Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | August 28, 2015
Rice University sociology professor James Elliott was living in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. During the storm, he volunteered in the hospital where his wife worked at the time. Elliott and his family left New Orleans after the storm, but the disaster left a profound impact on him personally and professionally.
Since then, much of his research has focused on who evacuated from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, and what types of people have been able to participate in the city’s rebuilding. He spoke with the Urban Edge in this lightly edited Q&A.
You had a point in the forward of a book in which you say natural disasters are really sociological constructs. What did you mean by that?
Most people think of hurricanes and other disasters as some sort of physical force that comes along and does damage to property. But sociologists are keen to point out if there are no people there, there’s no disaster. The social infrastructure that’s holding them together is a requisite for disaster.
It’s not just the wind or the rain or some other physical force. It’s their interaction with the human community. What that begins to do is illuminate how well prepared that community is. Are people in those communities able to prepare and be in a position to help themselves? Or are there longstanding inequalities that make it less likely for some groups to help themselves?
This isn’t just academic for you. It’s personal. How did your experience in New Orleans drive your interest in this topic?
I was a professor at Tulane for 5 or 6 years at the time Katrina hit. I had just gotten tenure and was scheduled to take a sabbatical to Paris. We had the hurricane threat of Katrina, but that’s something that’s just sort of normal there. In the process of preparing, my wife who works in hospital was called in as essential personnel. So I stayed with her as I had done a couple times before, serving as a volunteer at the hospital she worked at nearby in the Uptown area of New Orleans.
We rode out the storm. We didn’t have a lot of communication, so when it passed through, we thought the storm was over. It wasn’t for another day that we learned the levees had breached in a number of places and the city had begun to flood.
So at the time, you couldn’t tell how bad the devastation was?
Right. We were Uptown, closer to the river, which was a higher area. The hospital CEO was on-site. I think they were monitoring the information. We certainly didn’t have TV coverage. We were literally in the eye of the storm in the sense that we didn’t have information, and whatever information was flowing to the top of the organization was being monitored and controlled.
It wasn’t until people began to walk home that they reported there was flooding. We began to hear reports from the CEO, who pulled us into the cafeteria a day or two later and informed us of the situation. We stayed another day and a half. We were in the hospital 3 or 4 days before we evacuated and helped the patients evacuate.
You wound up not moving away from New Orleans after that, right?
Right after we left, we went to North Carolina, and then we came back and fixed up our house. At that point we were considering the options. We weren’t from New Orleans, but we loved New Orleans. For various professional reasons, they were cutting programs at Tulane and we felt like it might be a good time to explore other options. We moved to Oregon, and I worked at the University of Oregon for 7 years before coming to Rice.
You’ve done a lot of research looking at the sorts of people who returned to New Orleans and the sorts of people who didn’t. What did you find?
The first questions we had were: who actually prepared to evacuate, why did they evacuate, and what were the decisions that went into that. We gathered some Gallup poll data and looked at it more deeply. We wanted to see if there were racial disparities in the evacuation.
We know Africana-Americans were less likely to leave than their white counterparts. That was true across incomes. The most important dynamic we found was that African-Americans have a less secure hold on their jobs, or at least they did in New Orleans. I think it’s probably still true.
New Orleans would have a hurricane warning every 2 to 3 years. Most of them didn’t hit. If you evacuated and you couldn’t get back, you were likely to be fired. So what we found looking at Katrina data was African-Americans were 4 to 7 times more likely to be fired from their jobs after Katrina than their white counterparts, regardless of whether they were returning or not.
I think they anticipated that and knew well from previous incidents. They made a calculated decision to stay in town to make sure they wouldn’t lose their job if, in fact, the hurricane didn’t hit.
Essentially, employers were telling people they needed to be willing to risk their lives for their jobs?
That’s one way to think about it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. You’re right. The attitude is, “The onus is on you. If you want to work here, you need to be here, and we aren’t going to accept any excuses.” That tends to fall heavier on people on the lower end of the labor market who are disempowered.
What also struck me was how deep the culture was. Early as a professor at Tulane, before Katrina, I’d get calls from journalists asking what’s so rich about New Orleans culture that nobody leaves. As a demographer, I began thinking about it. It wasn’t that people didn’t leave. It’s that few people moved to New Orleans. Louisiana was the state at the time with the fewest migrants from other states. New Orleans was the major metro area with the fewest people moving to it.
