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Hurricane Katrina showed that even in the US, disaster hits the most vulnerable the hardest

By Mary Babic
The powerful winds and high water of Katrina battered buildings and washed away lifetimes of household belongings. As Oxfam staff traveled along the coastline in Mississippi, they saw refrigerators hanging in trees, houses in the middle of the street, even coffins floating to high ground. As in other parts of the world, the disaster hit hardest where people had the fewest resources to prepare, respond, and recover. People with the least money had the hardest time escaping before the storm, and cleaning up afterward. Photo: Oxfam America

What makes people more vulnerable to disasters? The same factors we see in the poorest countries affect people in the US.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, the world was shocked by what was laid bare in the region. The most impoverished and excluded populations, struggling to survive before the storm, were devastated by the tremendous blow to their homes and livelihoods.

For years, Oxfam had regarded social vulnerability as a critical aspect of any humanitarian response effort around the world. The Katrina relief effort was the first time Oxfam America responded to a disaster in our own country, and we brought this lens to the Gulf Coast.

And again, we found that it’s vital to address the needs of the most vulnerable above all – in the short term and in the long run.

Factors of vulnerability

Social vulnerability indicates how well a population can prepare for, recover from, and adapt to changes and disasters (environmental or man-made).  Vulnerability factors include economic standing, age extremes (elderly or young), special needs, race and ethnicity, and more.

Poverty

“People don’t understand how much you need money to cope with a disaster,” says Rosa Herrin, Gulf Coast policy officer for Oxfam America. “If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have extra cash – either in hand or in the bank – to pay for things you’ll need: a hotel room, gas, transportation, meals on the road.”

Telley Madina, Senior Gulf Coast Policy Officer for Oxfam America, notes that the date of Katrina – August 29 – brought perils. “It struck right before the end of the month; anyone on the edge was waiting for money to hit their bank account. A lot of folks had nothing left in the bank. So how could they leave town?”

Those who stayed during the storm endured terrible conditions: loss of power and running water in extreme heat, high winds and flooding, difficulty finding food, clean water.

When disaster relief did start to arrive, it was clear that “the people with the least resources were getting the fewest services, while wealthier neighborhoods were getting more resources,” says Ashley Tsongas, currently deputy to the vice president of programs at Oxfam America.

Roberta Avila, executive director of the Steps Coalition in Biloxi, MS, notes, “Right after the storm, homes along the beach got help first, and they were mostly wealthy. They got grants up to $150,000 immediately to do with whatever they wanted.” Well-heeled homeowners got resources from insurance policies and from the federal government. Tenants and many elderly homeowners had little recourse.

Tsongas landed in Biloxi, where FEMA and the Red Cross had set up in the wealthier, whiter part of town in the west. East Biloxi, largely African American and much poorer, had more people stuck, and few services. “No one was going there,” says Tsongas, “Two to three weeks after the storm, water and power were out, but there was no Red Cross, no FEMA. There were tons of people still around, in their houses, trying to figure out what to do.”

Oxfam staff eventually met Bill Stallworth, the only African-American City Councilman in Biloxi. “He was literally talking on two cell phones at once, one on each ear, trying to get disaster relief services to deliver stuff – water, food,” says Tsongas. After many days working with him to get resources into East Biloxi, Oxfam realized they needed to send him to Washington, DC, to deliver the word personally. Stallworth took the message to Congress: “You have to get FEMA to come into this community.”

Bill Stallworth speaks to a meeting of Oxfam America staff and board members in 2008. Photo: Jacob Silberberg/Oxfam America

Race and ethnicity

The population along the Gulf Coast is a rich mix from many countries and origins. Ironically, this wealth of cultures may actually marginalize a population and weaken resilience. Sinclair notes that “Katrina put race on the map for the US as it hadn’t been before. We suddenly saw poverty and exclusion in racial terms.”

African-American neighborhoods in Biloxi and New Orleans were the poorest, and also the most exposed to disaster. The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans was at the lowest elevation and saw the most water. Avila reports that East Biloxi is still fairly empty: “So many homes were washed away, it was so low in there-- you can’t rebuild, wind and water insurance are too expensive.”

Language barriers posed dangers to some populations. Vietnamese families had come to neighborhoods in New Orleans East and East Biloxi for the climate and the seafood industry. They struggled to find out what was happening, and to try to cope.

While Latinos have flowed to the region since the hurricane, in 2005, they were there in smaller numbers. Herrin notes that in Biloxi, “There was a lot of information in English, but nothing in Spanish. Most Latinos had no idea how serious the storm was going to be. There was no Spanish radio station. The government had a phone line about the storm and resources, but only in English.” The people who stayed had no idea what would happen, as it was the first major hurricane in years.

“Even when you could find an emergency assistance site, they wouldn’t have Spanish speakers,” notes Herrin. Some Latinos, worried about their lack of documentation, were afraid to ask for help.

Gender

Mississippi and Louisiana have some of the deepest pockets of poverty in the country, and feature staggering rates of single-parent households. Katrina hit single mothers and their children especially hard --with loss of shelter, along with loss of water, food, diapers, sanitary supplies.

However, women were often left out of conversations about the recovery process. Sarah Livingston, currently internal communications lead at Oxfam, notes that “Oxfam played a huge role of recognizing the power of these women, and helping to amplify their voices.”

Oxfam provided seed money to start Coastal Women for Change, which brought women to the table and elevated their profile.

Sharon Hanshaw, leader of the Coastal Women for Change organization founded after Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Liliana Rodriguez/Oxfam America

Hazards of climate change and social vulnerability

Oxfam America has since explored social vulnerability in the Gulf Coast with two interactive maps. One covers the entire US Southeast; the other focuses in greater detail on Louisiana and Mississippi.

The maps overlay factors of vulnerability with hazards of climate change: drought, flooding, hurricane force winds, and sea level rise.

As we face increasing dangers from these hazards, which can devastate communities, cities, states, and entire regions, we continue to seek to empower residents to understand their rights and advocate for their communities.

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