3Qs: The human rights impact of Hurricane Katrina

This is the final story in news@Northeastern’s three-part series commemorating the 10th anniversary of what FEMA called the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.

The destruction of Hurricane Katrina caused unprecedented flooding and widespread destruction. But more than just the physical damage and financial loss, there was the human toll. The catastrophic storm forced nearly 200,000 residents to abandon their homes. A decade later, many of them still have not returned.

A lack of affordable housing, poor distribution of relief funds, and inadequate healthcare are just some of the obstacles that have prevented evacuees from returning home, which Amnesty International has said is a violation of human rights.

Here, Thomas Vicino, associate professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs, discusses how Hurricane Katrina continues to weigh on those who fled.

Why is Hurricane Katrina a human rights atrocity?

Hurricane Katrina is a human rights atrocity in multiple contexts, such as social, economic, physical, and moral. Nearly 2,000 people died, and property damage was estimated to be well over $100 billion, making it one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters to impact the United States.

Katrina was such a consequential storm because it directly hit a large central city and metropolitan area. To consider the impact on human rights, we must confront the socioeconomic structure of cities in America. Major cities throughout the nation experienced marked patterns of urban decline after World War II. The causes of these patterns are well documented by urban scholars. They are rooted in the suburbanization of cities, which led to the decline of the middle class in cities, the deindustrialization of the urban economy and the resulting lack of economic opportunity, discrimination against people of color, and the concentration of poverty in the inner city.

The impacts of Katrina disproportionately affected poor residents and people of color in New Orleans. The population that needed the most help was the very population that was hurt the most by the storm. Neighborhoods were destroyed; communities were torn apart. Hurricane Katrina only exacerbated the atrocities of decades of urban decline. The majority of Americans, vis-à-vis national public policies that promoted suburbanization, had already long abandoned central cities—their people and their problems. Thus, when Katrina destroyed New Orleans, the residents were already vulnerable. We cannot ignore the urban dynamic as we reflect on the consequences of the storm and the future for urban America.

What are the main reasons Katrina evacuees are not returning to New Orleans?

Many residents were dislocated after the storm, and they have not returned. After the storm, New Orleans lost about half of its population. Today, the city’s population is approximately 384,000, a decline of 20 percent from the city’s population before the storm hit.

Many residents, especially lower-income African-Americans, moved to Houston and Dallas. A lack of economic mobility, access to affordable housing, and good jobs have limited their abilities to return to New Orleans.

What are the obstacles faced by cities that are now home to Katrina evacuees, due to the rapid and unanticipated increase in population?

Houston received more evacuees than any other city. Some 100,000 evacuees migrated there after the storm, and a decade later, there are still about 40,000 evacuees that have settled in Houston and now call it home. Overall, Houston welcomed the evacuees. The local government provided social services to households in need, and the community was civically engaged.

However, some tensions arose in the subsequent years after the storm. For example, housing complexes and schools became overcrowded, and crime increased. Public transportation systems were over capacity, too.

Overall, many evacuees have become integrated into the fabric of their new neighborhoods. By welcoming and integrating new residents, Houston, and other cities across the Southeast, demonstrated the importance of community resilience in the road to recovery after one of the worst natural disasters the nation has witnessed.