Now there’s a lot of new blood coming in to disrupt that. I was stunned when I was looking at public housing data and 90 to 95 percent of some of the African-American residents were saying they hadn’t been outside 1.5 miles of their home in the past 2 to 3 years. Most of them didn’t have friends and relatives in social networks outside their community and outside of New Orleans. This gets to another racial and socio-demographic aspect of the evacuation.
Not only did they know leaving and not being able to get back posed significant risks, over and above what whites would experience, but they had fewer friends and family – if any – outside the city who could help them relocate or stay somewhere during the evacuation.
That’s why we wound up with thousands of people stuck in the Astrodome. They just didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Exactly. There’s a sense that the people being photographed and put on magazine covers are the underclass or people who couldn’t help themselves. More generally, they’re the working classes African-Americans, and they had fewer opportunities to leave and higher penalties if they did.
Meanwhile, if you’re a homeowner and you’re African-American, there’s a good chance that you owned your house not by paying a mortgage, but because it had been handed down from one generation to another. If that’s the case you don’t need to buy insurance, and if you don’t have the income to afford it, you’re more likely to insure it yourself by staying behind.
People were literally on their doorsteps, trying to protect their homes?
Yes, and by extension their families. They were ensuring what was handed down from one generation by another was respected and upheld. The media coverage, I thought, was skewered afterwards. We didn’t see a lot of those folks. They were too busy trying to fix their homes or prevent the leaks before it got overwhelming.
What happened to them, actually, was a disgrace. Three or four days later, when the flooding was extreme, you had paramilitary coming in and pointing automatic weapons at them, forcing them to evacuate and treating them as common criminals.
In one of your studies you look at the ways relief funding was distributed and spent. You say it’s not used to rebuild communities; it’s used to rebuild property. What do you mean?
It’s largely intended to be a market-based recovery. The way private insurance policies and payouts work is they go disproportionately to homeowners and people who had the money to be able invest in that kind of insurance. Those people often can come out pretty well because they may have over-insured their homes. There’s also the government relief funds. The argument is they want to get the economy running, and that will allow people the opportunity to come back.
In New Orleans, it was really the homeowners who were able to come back first. Those homeowners were typically disproportionately white. Because they were property owners and they wanted to come back, they could get a jumpstart on the recovery. They could also host friends and family from more devastated areas of the city who needed a place to stay while they cleaned up and negotiated the insurance. The friend or family member might want to go out and work during the day on the house. Their friends say, ‘No problem; we’ve got an extra bedroom.’
Because white folks were more likely to own houses, they were in a position to not only come back but also assist friends and family – who tend to be white – in the more damaged areas of town.
This is people helping people. It’s good stuff. You want help your friends and family recover. But the unintended consequence is that it allowed white residents of New Orleans to begin to recover and redevelop much faster than African-Americans. I don’t mean to suggest white residents weren’t suffering. But a number of things began to work to give the white population of New Orleans a head start on recovery and government resources.
So what did that recovery look like for black people in New Orleans?
African-Americans were more likely to be renters. Typically rental properties were owned by someone working on their own house. So the rental properties were secondary things that got fix. It was a much slower recovery. In the mean time, African-Americans in the city couldn’t establish networks to help people come back and find housing and work on their homes. So it was a cumulative disadvantage that really set the tone for how the city would rebuild.
There was also a large effort to work with hospitality organizations to ensure they had what they needed to get up and running. There were efforts to repeal some labor laws. There was a notion that the hospitality sector had to get up and running in order to restore the jobs that would allow people to get back.
But these are also many of the same employers who were more likely to fire low wage workers, because they could network them in from other places. There was anecdotal evidence that large hotel chains could easily recruit workers form their other convention cities. There was less incentive to make sure the original workforce came back. They could solve the problem, at least in the short-term, through other means. They wanted to make sure they got resources from local and state governments to ensure their businesses could thrive over time. The community was a secondary consideration. The attitude was if you invest in business, the community will follow.
Obviously you look at the scope of natural disasters in this country, and Katrina is an outlier. But were there other disasters you’ve looked at where you can draw parallels?
