Women and Girls Last?: Averting the Second Post-Katrina Disaster
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Elaine Enarson will be assistant professor in the Department of Applied Disaster and Emergency Studies, Brandon University, in 2006. She is currently an independent scholar in disaster sociology and women’s studies based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the co-editor of The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Through Women’s Eyes, and a founding member of the Gender and Disaster Network.

The fault lines of American society, as much as the failings of its infrastructure, are shamefully on display in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Race, class, age and (dis)ability are now at the heart of the public debate about vulnerability, preparedness and emergency response, but this is also a story, as yet untold, about women and men.1

It was low-income African American women, many single mothers among them, whose pleas for food and water were broadcast around the world from the Superdome, women more than men who were evacuated from nursing homes, and women more than men whose escape of sorts was made with infants, children and elders in tow. Now we see on nightly TV the faces of exhausted women standing in seemingly endless lines seeking help of any kind. In the long run, as we have learned from studies of past disasters, women will be at the heart of this great city’s rebirth, and the emotional center of gravity for their families on the long road to the “new normal.” They will stitch the commemorative quilts, organize community festivals and hurricane anniversary events, support their schools and faith-based organizations and relief agencies, and compose and sing many of the Katrina songs to come. Though not this simple, it is often said that men rebuild buildings while women reweave the social fabric of community life.2

We are transfixed now by images of needy women and strong men (a few with female partners) wearing badges, carrying weapons and riding in armored vehicles, and will soon be treated to endless photos of hardworking men hauling garbage, replacing roofs, making speeches and decisions. Behind the scenes (taking nothing away from others), women labor, too. In the dreary months ahead, after the nation’s attention wanes, the burdens on women will be exceptional and exceptionally invisible. Imagine cleaning just one flooded room, helping just one toddler or teen to sleep well again, restoring the sense of security to a widowed mother’s life. The basic domestic chores of “homemaking” gain new significance and are vastly more difficult in a FEMA trailer, a friend’s apartment or the basement of a church—and parents will call upon daughters more than sons for help. Nothing will change in a hurry as women pack and unpack, moving from place to place across the nation with distracted partners, bewildered children, pets and whatever possessions remain or are gathered piecemeal. The demands on the women who take them in and make them at home are incalculable, and displaced families will stay longer than anyone now imagines. Women across the nation are also the lifeblood of voluntary organizations of all descriptions, now being pulled inexorably into relief work. They will continue to do this work when the funds dry up and women (and to a lesser extent men) marginalized by race and class fall between the (gaping) cracks of the relief system. Long after we think Katrina over and done with, women whose jobs and professions in teaching, health care, mental health, crisis work, and community advocacy bring them into direct contact with affected families will feel the stress of “first responders” whose work never ends.

These factors help explain why women more often than men report symptoms of post-traumatic stress following disasters.3 Their hidden emotional work with toddlers, teens, partners, parents, friends and colleagues passing through difficult times takes a toll, but is irreplaceable. Many will struggle to break through the stony silence of the men in their lives. Especially when so much is out of their control in Katrina’s aftermath, men without jobs and those unable to save family members and other victims may feel unmasked and unmanly. Already we have learned of the suicides of police officers and other men in New Orleans. Some men will cope through drugs, alcohol, physical aggression or all three, hurting themselves and putting the women and girls around them at risk.4

We can count on increased reports of violence against women as this is so common in U.S. and international disasters. Press accounts from the grotesque world of the Superdome—a woman held at gunpoint, another woman raped and then a young girl—suggest this already but the real worry is later. Women and children displaced once already by their partner’s violence into a shelter closed by Katrina will struggle to find their way, and crisis workers struggle to locate them. Some will be forced back into violent relationships through lack of housing and support. When rebuilding is in full swing and the cities and towns of the Gulf Coast flood with outsiders coming to help (or to profit), tent cities will spring up to house them and these will not be safe spaces for girls and women—any more than the secluded homes of professional men whose businesses were destroyed. Double-shifts and long commutes will be the norm after Katrina as women and men work hard to get back on their feet. In their mothers’ absence, teenaged girls and their younger sisters are all the more vulnerable to sexual assaults by men known and unknown to them. Both girls and boys are at increased risk of abuse and neglect at the hands of their mothers in the difficult days ahead.5

