Ten Years After Katrina: Women Heroes of the Recovery
On August 27, 2005, my family flew from our home in New Orleans to Iowa to visit relatives, and Hurricane Katrina was going to Florida. By the time we reached Des Moines, it was headed to New Orleans. By Wednesday, September 1, we knew our neighborhood was flooded. Two weeks later, we returned to see our waterlogged, mold-filled home. Eighteen months and nine moves later, we moved back. Even though we flooded and almost all we owned was lost, I stood in privilege in the storm. We had our jobs, friends, places to stay, and the ability to navigate the nightmarish bureaucracy of aid.
Ten years later, the narratives of Hurricane Katrina are still difficult to capture. There is no way to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina as if the experiences were universal. Instead, there are individual stories of failure, survival, and triumph. As we commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the storm and assess the recovery, we should remember that the women of New Orleans are responsible for much of this recovery. We also need to remember that inequality is so persistent that we must continue to focus on—and pressure policy makers to prioritize—decreasing poverty and violence for women and their families.
Before the storm, the city was struggling with poverty, blight, pervasive violence, failing schools, and high rates of mass incarceration. These factors, combined with the slow and inadequate response to the crisis, left many of the most vulnerable residents even more at risk. In a city where 80 percent of the homes were flooded, how to come back is embedded in the context of inequality. The pervasiveness of inequality helps to explain the narratives of women’s lives post-Katrina and how and why the recovery has been uneven. Some neighborhoods are thriving; others not as well. High poverty rates, low wages, lack of affordable housing, and violence continue to afflict families and neighborhoods.
The evacuation displaced thousands of families. In the immediate response and for some time after, families moved time and time again as they tried to find a place to settle. The randomness of how families left the city, ending up in every major American city and many rural places, was just the beginning of the struggle. Jacquelyn Litt, Rutgers sociology professor and author of Women of Katrina: Crossing Borders, Weaving Networks, and Taking Care (forthcoming), writes about how women traveled in large caravans with their families—small children, elderly parents, and extended family members—and describes their attempts to rebuild their once-strong networks in unfamiliar places.
As the ten-year anniversary approaches, the tremendous energy that so many women and men have been able to bring to rebuild the city creates one part of the narrative. Arts and cultural organizations blossomed in the post-Katrina landscape. Old neighborhoods changed and altered as the brain gain deepened. Nonprofits proliferated in post-Katrina New Orleans. Many existing nonprofits changed the type of work they did and how they did their work in the post-disaster landscape.
Women lead many of these organizations; before and after Hurricane Katrina. There was an energy after the storm; the possibility that change could be different. Two of the current city council members, LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry, are women who began their careers as leaders in their own neighborhood organizations. Ashé Cultural Arts Center was an anchor in the Central City neighborhood before the storm; now, with the leadership of Carol Bebelle, the center has been at the heart of the neighborhood’s revitalization. Crescent House, a shelter for battered women before Katrina, became the New Orleans Family Justice Center. The change from a shelter to a much broader program came about through a community discussion after Katrina. Through the work of executive director Mary Claire Landry and others, the Family Justice Center now sees more than 1,500 women and children a year; the agency is a one-stop shop offering a variety of resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Goodwork Network, headed by Phyllis Cassidy, is a micro-enterprise agency that provides a wide variety of services for small businesses, mostly owned by people of color.
These women and others are part of the visible revitalization of our city. What is not so visible are the women everywhere who stepped up to do the hard work after the storm. They rebuilt their homes, took care of their children and families, and helped to rebuild the city. These are the women who hired contractors, stood in line to get their building permits, waited for their road home monies, and waited on insurance monies. And, at the same time, they tried to find scarce day care or schools for their children, a place to live, a job, and care for their elderly parents.
Here is what is also true about women in New Orleans—they work. They work, and many of them are still poor. Thirty-nine percent of all New Orleans children live in poverty, 17 percent points higher than the United States average. The rate of single moms living in poverty increased from 52 percent in 1999 to 58 percent in 2013, much higher than the national average. Further, this poverty is concentrated in neighborhoods that are wage deserts—census tracts in which at least 80 percent of all earners in primary jobs earn less than $3,333 per month. Eighty-three percent of workers in New Orleans wage deserts identify as African American. Poor working women and children live in poor neighborhoods. At the same time, affordable housing stock continues to shrink, as neighborhoods gentrify or have yet to be rebuilt.
Both community and domestic violence remain a challenge to women in New Orleans. For three years prior to 2015, the murder rate had dipped; but this year the murder rate will most likely show an increase. As with wage deserts, murders are not evenly distributed throughout the city. Rates of domestic violence have stayed constant over the recovery period, varying little from pre-Katrina rates. For some women, then, poverty and safety remain everyday issues.
The narratives of Hurricane Katrina reflect the inequality that were present before the storm and exacerbated during recovery. Women continue to be heroes of the storm and, more importantly, of the recovery.