Some graduate students and I wanted to investigate the usual pattern for recovery in areas hit by disasters. We looked at other large-scale hurricanes with $1 billion in property damage.
We found the opposite of what we expected. We thought if you got hit by a large hurricane with a lot of damage, that would be an incentive for the region to stay the same size or maybe shrink. We found the complete opposite. The more damage incurred from the hurricane, the more that area was likely to grow.
It happened in two ways. There is a dramatic displacement of the renters. Through private insurance claims to government assistance programs, billions of dollars flow into areas, so there’s an incentive to invest, do work, build and restore property.
The larger and more costly the storm, the more it grows in the 3 to 7 years after the storm. The amount of land developed increases too. We also found that the area not only becomes bigger but it becomes more socially segregated. So unintentionally, we have a policy and regime of disaster recovery that tends to grow larger, more socially vulnerable targets after the disaster hits. We need to think creatively about how to address those types of concerns.
New Orleans certainly hasn’t grown since Katrina. The latest population counts put it at about 20 or 18 percent smaller than before Katrina. So in that sense it’s an exception to the rule, but we see an influx of newcomers.
There’s a displacement of many residents who used to live there, but we see an influx of the educated, professional class which otherwise wasn’t moving to New Orleans before. Somehow, there’s something in the political system and recovery process that privileges the movement of certain type of people moreso than maybe the residence who once lived there.
Is that a bad thing, a good thing, or does it depend on who you ask?
What you think of that is going to vary by subpopulation. One of the major questions after Katrina was ‘will the city survive?’ What people meant was ‘will the culture of New Orleans survive?’ In some respects, culture will survive. It comes with people. But people saw New Orleans wasn’t just one place. It’s a mosaic of multiple subcultures. So what was going to happen was you’d shrink some of those subcultures and increase other ones. In one sense, change is good. It creates innovation and new ways of thinking of things. But at the same time, there’s going to be some loss. The important thing is that losses not come at the expense of a particular group because they’re disempowered or structurally disadvantaged.
I think there’s a lot of concern now that the city has lost some of what it cherished and valued. Not completely. But it’s become more tourist-oriented. I think there are 10,000 more hotel rooms than there was before Katrina and 600 more restaurants. It’s reviving some of the city. But when you’re selling $15 cocktails and $200 hotel rooms, and you’re still paying people minimum wage and entire neighborhoods aren’t developed, that creates some handwringing and problems that need to be addressed.
But that’s the same broader conversation about gentrification happening across the country, right?
Yes, but in New Orleans, it’s more emotionally charged. People feel like they were battered by a storm and then battered again by how the city and state recovers. All of this is complex. There’s not a master plan to do this. I think there’s a sequence of things that come together and reinforced these things at different levels.
For example, the federal government provided some housing assistance but then was unable to think about how they wanted to pursue housing options in the city, especially for lower-income and working poor. One of the responses was to continue cutting public housing… the idea was to get the recovery going faster and smoother by eliminating people who needed help.
Or there’s the state legislature. Like a lot of states, the main city often has an antagonistic relationship with the state legislature. The majority of folks in that legislative body aren’t actually from New Orleans and don’t have constituents there. They’ll have a different outlook on who gets to return and how things will happen.
Can we avoid some of these mistakes in the future, or are these problems fundamental to urban centers?
Communities aren’t monolithic. There are people in places across the U.S., including New Orleans, who don’t have the resources to evacuate or the opportunity to do so without suffering consequences. We need to think more creatively about how to address those issues.
There’s the short-term issue of trying to make sure people are safe and maybe providing some safeguards to ensure if you evacuate, you sort of have a claim on your job.
Maybe we need to be thinking about how rental properties are negotiated. Often, if there are large-scale damages, rental properties tend to be repaired after homeowners’ properties. Then there’s a likelihood that the supply of rental housing goes down, so prices go up. So maybe there are some considerations about protecting the less advantaged people who have less political power over the resources they need to live day-to-day.
Over the long run, I think we have to get away from the idea that we need to get rid of regulations. People were saying ‘the first thing we need to do is remove the government red tape and recover as soon as possible.’ What that tends to do is privilege the people who are in a position to do that and have the leverage. It leaves a large segment of the population out. It’s about making sure people are safe and have a more democratic say in how they come back. We’ll need to embrace this diligently because I think we’ve got more of these ahead.