Most public housing residents, residents of mobile homes, renters and those lacking insurance are women—often women heading households on their own income alone—but re-housing them is not a priority in our owner-focused and single-family home rebuilding plans. The poorest of the poor before Katrina, socially marginalized women of color will be the last to escape the confines of FEMA tent cities and other encampments.6 The finely balanced networks of support poor women develop to survive in our economy, piecing together cash from odd jobs, boyfriends, government, family and kin, were ripped apart by this storm. Low wage women employed at the lowest rungs of the tourist industry and as beauticians, child care workers, home health aides, servers and temporary office workers will not be helped back on their feet by economic recovery plans geared to major employers in the formal sector. The wives and daughters of oystermen, shrimp farmers and oil riggers will need skills training, income supplement, child care assistance, transportation and economic development plans targeting women as earners as well as caregivers. Indirect losses can be anticipated, too, for domestic workers whose employers lost their homes to floodwaters and small businesswomen who struggled to keep their businesses going in the best of times. Community-wide economic recovery is impossible without the female labor force, but barriers of all kinds arise in rebuilding child care systems, especially the family-based care upon which most American infants and youngsters depend. Without functioning households and the social infrastructure of transit systems, schools, stores, health clinics and child care, women’s return to employment is delayed. Women supporting households single-handedly are, of course, most at risk. And will the short-term emergency relief work now being proposed reach women and men equally? Will “youth employment” recovery projects work as well for teenaged girls as for their brothers? Will steps be taken to counter pressure to employ women in “women’s jobs” in government subsidized economic relief programs? 7

What can be done to change this bleak scenario? How can we act now on the “lessons learned” about women, men and gender in disaster recovery? If we are to craft a strategy that takes not just some, but all people toward a fundamentally stronger and more just future, the national debates about reconstruction and rehabilitation now beginning must fully engage women as well as men. In the many drawers of unused plans and unlearned lessons, policymakers will find planning tools for gender-sensitive emergency response and recovery—but will they use them? Are gender-specific data collected now so that we might evaluate and monitor budgets, programs and plans for possible gender bias over time?

Gender-fair emergency relief is essential, and steps can be taken now to make girls and women safer, ensure that mental health services reach men effectively, promote women’s economic recovery, provide respite care and support for long-term caregivers—the list goes on. But we have learned that the most urgent need of all is for those most affected to reclaim their sense of place, some degree of control and autonomy, and the certain knowledge that their views count too in the re-imagining of the future. Will women’s voices be heard in the independent commission likely to be appointed to review the national response to Hurricane Katrina? Will community recovery meetings be held at times convenient to those with children and in places safe for women? Will specialists about family life, women’s issues, the gender concern of boys and men in crisis, poverty, race and gender, and women’s environmental knowledge and activism be consulted? Measures are needed now to ensure women’s representation on all public bodies making recommendations and decisions about the use of private and public relief monies. Those women most hard-hit by Katrina must take the lead and men—and other women—must learn to listen.8 Women must be heard speaking out (and disagreeing) as elected officials, technical experts, community advocates, health and human service professionals, faith-based leaders, tenant association members, workers and employers, environmental justice activists, daughters, mothers and grandmothers. The losses of grassroots organizations knowledgeable about women at risk must be made good and their capacities developed and supported. Following hurricane Andrew, the broad-based women’s coalition Women Will Rebuild Miami (born the day funds were directed toward the Chamber of Commerce and away from child care) struggled for months, and unsuccessfully, to earmark just 10 percent of relief funds for girls and women.9 This second disaster can be averted along the Gulf Coast.

The hurricane so gratuitously described as “flirtatious” in a recent news weekly is, in fact, a highly gendered social event. Katrina did not disrupt a social order in which women and men were equally vulnerable any more than it hit suburbanites with cars and the central city poor the same.10 To advocate for gender equality in reconstruction is not to press a political agenda (though there is one to advance) or deny our common humanity in crisis, but to serve both the women and the men of the Gulf Coast. This is what the future must look like or all the talk about “building back better” to increase resilience to future disasters is just talk and the next hurricane will find the poor poorer and women less able than today to anticipate, prepare for, survive, cope with and recover from the next storm. This is not the hallmark of a great city or a great nation.


