Evacuees were separated from their New Orleans relatives, friends and neighbors–the people they had depended on when times were hard,” said Lein. “Many continued to face substantial difficulties.”

Job fair for Katrina evacuees at Austin Convention Center
The Austin Convention Center became a Hurricane Katrina shelter in September 2005. A job fair was held there for evacuees. Photo: Noe Lara.

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Tommy, Mia and Karin struggled for months after their evacuation. While local service providers worked with survivors to assist them to become employed and relatively self-sufficient, families themselves were still grieving and suffering the demoralization that followed the loss of so much of their previous lives, said the researchers.

“The growing emphasis of service providers on getting a job and moving off of public supports was bewildering to parents who had lost so much and now felt painfully alone as they also watched their children struggling to make a place for themselves through several school and neighborhood transitions,” they said.

Over the ensuing months, the care of survivor households became more complicated. Both survivors and service providers became tired and frustrated and progress seemed very slow for many of the households still in need of services.

“As the expectation that survivors would be able to return to their homes after a few weeks or months evaporated, it became clear that many survivors would become Austin citizens,” said Dr. Holly Bell, a researcher in the School of Social Work and a member of the Katrina study team.

“The early emergency response–which was marked by creativity and generosity of Austin agencies, foundations and citizens to provide short-term assistance–gave way to more uncertainty.”

Austin was a more expensive and demanding environment than New Orleans. Many of the strategies that had worked for them in New Orleans were less useful in Austin. Informal jobs were not as readily available. Low-rent housing was scarce.

“Poor people learn about jobs, schools and how to use services agencies through neighborhood networks,” said Lein. “All that was lost for Katrina survivors as they were forced to evacuate to other cities.”

Over the ensuing months, the care of survivor households became more complicated. Both survivors and service providers became tired and frustrated and progress seemed very slow for many of the households still in need of services. Katrina researchers

According to the accounts of the survivors, Austin presented a very different physical, economic, social and service environment from New Orleans. Austin is wealthier with 14 percent of households below the poverty line and has a higher level of education. Less than 10 percent of Austin’s population is African American.

“Austin’s economy revolves around higher education, state government and the high-tech industry whereas New Orleans is a service and tourist industry city,” said Lein. “It was not a good fit.”

Residents in New Orleans also had been used to a good public transportation system, so transportation in Austin became a problem as many of the survivors eventually were required to locate their own housing–most of the time outside the inner city.

The unstable housing arrangements left parents and children feeling insecure and without a home they could depend on. As parents, often single mothers like Karin, struggled to maintain some sense of stability for their children, they remained concerned about changes in housing and in schools.

With high levels of poverty and unemployment, many survivors remained unable to pay Austin rents. In Austin, they have been dependent on housing assistance and have experienced threats of termination of assistance. Even months after the evacuation, some survivors reported food shortages. Welfare and food stamps are managed at the state level and newcomers to Texas had to start over. In addition, survivors reported on-going health problems.

Another major obstacle faced by many survivors in Austin was the lack of personal identification documents, including birth certificates, voter registration cards and driving licenses, which increased the challenges of renting apartments and obtaining jobs, health care and other services.

Lessons Learned

Two years after the storm, the researchers found that neither the immediately available disaster services nor the longer-term federal emergency aid and poverty programs were sufficient to re-stabilize families simultaneously facing displacement, destitution and multiple barriers to self-sufficiency.

The natural disaster made it clear that the devolution of services to the local level has real limitations. Dr. Ronald Angel

Families still struggled to obtain health insurance, stable and affordable housing and stable child care and school placement for their children. They still grieved the loss of home and loved ones.

Researchers also found that in a situation like the Katrina evacuation–that was beyond the scope and scale of other social crises–the system of community organizations may be overtaxed.

“The natural disaster made it clear that the devolution of services to the local level has real limitations,” said Angel.

Criticisms of the initial federal response to Hurricane Katrina indicate that the Gulf Coast’s low-income residents were poorly served by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) cumbersome bureaucratic process, said Lein.

“One of the strengths of local organizations is that they are agile and flexible and do not suffer from the level of bureaucracy of federal agencies, but they may have limitations in resources, accountability and oversight,” she said.

Survivors and their families encountered numerous stressors associated with their evacuation and resettlement. Some fared better than others. Katrina survivors displayed courage and resourcefulness in their attempts to cope with the extensive challenges, the researchers said.

Although initial response by helpers was fantastic, problems began with resettlement issues, Lein said.

“No one in the United States seems to know how to do that,” she said. “The poorer the survivors are, the more problems.

“Not everyone who left New Orleans and came to Austin was impoverished in New Orleans, but a large proportion of those who both used the shelter and service systems and remained in Austin for months after the initial evacuation had been poor in New Orleans.”

The study reflects the reality of the multiple barriers and problems faced by families and individuals who are forcibly relocated to a new city. With little experience with massive relocation efforts, the systems for assisting survivors became more strained over time as short-term resources were exhausted.

Karin is worried about her children. She sees them getting increasingly into trouble. As her housing has changed, she sees her children moving from one school to another. Her children know almost no one at the schools.

While feeling that there is little left for her in New Orleans, Karin worries about whether she can create any kind of life for herself and for her children in Austin.

The experience of Katrina survivors in the cities that received them is illustrative not only of the destitution faced by the displaced in the United States, but of the problems faced by other Americans who fall into destitution poverty level, the researchers said.

Hurricane Katrina exposed serious deficiencies in the social support safety net at the federal, state and local level, Angel said.

Disaster research has concentrated on the evacuation experiences of those affected, but there has been relatively little work on the years-long recovery process for families left far away from home and community with few resources. The long aftermath of Hurricane Katrina not only left many survivors struggling for years after the event, it also left service workers frustrated and exhausted.

For many of the poorest of the survivors, short-term emergency services followed by case management could assuage some of the effects of the evacuation, but could not provide long-term stability.

“The experiences of survivor families with children illustrate many of the pathways that take families in the ‘basement’ of our social structure,” Lein said.

She and her colleagues hope the research will lead to improving ways of thinking about services for disaster victims and planning for the possibility of future disasters.

For more information, contact: On the banner: Responding to the need to move Hurricane Katrina survivors out of the Louisiana Superdome, the Harris County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the State of Louisiana opened up the Houston Astrodome to 25,000 evacuees on Aug. 31, 2005. A full field hospital was available to care for the entire evacuee community, as well as beds, showers, clothes, food and volunteers. Banner photo: Christina Murrey