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Community Lost

School of Social Work and College of Liberal Arts researchers track the survivors of Hurricane Katrina evacuated to Austin in new book.

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Hurricane Katrina is still teaching lessons seven years after it struck the Gulf Coast.

The hurricane upended the lives of thousands of New Orleans residents. It forced people from their homes and neighborhoods and the city where families had lived for generations.

In one of the most extensive examinations of the aftermath of the hurricane, a team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin tracked a group of hurricane survivors evacuated to Austin and their experiences with service organizations from the federal government down to small nonprofits and faith-based organizations.

They published their findings in “Community Lost: State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina.” Although many books have been written about the immediate aftermath of the storm, this is one of the few that presents a long-term view.

The researchers were at the Austin Convention Center when evacuees from New Orleans arrived in 2005, and they tracked many survivors for several years.

The findings from the team of social work and sociology researchers documented the complementary roles of the federal government and civil society organizations, such as local government, businesses, private charities, churches and individuals in the long-term recovery of displaced survivors.

Although many groups stepped up to help in the immediate crisis, many of the organizations were not equipped to provide help for as long as the survivors needed, the researchers said.

Social Capital

The research also examined the effect of survivors’ social capital, the strength of their social connections and networks, on their ability to recover.

Before the hurricane, many of New Orleans’ low-income residents depended on tight, extended social networks. Some lived and worked with relatives and relied on sharing resources with extended long-term networks to make it through times with few financial resources.

Many survivors arrived in Austin without the support of their networks, according to the researchers. Many of these networks were disrupted during the evacuation. In some cases, family members were sent to different cities.

Further, the researchers said, Austin valued a different kind of social capital: education, job training and formal work experience.

Many of these low-income survivors found it hard to re-create a sense of community in their new homes, and because of the slow rebuilding of New Orleans, they were left in limbo.

Survivors who had been able to manage in New Orleans found challenges not only socially, but also geographically in Austin.

Affordable housing in Austin was outside the city center, away from social services and service-industry jobs, said Holly Bell, one the book’s authors.

“I would visit people who were in apartments out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “It would be a mile walk to the nearest bus stop. And no grocery stores.”

More affluent survivors relied on the kind of networks that fit better in Austin. Such networks included not only local friends and family, but also professional work connections outside New Orleans. These survivors also often had more education, work experience and financial resources, making them less dependent on public resources and private charity.

The book tells of a family of four in which the parents work in health care. They left New Orleans in their own car before the storm hit and drove to Austin to stay with relatives. A friend helped them find health care jobs in Austin.

The family is now established in Austin. The parents have good jobs in their field, and their children are doing well in school.

Civil Society Response to Katrina

The disruption of social networks also made it harder for service providers to help survivors, the researchers said.

When survivors arrived in Austin, the mayor greeted them as they walked off busses at the convention center where hundreds of volunteers hustled to provide aid.

Austin residents donated clothing, bedding and other goods. The research team documented more than $5 million in donations from private sources for survivors who landed in Austin. The city government coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide longer-term housing.

However, cultural differences between the service providers and the survivors made it hard to engage survivors in case management, according to the researchers. Local nonprofits established a case management collaboration to provide ongoing case management support.

Many low-income survivors, however, coming from an environment where they shared resources with relatives and extended networks were not used to the idea of self-sufficiency promoted by these programs.

Further, case management could not provide long-term housing, transportation, employment, income or even identification.

There was a mismatch between survivors’ skills and the Austin job market, and the lack of affordable housing in Austin kept many survivors worried about how they would survive when their FEMA benefits expired.

The Federal Response to Katrina

FEMA was the survivors’ best friend and their worst enemy, the researchers said.

Although the agency provided critical resources for shelter, short-term assistance and longer-term housing, its constantly changing rules and poor communication added anxiety to survivors’ lives.

According to a 2009 U.S. Senate report, FEMA provided $2.3 billion in expedited assistance to 1.1 million applicants; $6 billion for 1.5 million applicants for emergency shelter; $7.4 billion for 1.4 million applications for individual assistance; and $2.7 billion for mobile homes. It also paid for much of the case management program.

However, as one Austin social service provider remarked, “FEMA is its own monster.”

The agency’s sluggish and bureaucratic response, shifting rules and deadlines, and poor communication and coordination with the city and service organizations created even more stress for survivors, apartment landlords and nonprofit advocates. Month-to-month, survivors were uncertain whether aid for housing would continue.

“What the book documents is the extent of the lack of coordination of efforts between FEMA and the local response,” said Ronald Angel, a professor in the Department of Sociology and a co-author. “But there was no hierarchy. There was nobody really in charge.”

The Way Forward

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the researchers found that only the federal government had the resources to provide comprehensive, immediate assistance and to quickly organize local response.

The fact that FEMA performed poorly during and after Katrina does not negate the need for a strong federal response. Bell said that good government requires thoughtful, forward-looking, realistic planning, especially for those most likely to be affected by a natural disaster: low-income people, people with disabilities and people of color.

Congress made a number of suggestions for improving FEMA in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. Although not all of them have been implemented, there have been improvements.

The researchers said their findings suggest that a vibrant and effective civil society requires a stable, powerful, efficient and just state to function effectively.

Hurricane Katrina illustrates the inherent problems that arise when the federal role in providing safety net functions is drastically cut based on the belief that all social problems can be addressed at the local level. Federal response to disaster must be adequately funded and staffed and designed to help those who are in greatest need.

Further, adequate disaster preparedness requires a long-term federal commitment to addressing structural inequalities that make people vulnerable.