1 A shorter version of this essay appeared as an Op-Ed in the Denver Post on September 25, 2005. An international gender and disaster bibliography is available through the Gender and Disaster Network: http://online.northumbria.ac.uk/geography_research/gdn/ and see E. Enarson and L. Meyreles, 2004, “International Perspectives on Gender and Disaster: Differences and Possibilities.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 14 (10): 49-92. Papers from the 2004 Gender Equality and Disaster Reduction Workshop (Honolulu) are also on-line: http://www.ssri.hawaii.edu/research/GDWwebsite/pages/proceeding.html.

2 See H. Cox, 1998, “Women in bushfire territory,” pp. 133-142 in E. Enarson and B. H. Morrow (eds.), The Gendered Terrain of Disaster and A. Fothergill, 2004, Heads Above Water: Gender, Class And Family In The Grand Forks Flood. On the many forms women’s disaster work takes, see E. Enarson, 2001, “What women do: gendered labor in the Red River Valley flood.” Environmental Hazards 3 (1): 1-18, and (2000), “‘We will make meaning out of this’: women’s cultural responses to the Red River Valley flood.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18 (1): 39-62.

3 Among others, see J. Ollenburger and G. Tobin, 1998, “Women and postdisaster stress,” pp. 95-108 in The Gendered Terrain of Disaster and 1999, “Women, aging, and post-disaster stress: risk factors.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17 (1): 65-78. This special issue of the journal examines women and disaster.

4 Gender analysis of men’s complex experiences in disaster is underdeveloped, but see Palinkas et al., 1993, “Social, cultural, and psychological impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.” Human Organization 52 (1): 1-13; J. Alway et al., 1998, “Back to normal: gender and disaster.” Symbolic Interaction 21 (2): 175-195; and E. Klinenberg, 2002, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

5 Among others see E. Enarson, 1999, “Violence against women in disasters: a study of domestic violence programs in the US and Canada.” Violence Against Women 5 (7): 742-768; A. Fothergill, 1999, “An exploratory study of woman battering in the Grand Forks flood disaster.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17 (1): 79-98; and B. H. Morrow, 1997, “Stretching the bonds: the families of Andrew,” pp. 141-170 in W. Peacock et al. (eds.), Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender and the Sociology of Disasters.

6 Women’s disaster housing is considered in Enarson, 1999, “Women and housing issues in two U.S. disasters.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17 (1): 39-63. See also B. H. Morrow and E. Enarson, 1996, “Hurricane Andrew through women’s eyes: issues and recommendations.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (1): 1-22; and E. Enarson and M. Fordham, 2004, “Lines that divide, ties that bind: Race, class, and gender in women’s flood recovery in the U.S. and U.K.” Australian Journal of Emergency Management 15 (4): 43-52.

7 Women’s livelihoods are severely and differently impacted by most disasters, but especially in the writing from affluent countries, gender analysis of economic impacts and recovery is rare. See E. Enarson, 2000, A Gender Analysis of Work and Employment Issues in Natural Disasters. International Labour Organization InFocus Programme on Crisis and Reconstruction: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/recon/crisis/gender.htm.

8 See E. Enarson, 2004, Making Risky Environments Safer: Women Building Sustainable and Disaster-Resilient Communities. UN Division for the Advancement of Women (Women 2000 series): http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/w2000.html. Grassroots women’s mobilization around disasters and disaster risk management is summarized in the background papers prepared for the UN Division for the Advancement of Women’s Expert Working Group in 2001 on Gender Equality, Environmental Management and Natural Disaster Mitigation: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/env_manage/documents.html.

9 E. Enarson and B. H. Morrow, 1998, “Women will rebuild Miami: a case study of feminist response to disaster,” pp. 185-200 in The Gendered Terrain of Disaster. See also A. Yonder et al., 2005, “Women’s participation in disaster relief and recovery.” A publication of the advocacy group Disaster Watch: http://www.disasterwatch.net/Brief/Seeds2005final.pdf.

10 B. Gault et al., 2005, “The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Multiple Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery (Part I. Poverty, Race, Gender and Class).” Institute for Women’s Policy Research #D464: http://www.iwpr.org.