Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Critical Look at the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Economically Vulnerable Population of New Orleans– Ashley Haskin

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm, swept into the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans altering the region and the entire nation forever. Over 90,000 square miles were declared a federal disaster area and anywhere from $100-$200 billion dollars has been spent to help the area recover (Johnson). As predicted by many in the city, the Category 4 hurricane caused the levees holding the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to break, forcing water to pour into New Orleans. The storm and its aftermath have led to a major debate in the United States about who has been impacted by the disaster, as well as the planning and response for the hurricane relief. Louisiana’s public health disaster preparedness and evacuation measures in response to Katrina were inadequate as evidenced by the economically disadvantaged population, which, because of cultural differences and underlying social factors, was more resistant to typical preparedness measures. This group of people suffered disproportionately compared to the population at large. “It was a situation where warnings were given in advance, evacuations were incomplete or misguided, and many individuals were ultimately responsible for their own safety, resulting in unnecessary loss of life” (Sullivan). Unfortunately, it is largely in reviewing the findings after disasters like Katrina that one begins to better understand the weaknesses of the public health emergency response.

It was largely thought that public health and federal agencies had learned their lesson after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which demonstrated that maneuvering the aid process requires education, time, and skill that poor families simply may not possess. Hurricane Katrina, however, has proven this assumption was wrong (Morrow, 153). Although it is understandable that disaster preparedness and recovery programs may not be able to immediately address the underlying factors aggravating minority communities’ experiences, public health authorities are more aware of these problems as they reappear in disaster after disaster. These factors include limited financial resources and weak social networks outside of their neighborhoods and families (Bolin, 42). The economically disadvantaged population, a majority of which is African-American, is not likely to have personal transportation and basic communication devices available such as televisions, telephones, and computers/internet. These communication devices are necessary to assure proper notice of the storm’s approach and adequate evacuation out of harm’s way. In order to affect change, public health initiatives must address both the obvious reasons why those impacted by the hurricane were African-American citizens living below the poverty line and the fundamental psychological reasons why there was a difference.

New Orleans has a history of racial division, which ultimately resulted in the modern African-American communities being relegated to certain portions of the city. Many of the lowest lying areas of New Orleans, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, were predominantly African-American and, not surprisingly, were hit hardest by the floodwaters (Center for Progressive Reform). Geographer Craig Colten observed “with greater means and power, the white population occupied the better-drained sections of the city, while blacks typically inhabited the swampy ‘rear’ sections” (Colten, 77). Many believe that racism is no longer a significant problem for American society, but what many people do not realize is the fact that racial discrimination takes place not merely through intentional interactions between individuals, but also as a result of deep social and institutional practices and habits (Page). Racist social patterns –where people live, which social organizations they belong to, what schools they attend – built during the hundreds of years when active racial prejudice was a fact of ethnic life still persist today. These social and institutional structures, in other words, are constructed on prejudicial racialist foundations (Page). This social and economic exclusion on the basis of race is what “racism” is really all about (Page). It was the institution of these social patterns that caused the greatest differences in health between the African Americans and whites in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As noted by David R.Williams in his article Racial Residential Segregation: A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health, “…racial residential segregation is the cornerstone on which black-white disparities in health status have been built in the U.S.” (Williams, 215). He goes on to note that racial disparities in health are a basic cause of the differences, as opposed to a more proximate cause, and need to be addressed in order to produce change (Williams, 217). It is no secret that discrepancies in health among different races, particularly African Americans and whites, exist but, as is typical with the field of public health, identifying these problems is the “easy” part while trying to eliminate the problems has proven to be the greatest challenge.

How this poverty-stricken population cooperates and complies with emergency mandates and how information is communicated to them need to be addressed when it comes to discussing the more fundamental, psychological reasons why the disaster preparedness failed the economically disadvantaged in New Orleans. Because of the long-standing effects that racism has on the African-American community, it is no wonder that they might have skepticism in trusting public health and government measures on disaster preparedness. These populations may harbor beliefs about privacy and fears of discrimination that discourage participation in outreach efforts. It is important to understand that poverty includes a person’s culture and is propagated through a number of habits, behaviors, and characteristics. As Helen T. Sullivan and Markku T. Hakkinen noted about the importance of understanding the psychology of human response to danger, “psychology, and the related discipline of Human Factors, seeks to understand human perception, cognition, and behavior in relation to environment and technology, and can play a significant role in understanding the underlying human processes and contribute to the development of effective preparedness and warning strategies” (Sullivan).

