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Contemplating Katrina’s Chaos

Contemplating Katrina’s Chaos

Focused on evacuees, scholars urge multifaceted response to their plight.

By Ronald Roach

To get some notion of how deeply scholars have been affected by Hurricane Katrina, you might look to someone like Dr. Erma Lawson, a medical sociologist from the University of North Texas. Lawson, who has been coordinating the assistance efforts for the Association of Black Sociologists, hasn’t hesitated to call on colleagues, graduate students, civil rights organizations, churches and local public officials to respond to the plight of the people displaced by floodwaters.

And that’s not all. In addition to this semester’s load of sociology classes, Lawson is using other talents to help evacuees. “I’m trained as a nurse,” she explains. “I initially responded to the crisis by volunteering as a nurse in the shelters.”

There’s no doubt that humanitarian concern motivates scholars like Lawson. But Katrina’s Category 4 winds also appear to have blown academics out of their comfortable ivory towers and into the public fray. The hurricane is even influencing the way scholars do research.    

“I’m working with a team of graduate students to publish a paper on the coping responses of evacuees,” Lawson says of her experiences nursing and counseling people in shelters.

And the storm has also encouraged academics — who are often content to talk mainly among themselves — to attempt to shape public and government responses to the monumental race and poverty issues exposed by the hurricane.

Fighting the Policy Battle
In his address to the nation on Sept. 15, just more than two weeks after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, President George W. Bush gave hope to many that his administration might be ready to tackle the thorny issues of race and poverty.

“As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality,” Bush said.

But while the “rhetoric from the president seemed right,” says Alan Berube, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, the subsequent moves by the administration and Congress clearly signaled that there are no major anti-poverty initiatives on the horizon.

Indeed, says Berube, co-author of the recently released Brookings report, “Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America,” hurricane assistance is being linked to cuts in social spending rather than to a rollback in tax cuts for the affluent.

“They have yet to back up any policies that are proven to improve the circumstances of the most disadvantaged in American society,” Berube says.

The report notes that the widespread urban poverty seen in New Orleans also exists in other metropolitan areas around the United States.

“In large measure, the conditions present in high-poverty areas of New Orleans — a racially segregated population, lack of married couples and two-earner families, low levels of education and barriers to labor force participation — are mirrored in these other major cities. The same social and economic disadvantages evident in the Lower Ninth Ward can be found in varying degrees in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood, Northeast Philadelphia, North Memphis, Cleveland’s West Side and the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C.,” the report reads.    

Conservatives have argued that the poverty of the Katrina evacuees indicates the failure of “liberal” anti-poverty policies. “This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway,” Dr. Stuart M. Butler, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research think tank in Washington, D.C., told the New York Times.

But Berube counters that the proposals advocated in the Brookings Institution report originated largely as bipartisan measures. Some even got their start under Republican administrations, he says.

“The [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s] HOPE VI program got its start during George H.W. Bush’s administration. The housing voucher was a Republican idea,” Berube says, noting that the report calls for reviving HOPE VI and strengthening the voucher program.

The analysis by Dr. Dorian T. Warren, a doctoral fellow in public policy at the University of Chicago, carries even more sting. Warren says that, while many in public policy academic circles and the social sciences believed that a national disaster on the scale of Katrina might have pushed the federal government to mount a direct attack on poverty, it’s actually served to drive Congress and the president in the opposite direction.

Instead of considering a repeal of previously approved tax cuts as some policy experts have urged, congressional leaders have defended them as necessary measures so that wealthy Americans will be encouraged to contribute to economic growth by investing more and starting businesses that hire workers.

Warren also cites the rollback of federal labor protections. Contractors are now allowed to pay cleanup workers wages lower than the prevailing local rates. Affirmative action rules that would have ensured minority business participation in Katrina rebuilding efforts have been suspended as well.

“You would think that we would be looking at policies that reduce poverty, yet we’re seeing policies that will exacerbate the problems,” says Warren, a co-author of “Katrina’s Political Roots and Divisions: Race, Class, and Federalism in American Politics,” an essay published on the Social Science Research Council’s “Understanding Katrina” Web site.

Dr. Sarah Malone-Hawkins, a sociology professor at historically Black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, agrees. Malone-Hawkins cites the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which has authority to set wage protections in federally funded Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, as a devastating message to poor and working-class laborers, especially given the many environmental hazards workers face in the region.

“The wages [in this region] are already low. The new policy
allows for even lower wages. That tells me that this administration is not interested in dealing with poverty,” Malone-Hawkins says.
Dr. Robert Newby, a sociology professor at Central Michigan University, says that while it’s clear the national government won’t touch large-scale issues like poverty anytime soon, he’s of the belief that evacuees are in for a long and rocky road before eventual resettlement.

For instance, scholars from the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, a progressive think tank in Washington, sounded the alarm last month on what it deems as a looming housing crisis for Gulf Coast evacuees. As of mid-October, the think tank and advocacy organizations warned that the amount of rental assistance provided to evacuees appears to be insufficient for the poorest of displaced families to secure housing. More than 600,000 families were displaced and more than 200,000 people have gone into hotels and motels after the Bush administration ordered to have shelters cleared out by late October.

