Note: I have not been posting recently because I was evacuated due to the wildfires in Northern California (the photo is in my neighborhood). I was fortunate and am glad to be back with this relevant post.
By Heidi Hartmann and Geanine Wester*
October 19. 2019 – The people in cities and towns across Florida and the Caribbean (as well as those in Houston and the coastal areas) find themselves in the unenviable position that the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast found themselves in just 12 years ago: wondering how to rebuild and recover in the wake of a disastrous storm. Many are looking back to the recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans to learn lessons for what to do this time, which is encouraging, and the rescue effort has already benefitted from lessons learned from Katrina.
The distance of 12 years has produced a body of research on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast that can be instructive for those with the unfortunate task of rebuilding whole communities. One lesson that we hope will be heeded in post-Irma and post-Harvey recoveries: include women — particularly women whose voices might not be easily heard, such as poor women and women of color — in recovery planning.
Women are more vulnerable to climate disasters than men for a number of reasons. Evacuating or rebuilding often comes at a cost, yet in every state in the country, women are more likely to live in poverty than men. This is particularly true in Florida, where a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in collaboration with the Florida Women’s Funding Alliance found that the state ranked in the bottom third of all states for the share of women living in poverty. The outlook is not promising: women in Florida are more likely to live in poverty than they did in 2004.
What’s worse is that women of color in Florida, as is true in other states, have much higher poverty rates than white women. The poverty rates among Florida’s black women (25.2 percent), Native American (21.4 percent), and Hispanic women (21.2 percent) are about twice as high as for white women (11.9 percent) in the state.
Women, particularly low-income women and women of color, have the greatest stake in effective and humane disaster recovery.
Women also make up a greater proportion of the elderly, typically one of the groups with the highest mortality rates during disasters — especially when, as was the case in New Orleans, hospitals are not evacuated. We already know about the tragedy in a Hollywood nursing home, where 8 patients died after Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning and temperatures rose above 100 degrees. Four elderly residents died in the days thereafter.
In addition to demographic factors, women also face a high risk of violence at the time of a disaster and during the immediate response and years that follow. Research found that the rate of gender-based violence (including sexual assault and domestic violence) in Mississippi quadrupled after Hurricane Katrina hit the state, while many women remained displaced from their homes and were living in temporary shelters and trailers. The rate declined again in subsequent years.
Women, particularly low-income women and women of color, have the greatest stake in effective and humane disaster recovery. But post-Katrina New Orleans offers a cautionary tale for the recovery effort that lies ahead for Florida when women who have the most at stake are not included in planning.
Over the course of a five-year research project, IWPR researchers interviewed more than 180 low-income black women who had lived in New Orleans public housing prior to the storm. The findings from these interviews indicate that disaster relief and housing policies put in place following Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were implemented in a manner that took away opportunities, supports, and infrastructure from low-income women and their families most in need of a reliable safety net.
The housing these women had been living in — the “Big Four” public housing buildings, which had remained structurally sound during and after the storm and flooding — was demolished as part of an effort to replace large public housing projects with mixed-income developments. After the demolition, city services were no longer conveniently concentrated near public housing and public transit was much curtailed compared with before the storm; the number of living units for low-income families was also substantially curtailed afterward. Many of those who left New Orleans are still living in other areas.
These women also experienced the breakup of their long standing family and community networks that had provided them with virtually uncountable forms of support — from child and elder care to sharing food and transportation and job leads.
In Palm Beach County, there are signs that some residents in low-income housing may be displaced due to hurricane damage.
As recovery efforts now get underway across Florida, we hope policy planning and development will include the voices of low-income women and their families. If they do, the benefits will likely be enormous for the children and families involved, as well as both their new communities and the ones they hope to return to.
*Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC. Geanine Wester, CPP, MBA is the founder of EmpowHER of the Palm Beaches established to empower and motivate women to change their local community through personal and political leadership.