The capacity to adequately communicate information to victims is crucial with two different theories of human behavior to understand how to better communicate this information to vulnerable populations. The first is the Threat-to-Self-Esteem Model, which is “the theory that reactions to receiving assistance depend on whether help is perceived as supportive or threatening” ( If receiving help contains negative self-messages, recipients are likely to feel threatened and respond negatively. This is why it is important to make sure messages are not perceived as threatening and meet the unique cultural needs of this population in order for them to be less resistant to getting out of harm’s way. The other theory is Brehm’s Theory of Psychological Reactance in which “people believe they possess specific behavioral freedoms, and that they will react against and resent attempts to limit this sense of freedom” (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2365). In this model, when people perceive an unfair restriction on their actions (being forced out of their home or required to stay in shelters), a state of reactance is activated, which tends to be emotional, single-minded, and somewhat irrational. This leads to the final stage where the person acts to remove the reactance. The motivational qualities of reactance are so strong that the person must do something about it; they try to get the unfair restriction removed or they will try to subvert the restriction. Another consequence of reactance at the final step is that people will tend to overvalue the action that was unfairly restricted (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2365). In terms of disaster preparedness, people might feel their privacy and personal liberty are at stake when mandatory evacuations are in place and might offer a lot of resistance if they feel that the restrictions are unfair. In order to avoid these reactions, public health initiatives must be communicated to all. The entire city and, particularly the economically vulnerable populations, must be made aware that the restrictions placed on them during states of emergency are fair and necessary. If both of these theories are applied in future disaster preparedness plans, the reaction and outcome of the economically vulnerable will be more effective.

When looking at the more obvious reasons as to why the disaster preparedness of New Orleans failed the economically disadvantaged, one needs to turn to the specific evacuation plans that were in place before Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. It is important to review pre-existing and inherent failures of the plans in order to enhance future mitigation, preparedness, and response. When Katrina hit, a majority of the population was lacking in requirements necessary to aid in evacuation such as transportation. A total of 200,000 individuals throughout the region lacked a car or access to a car during the time they were able to leave (Johnson). In the New Orleans Evacuation Plan, it states that public transportation is to be used during the recommended and mandatory phase of the evacuation. However, the “precautionary phase,” which is the first evacuation phase enacted during a hurricane, is only directed at the most vulnerable populations, which include those who work offshore, live on coastal islands or wetlands, persons aboard boats, and those living in mobile homes and recreational vehicles ( This precautionary phase does not include individuals without cars as being most vulnerable and thus the city did not maximize evacuation capabilities by utilizing the most time available between phase initiation and storm fall and did not facilitate mobility of mass transportation vehicles ( The New Orleans Evacuation Plan also makes clear that decisions involving a proper and orderly evacuation lie with the governor, mayor and local authorities and nowhere is the president or federal government even mentioned. There have been many critics of the federal response but it must be recognized that state and local government did not ask for help when they clearly required it and when the federal government did respond, it did nearly all it was authorized to do (Clark).

When there are large areas that natural disasters such as a hurricane like Katrina are likely to leave devastated, the cross-jurisdictional complexity that makes it so difficult to understand and implement laws can stand in the way of the swift and decisive action necessary for emergencies. (Bustillos, 3)