Barbara Sard, the director of housing policy at the center, says that many families will need relocation and housing search assistance as well as direct payments to owners through rental vouchers to secure stable housing. She says FEMA’s housing policy needs to be changed to allow voucher money to be used for utilities. Rent adjustments will be necessary in competitive housing markets, too.

At the front lines in local shelters “The evacuation preceding and after Hurricane Katrina is reminiscent of the massive American Dust Bowl migration and the post-World War II journey of many African-Americans from the rural and small-town South to northern cities,” noted Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, in an online forum at

The record of past migrations helps give scholars a sense of how Katrina’s effects are playing out for the hundreds of thousands of families displaced by the storm. Yet scholars such as Wiley College’s Malone-Hawkins and Lawson of UNT have taken to the shelters and other facilities to assist as well as conduct their own studies of evacuees.

In October, New Orleans officials began attempting to recruit former residents to come back to the city and work in reopened local 

  businesses. According to news reports, those early efforts found few takers. In conversations with those who escaped New Orleans, Lawson reports that many of them say they have no intention of returning to the Crescent City, given the level of destruction the city experienced and the mistreatment they endured before being evacuated from the flood-ravaged city. “They say, ‘It’s too dangerous’ [or] ‘They sabotaged the levees to drive Blacks out of New Orleans,’” she says of the beliefs many poor and working-class Blacks have expressed about their former city.
Malone-Hawkins recently hired a new administrative assistant from New Orleans. Now, the single mother has no qualms about making the move to East Texas permanent.

Such willingness to leave a home community behind, Lawson says, reflects the bitterness and grief many former New Orleans residents feel. In one survey conducted in early September, fewer than half of all New Orleans evacuees living in emergency shelters in Houston indicated that they planned to move back home, while two-thirds of those who want to relocate planned to settle permanently in the Houston area. The Washington Post, in coordination with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted the survey.

Experts say the large number of evacuees who indicate a willingness to leave New Orleans behind indicates how poorly their home city has served them over generations, failing to provide adequate schooling, to offer quality job training and to protect them from crime.

As Lawson has gone about documenting the health conditions of Katrina evacuees, she says it’s been striking to her the degree to which physical ailments reflect the stress and anxiety levels among African-American evacuees. In addition to noting the high incidence of kidney disease and diabetes among the poor and working-class Black evacuees, she’s seen a surprising number of new cases of type II diabetes flare up among people in shelters.

“It’s well established that type II diabetes often surfaces as a response to stress and anxiety,” Lawson says.

The nurse-sociologist says she’s been taking careful notes on how the victims of Hurricane Katrina are dealing with the stress of surviving both the storm and its aftermath.

In addition to physical indicators, it’s been interesting to her how evacuees have flocked to Dallas area churches. Black Americans have historically turned to faith-based institutions in times of tragedy and great stress, Lawson notes.

Dr. Keith Alford, a professor of social work at Syracuse University, says he’s been impressed at how well the voluntary sector such as the Red Cross and churches have done in meeting the emergency and short-term survival needs of Katrina evacuees. While federal and state agencies have been crucial in the short-term, it remains to be seen how federal intervention will shape the resettlement of poor and working-class people in new communities.

For his part, Alford stresses that the mental and physical health needs of individual families and their members have to be anticipated by the communities into which they settle. He notes evacuees are candidates for ailments such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder that may, depending on the person, strike months or even years down the road. In the short term, evacuees must contend with the grief that comes with sudden tragedy and loss, Alford says.

“It’s not unusual that many people say they have no intentions of going back to New Orleans. That response is logical as they’re reacting to the stress of having lost their homes and feeling endangered during the evacuation effort,” Alford says.

Alford notes that as evacuees have time to reflect and work through their grief, they may change their minds about resettling and decide that they want to return home.

While few scholars actively combine service and research as deftly as UNT’s Lawson, the opportunity to do both has emerged as agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have begun issuing research RFPs (Request for Proposals) regarding Katrina’s impact. Citing a concern mentioned frequently by African-American scholars, Dr. Benjamin Bowser, a sociology professor at the California State University East Bay, says the performance of the news media during Katrina invites critical examination by researchers. The labeling of evacuees as “refugees” in news reports especially angered Black leaders and analysts, who questioned why a term typically applied to people displaced in foreign lands was applied to American citizens on American soil. Instead of sober, detailed and sophisticated broadcasts, the national television and cable television networks delivered poor, racially insensitive and uninformed reporting, Bowser contends.

“It was very sensationalistic,” says Bowser, noting that news commentators and reporters initially avoided talking about race and did so awkwardly when it could no longer be ignored.

Despite missteps, the news media coverage of Katrina managed to shock the world and shame the nation, sparking the short-lived discussion on race and poverty. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. noted that he “was naive enough to hope that after Katrina the left and the right might have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poorest among us. I guess we’ve moved on.” Though many scholars and analysts lament that Katrina’s spotlight on New Orleans’ poor proved too fleeting for the nation to begin a sustained debate on race and poverty, Brookings Institution’s Berube says he’s “optimistic” that the federal government will eventually confront the issue.

“What Congress needs to focus on now is getting relief efforts right for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” Berube says.

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