Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama Gulf Coasts on August 29, 2005, there has been a great deal of discussion about disaster preparedness, relief and recovery in the United States. These discussions initially focused on Katrina, but quickly expanded to include other disasters. At the same time, with the economic recession, housing bubble burst, and 2012 elections, more attention has been focused on issues of inequality—particularly economic inequality and poverty in America. For some, these issues overlap.
In media coverage and research about disasters, there are questions of what happens to the poor, working class, and, increasingly, parts of the middle class when those disasters strike. As inequality grows, it can affect disaster preparedness and recovery. People may be left unable to adequately insure their homes, if they can at all. People may be unable to evacuate—they cannot afford to take the time off from work, they cannot put gas in their car before a paycheck, they do not have access to affordable transportation alternatives. People may be unable to afford to rebuild (at all, quickly, safely or sustainably) with little to no insurance funds or savings to augment what other aid they may receive. People may lack the funds or financial stability to qualify for recovery related loans like those from the Small Business Administration (SBA) or banks.
Since my own work and experiences with disasters have been based in the United States, I focus on that area here. Moreover, I believe there is some importance in discussing the contrast between poverty and wealth in a powerful country, particularly at a time when more and more people—in the US and abroad—are questioning the place and power of American citizens in their own nation. But issues like disaster preparedness, relief efforts, recovery, inequality and poverty are in no way restricted to the US and we should also be discussing these issues in other contexts, cultures and countries.
Disasters and Poverty
Wealth disparity, inequality and poverty are growing problems in the United States. The 2012 Census revealed that record numbers of Americans—over 45 million people, about 15% of the population—are living in poverty. For a family of four, this means making approximately $23,000 a year. And nearly 21 million of these people make half of that, $11,500 or less for a family of four. A survey conducted by the Associated Press in the summer of 2013 revealed that as many as four out of five US adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or a reliance on welfare in some form for at least part of their lives. An economic gauge set to be released in 2014 by Oxford University Press estimates similar numbers—79% of Americans will face economic insecurity by the time they reach 60 years old.
These individuals and families face a variety of problems related to their lack of available funds. Wealth disparities leave poor people with different access to resources and knowledge than the wealthy, which can have particular effects on their disaster preparedness and recovery efforts. This is not to say that all poor people are affected the same way or that they all face the same problems, nor it is to say that others do not face similar problems. However, the differential impact of wealth disparities can cause problems for people living in poverty, particularly in disasters.
Individuals and families who struggle financially may lack resources that would enable them to prepare for disaster or evacuate. They may have nothing or little in the way of savings. They may be working hourly wage jobs that restrict time off or they may be unable to afford to take time away from one or more such jobs. Such financial restrictions can create problems when trying to plan an evacuation. These same people may not be able to afford a place to stay outside of the affected area or en route to stay with friends and family members, or be able to put enough gas in their car to evacuate. This issue is especially problematic when disaster strikes at the end of the month when many people are waiting on paychecks, as happened with Katrina. Many residents may not even own a car in which to evacuate (anywhere from 25% to 35% of African Americans and 5% to 15% of whites in New Orleans when Katrina struck, for example), usually relying on public transportation.
Lower income residents may lack the funds to purchase adequate or any home owners or flood insurance. Some people living in poverty may be forced to choose between disaster preparedness and daily necessities, like heat, food or medication. The most pressing problem presented by a lack of insurance is that home owners and renters receive no such funds post-disaster to help repair or rebuild their homes. But a lack of insurance can have a cascading effect as well: homeowners and renters who accept Federal financial assistance after a disaster and continue to live in a flood zone are often required to obtain flood insurance. While the requirement is not without reason, it can be problematic, especially for residents who could not afford the insurance prior to the disaster. This lack of savings or access to insurance may also inhibit attempts to repair or rebuild homes, leaving people unable to arrange safer accommodations, such as elevating homes in a flood zone.
Hurricane Katrina forced a discussion of poverty, race and the status of US citizens into the international media. Video footage, images and descriptions of residents trapped in New Orleans after the storm, stranded on the Interstate 10 bridge, drawing SOS messages on rooftops as they waited for help, or wading through floodwaters raced around the world online, in newspapers, and on television. With it began coverage that described these residents as predominantly poor and African American. As studies into the effects of the storm on the Gulf Coast began, the effects of Katrina on African Americans and the poor increasingly became a point of research and discussion. In the case of Katrina’s effect on the Gulf Coast as a whole, it is nearly impossible to untangle the threads of poverty and race. This is particularly true in New Orleans.
Many people who lost their homes and possessions were left unable to afford to repair or rebuild their homes on their own, particularly with higher costs associated with construction at the time and new regulations for building in flood zones. This was especially true of residents who already struggled financially before the storm, leaving them looking for what shelter they could find and sometimes relying on aid from a variety of organizations to get back into their homes. Some, even years after the storm, remained unable to afford insurance, especially at significantly higher rates (as much as five times higher than before Katrina).
While not only the poor lost their homes, the poor faced more problems accessing aid after the disaster. In addition to a lack of resources like insurance or savings, the poor may lack the knowledge or language skills needed to navigate the maze of paperwork required to access aid. Residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast I spoke with in 2006, 2010 and 2011 described their frustrations with the system, the amount of paperwork to fill out, and the information they needed to know to complete it. For some, these problems meant they were ultimately unable to access the aid they needed.
Katrina and its effects demonstrate the problems the poor face when preparing for and recovering from a disaster. Unfortunately, it does not seem that much changed in subsequent disasters. Only scattered media coverage described the effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 on the working class and the poor, compared to post-Katrina coverage. Low income residents faced joblessness or reduced hours from destroyed businesses, disrupting already fragile financial balances. A study by affordable housing financing firm Enterprise Community Partners noted that nearly 43% of the over half a million New York and New Jersey residents who asked for federal aid made less than $30,000. Federal aid does go to poorer residents, as well as many others, but it does not necessarily address the underlying issues of poverty that make those residents more susceptible to the effects of disasters.
Disasters like Katrina and Sandy reveal the need for the US to address the issues of poverty and growing wealth disparity in order to fully prepare for and recover from disasters. Subsequent disasters have seemingly failed to generate quite the same discussion of poverty in the face of disasters that Katrina did. However, the question remains: has the United States, as a widely recognized wealthy and powerful nation, addressed the issue of poverty? At the moment, the answer unfortunately appears to be no. And if the US is not dealing with the problems of increasing wealth inequality, economic insecurity, and poverty, is it really prepared to deal with the effects of disaster? While the US is distributing disaster aid, even during the initial period of the government shutdown, is it dealing with poverty and the disproportionate effects of disasters on poorer residents with a nationwide approach that would address those effects? The answer seems to be no.
Jennifer Trivedi (U Iowa) is a doctoral candidate studying Katrina recovery in Biloxi, MS. She researches disasters and emergency management responses and agencies. She completed an externship with the CDC, helping develop emergency operations plan training modules. She volunteers with the Gender and Disaster Network (GDN).