It was also known prior to the storm that the economically disadvantaged have a harder time navigating the government system and performing more bureaucratic tasks such as filling out forms and providing relevant information to disaster personnel compared to upper middle-class victims (Morrow, 154). Even though economically vulnerable populations are in much more need of federal financial assistance as they are often uninsured and without significant financial reserves, government programs are more likely to be successfully accessed by middle and upper class victims. “Since many of the economically disadvantaged rely on social services for income and support, it is recommended that education of environmental hazards and evacuation measures be incorporated into the application of such aid” (Featherstone). Another thing that was known to exist prior to the storm was the key role of social networks in disaster recovery, as victims are able to rely upon neighborhood, workplace and kinship ties for temporary housing, emotional support and access to other practical resources such as transportation and communication (Hurlbert). Most residents of poor urban areas tend to have limited social networks with limited resources and are thus disadvantaged from accessing a variety of non-government safety nets (Hurlbert). Since this was pre-existing knowledge, the government should have anticipated this problem prior to the storm so they would have been more equipped to handle this vulnerable population. An essential piece of the evacuation puzzle lies in addressing the plight of the resource-limited portion of the population. To most effectively facilitate the evacuation of the poor, more must be done to educate people on the real threat that exists due to hurricanes and other hazards (Featherstone). In order for adequate public health disaster preparedness initiatives to work, these matters need to be addressed so there is not such a discrepancy in health across racial and economic borders.

In the article Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations: Determining Effective Strategies for Communicating Risk, it is noted “the social sciences will play a greater role in disaster preparedness research…which will need to focus on the development of strategies and mechanisms for conveying preparedness information to individuals at risk” (Sullivan). It is important to look at psychosocial functioning (riding out previous hurricanes, optimism of outcome, confidence, religious beliefs, and hurricane impact and perceptions) among this group as reasons for not evacuating along with financial factors (liquid resources) and community network factors (including social networks outside their immediate neighborhood as a place to evacuate to) in order to come up with an effective strategy to target this population during times of crises. It is true that with a hurricane of Katrina’s size almost all local resources will be wiped out and the state resources handicapped. However, it is the states responsibility to ensure they are capable of an adequate response to support and aid its citizens in their time of need before and after a disaster. If a structural change can be initiated to educate and alter these circumstances that discriminate against portions of the population, the entire nation will benefit and rescue operations for any type of emergency response will be equally effective in saving lives of all classes and race.


Bolin, Robert. “Disaster Impact and Recovery: A Comparison of Black and White Victims” in International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 4(1) Pp35-50, (1986).

Bustillos, Dan, J.D. “Disasters and Disease: The Public Health Law During States of Emergency” found in GAO Disaster Preparedness: Preliminary Observations on the Evacuation of Vulnerable Populations due to Hurricanes and Other Disasters, May 2006.

Center for Progressive Reform, “An Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina,” CPR Publication #512, September 2005.

Clark, Lee. “Worse Case Katrina” Sept 2, 2005

Colten, Craig E. “An Unnatural Metropolis.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Featherstone, L. “Race to the Bottom, Slow Katrina evacuation fits pattern of injustice During crises,” September 8, 2005.

Hurlbert, Jeanne S., John J. Beggs, Valerie A. Haines. “Bridges Over Troubled Waters: What are the Optimal Networks for Katrina’s Victims?” available at

Johnson, Kevin, and Richard Willing. “La toll rises as evacuees find dead in return to homes,” USA Today, November 14, 2005.

Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol 30, pg2365, November 2000. Louisiana State Evacuation Plan, supplement 1A.

Morrow, Betty Hearn. “Stretching the Bonds: The families of Andrew,” in Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, gender and the sociology of disasters. Pp.152-54 (Peacock, Morrow, Gladwin Ed., 1997).

Page, Clarence. “When the ugly truths bubble up: Katrina brings race, poverty front and Center,” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2005.

Sullivan, Helen T. and Markku T. Hakkinen. “Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations: Determining Effective Strategies for Communicating Risk, Warning, and Response.” (2006)

Williams, David R., PhD, MPH and Chiquita Collins, PhD. “Racial Residential Segregation: A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health,” Public Health Reports, vol. 116, pp213-225. September-October 2001.

US CFR Title 45, Part 46.111 (a) (3)


Blogger Michael Siegel said...

What a great critique of the racial and socioeconomic disparities in disaster preparedness and response. This is an important paper for all public health practitioners and policy makers to read. It beautifully shows how racism is largely misunderstood as implying a conscious and deliberate attempt to suppress individuals of a particular race, but that some of the most enormous implications arise from a historical societal system of race-based residential segregation. Until this is recognized, efforts to get racism recognized as a fundamental cause of health disparities will largely fail. Your paper will go a long way towards helping to rectify this problem, especially within the specific context of disaster preparedness and response.

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