After the Storm
By Caitlin Corrigan
In the weeks and months following the devastating Gulf Coast storms of 2005, privileged America slowly stumbled upon the realization that those affected were overwhelmingly poor, black, and until this disaster, largely invisible to the white elite.
That moment has yet to come for women.
Before the levees failed New Orleans, 54 percent of the near 500,000 residents were women. That slight majority does not account for the disproportionately gendered images from Katrina’s aftermath: women alone, women with babies, women with family members, women crying, women standing in lines, women yelling, women sleeping, women sick, and women dying. Poor preparedness and response hurt those with the least resources, and while the broken system that allowed such human error and loss has been called a kind of modern day ethnic cleansing, little dialogue has begun on the gender-specific failings that continue to undermine women today.
As Joni Seager wrote in an early analysis of Katrina’s effect on women for Geoforum, “disaster is seldom gender neutral.” She cites the huge disparities in the casualties of recent natural disasters — one and a half times as many women as men died in the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake; five times as many in the 1991 floods of Bangladesh; three to four times as many in the 2004 South Asian tsunami. With this kind of precedent, and the cogent research available from groups like the Gender and Disaster Network, who published their report, “Six Principles for Engendered Relief and Reconstruction,” in January 2005, the failure to account for gender specific needs was as avoidable — and devastating — as ignoring the needs of poor, car-less New Orleanians left to linger on rooftops for days.
This is not to say that gender exists separate from race or class; the factors deciding who bore the brunt of this storm are undoubtedly linked. But why has no national discourse — however brief or superficial — addressed the very real and visible gender of this disaster? Maybe because the t-shirts are doing it for us. A longtime New Orleans tradition, the titillatingly profane tourist t-shirt (“I got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street”) is back, revamped for Post-K yucks. One of the most popular features pictures the two swirling storms side-by-side, proclaiming hurricanes Katrina and Rita “Girls Gone Wild!” Gendering Katrina — a highly unpredictable, powerful, damaging storm — as female is dangerous, but not surprising, and would be all the more tolerable if those in charge of rebuilding were at least half as aware of gender as these vendors in the French Quarter.
Pinpointing those in charge of reconstruction is difficult — Mayor Ray Nagin’s economic development committee has been criticized for favoring tourist-fueled businesses, and a comprehensive alternative plan has yet to be voiced. Real leadership and structure is needed for all New Orleans residents, including specific provisions and plans for fulfilling gender specific needs of reproductive health, safety and security, and child care instigated by the storm and its aftermath. Quoted in an article for Left Turn Magazine, an unidentified activist from the New Orleans chapter of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence puts it thus: “We have to have some form of community accountability for the sexual and physical violence women and children have endured. I’m not interested in developing an action plan to rebuild or organize a people’s agenda in New Orleans without a gender analysis.”
But Louisiana was hardly leading the way for women pre-Katrina. A 2004 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranks the state in the bottom 10 “among all the states in the nation on many of the indicators of women’s status calculated by the [IWPR].” Women, especially poor African-American women, were already a marginalized group in the Crescent City. The 2004 U.S. Census shows that 41 percent of all female-headed households with children in New Orleans were living below the poverty line. These were the people without the ability to evacuate, their situation made more precarious by the children in their care. After a disaster of this magnitude, the tight-knit social communities and social services that held many of these families’ lives together have been, literally, blown apart.
Christina Kucera, formerly of Planned Parenthood New Orleans, has underscored the vulnerability women face when support systems break down, “It’s the collapse of community. We’ve lost neighbors and systems within our communities that helped keep us safe.” This issue of physical safety, which had been all but ignored in the months following Katrina, began to get some exposure at the end of 2005, when reports of what really went on in the Superdome started to roll in. A December 21st story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” noted the large number of unreported rapes and physical assaults that occurred not only in the Superdome, but citywide in the days following the storm. At the time the story aired, the official number of reported rapes was only four — a staggeringly underwhelming number considering the notorious crime index of New Orleans City prior to Katrina. But non-profit victim advocacy groups are working to get assault cases brought to light — the National Sexual Violence Resource Center created a national database to document post-Katrina sexual assaults, and Maryland based Witness Justice has received hundreds of Katrina related reports. More and more survivors of sexual assault will step forward in the months, and even years, to come. Will New Orleans have the tools necessary to deal with victims and aggressors alike? Or what about the cases that go unreported — how can affected women find resources to deal with their trauma, especially when prosecution seems unlikely in unstable post-storm New Orleans?
The landscape of recovery simply does not address women’s needs, or even begin to acknowledge the far-reaching gender gap that’s become the norm in the months since the storm. Construction workers, security guards, inspectors — these are the new jobs in town, and all but a very few are held by men. Camouflaged Humvees — and the M-16 wielding men inside them — still growl down side streets regularly. The face of “new” New Orleans is male to the point of archetype, while the image of the “victims” are poor, needy women.
Any power in numbers that New Orleans women may have had remains compromised as the parade of Post-K problems that compromise women’s return continues. For one, public schools have been slow to open, keeping away families with children who cannot afford the tuition of a private school. The teachers and staff — many women among them — are now scattered and have been told they must re-apply for their former jobs. NORTA, the area’s public transportation system whose buses and streetcar fleets suffered significant flooding, has restored service slowly, with limited lines and hours, hindering access to available job sites in the near-restored French Quarter and Central Business District.
Without women returning (and damn sure they won’t return without schools for their children, jobs that will pay better than whatever work they’ve found in Houston, Atlanta, or Des Moines, and transportation to those jobs, let alone access to health care, condoms, abortion, food stamps, and the like), New Orleans’ ability to repair fragile social networks and communities is in real danger. Without communities, there can be no real progressive development, only bulldozers and condos where the Ninth Ward used to stand, or a squat subdivision hovering over Louis Armstrong Park. As more time passes in the wake of this disaster, resident fears have a greater basis in reality — recent recommendations from the Nagin appointed Urban Land Institute schedule the most affected areas — Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward — for the last tier of reconstruction triage.
New Orleans needs its women. New Orleans needs people discussing how the infrastructure and support systems failed women in this storm, and how the failing represents a larger ignorance of gender specific needs in times of crisis. And we need to start redefining what “crisis” means, broadening our terms to include more than hurricane or flood, but also the day-to-day existence of poor women nationwide with limited access to resources and recourses.
We need adequate, comprehensive recovery plans with a forward-thinking vision for how to prepare all vulnerable residents for the next inevitable storm. Instead of writing the city off as an uninhabitable danger zone, we need to be proactive, thinking creatively about how to better protect women — and men and children — from the natural and unnatural hazards bred by New Orleans’ unique physical (and political) geography.
San Francisco is leading the way in preparatory thinking with a free program in disaster training skills that would have truly made a difference for many of the women in New Orleans. The course sessions include basic information on identifying hazardous materials and more advanced matters of search and rescue and damaged building identification. With this kind of preparedness, we would surely have heard fewer stories like the one remembered by a Louisiana police detective in a November 2005 Mike Davis article in The Nation. “Vincent” describes a grueling search process for the dead in the murky floodwaters, which revealed many women and children, all of whom had “fought like hell” but clearly, lost. “We found the corpse of a woman clutching a young baby. Mother or sister, I don’t know. I couldn’t pry the infant out of the woman’s grasp without breaking her fingers. After finally separating them, the baby left a perfect outline imprinted across the lady’s chest.”
Images like these will (and should) haunt America’s history and psyche for generations.
Though a December feature in the local alternative paper Gambit Weekly completely skirted any discussion of gender-specific plans in their rundown of local grassroots rebuilding efforts, there are organizations offering services and a voice to area women. One women’s center in the Bywater/Ninth Ward area, run by the Common Ground Collective, has been operating since shortly after the storm, offering services to women even before their power was restored. The center offers a same sex shelter for those uncomfortable with the co-habitation of other shelters and “tent cities” across the city. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN), whose national headquarters are in New Orleans, has been active in forming the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association (AKSA), whose predominately female members and spokespersons give a real face and voice to the countless women who are trying to rebuild their lives and unite their families.
Learning the lessons of Katrina and continuing the conversation about disaster preparedness, response, and recovery for women in vulnerable areas is absolutely vital. Women in potentially disastrous areas must identify their risks, form solid evacuation plans (and back up plans), and demand training of the sort offered in San Francisco for themselves and their neighbors. If women are to bear the burden of reconstructing culture and community following disaster, they need the tools necessary to survive the event, and the government and grassroots support to flourish in the aftermath and rebuild.