Leaving New Orleans: Social Stratification, Networks, and Hurricane Evacuation
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Elizabeth Fussell is assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University. She is the author of several articles and book chapters on the use of social networks in Mexican migration to the United States, including “Sources of Mexico’s Migration Stream: Rural, Urban, and Border Migrants to the United States,” Social Forces 82(3); and “Limits to the Cumulative Causation of Migration: International Migration from Urban Mexico,” with Douglas S. Massey, Demography 41(1).

The world watched helplessly as thousands of New Orleanians were caught in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While some blamed public officials for not responding soon enough, others blamed the victims for not evacuating when they knew the hurricane’s arrival was imminent. One fundamental insight of social science is to understand the illogic of blaming the victim (Ryan 1976). Without understanding social stratification in the city of New Orleans – a city with one of the highest levels of income inequality in our country – it is difficult to understand the strategies people employed to survive the storm and that they are using to restart their lives in its aftermath. Inequality in education and income, residential segregation, and discrimination contribute not only to social stratification among individuals, but also to stratification between social networks – that is, the group of family, friends, and associates to which people can turn for help. Both factors shaped people’s strategies to leave New Orleans or not, and how they are rebuilding their lives in the hurricane’s aftermath.

New Orleans is a city in which 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 11.7 percent are age 65 or older, only 74.7 percent are high school graduates and 27.3 percent of households do not have cars. Furthermore, a larger than average percentage of residents have disabilities: 10.3 percent of 5-20 year olds, 23.6 percent of 21-64 year olds, and 50.1 percent of those age 65 and older have disabilities according to the 2000 U.S. census. In addition, 77.4 percent of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana and have lived most of their lives there. These statistics alone go far to explain why tens of thousands of the 500,000 residents of New Orleans did not evacuate; in so many ways they were more rooted in place than the average American. The fact that 67.3 percent of the residents are African-American was only the most visually apparent of all these statistics (U.S. Census, 2004).1 New Orleanians' plans for evacuation were strongly shaped by their income-level, age, access to information, access to private transportation, their physical mobility and health, their occupations and their social networks outside of the city. These social characteristics translated into distinct evacuation strategies for different sectors of the population.

Leaving or staying

The evacuation strategies of most upper and middle-income residents were quite straightforward: make a hotel reservation or arrange a visit with out-of-town friends and family, board the house windows if you can, pack the car, get some cash and leave town. These residents most often evacuated during the voluntary or mandatory evacuation period in the 24 to 48 hours before the storm was predicted to hit. For this group, the costs of leaving on Saturday were lower with respect to missing work or school since the storm was projected to arrive on Monday. They were likely to have been informed by television, radio, internet, e-mail, or telephone of the hurricane’s projected path long before it arrived. Nevertheless, the majority of those evacuating waited until Sunday to leave (Anderson 2005). Indeed, riding out the storm is an old New Orleans tradition. In the past, many better-off New Orleanians have chosen to stay in the city during hurricanes, evacuating “vertically” to the upper floors of the downtown hotels. As Hurricane Katrina approached, however, hotel officials denied them their rooms and encouraged them to leave of their own volition (Mowbray 2005).

Low-income residents had fewer choices with respect to how to prepare for the imminent arrival of Katrina. Since the storm was at the end of the month and many low-income residents of New Orleans live from paycheck to paycheck, economic resources for evacuating were particularly scarce. Furthermore, low-income New Orleanians are those who are least likely to own vehicles, making voluntary evacuation more costly and logistically more difficult. These residents were also more likely to depend upon television and radio for news of the storm, and alarm from these channels only became heightened in the last 48 hours before the storm arrived. Although most of these residents joined the flow of traffic out of the city on Sunday, many remained in their homes hoping for the best, and others headed to the Superdome rather than taking the few city buses available to out of town shelters (Filosa 2005). Those going to the Superdome and later the Morial Convention Center believed that these shelters would provide sufficient protection until the storm had passed but hadn’t considered the flooding that occurred when several levees were breeched. In fact, the people hit hardest by the flooding were also those from neighborhoods where poverty was most concentrated as a result of the concentration of federally subsidized housing (Katz 2005). Not coincidently, they were least able to leave the city without assistance.

Although evacuation strategies were stratified by income, elderly people and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities within each social stratum were less likely to evacuate than those in good health. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's story of a Kenner City employee's elderly mother calling her son from a nursing home in the first four days and eventually succumbing to the rising water was played out repeatedly in other nursing homes where the oldest old remained due to frailty and poor health (Meet the Press, 2005). During the evacuation for Hurricane Ivan in 2004 most deaths occurred among the elderly who were unable to bear the heat and stress of getting caught in the day-long traffic jams arising from a poorly planned evacuation strategy. During Hurricane Katrina the elderly and disabled died in the Convention Center and in their homes throughout the city of the symptoms of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure that are easily managed under normal conditions but that become lethal when access to medicine and treatment is cut off. Even though economic resources may mitigate the danger of evacuation for the elderly and disabled, it does not entirely eliminate the additional risks to which they are subject. Understanding this, many elderly and disabled simply chose not to evacuate the city prior to the storm.

Not everyone can evacuate the city, even in a mandatory evacuation. Doctors, nurses, hospital employees, police officers, and other essential city and state employees remained in the city to perform their jobs. New Orleans police officers, Fish and Wildlife workers, and other city, state, and federal employees assisted in evacuating residents from their houses, rooftops, and elsewhere as the floodwaters rose. As hospitals closed down and evacuated patients, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff were often stranded. Some of these workers were evacuated from the Superdome and Convention Center, while others managed to get back to their homes and cars and drive out of the city. Other medical personnel were redeployed to the Louis Armstrong Airport which had become a makeshift hospital. Accounts from this group of people are harrowing and heroic and go far to explain why a total evacuation of the city was impossible.

Social networks at work

The multiple strategies for coping with the hurricane and the subsequent flooding illustrate that in addition to economic resources the social networks to which people belong also shape evacuation plans. Research on labor migration shows migrants rarely come from the poorest sectors of society, since they simply have too few economic resources to migrate. Instead, migrants tend to possess at least modest economic resources and the social networks that can offer assistance in migration (Massey and Espinosa 1997; Massey 1999; Taylor 1986). These same principles operated in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina struck. Among the first to leave were those for whom the costs of leaving were relatively low because their friends and relatives assisted them by providing shelter, food, and other necessities away from the city. Those without such social networks outside of the city were among the last to evacuate and were most dependent upon the city, state, and finally the federal governments to provide transportation, shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. Unlike the case of voluntary migration, in forced migrations nearly everyone leaves but their strategies for leaving depend upon who they can count on for assistance – private economic resources and social networks or public institutions.

Social networks not only shaped whether people evacuated before or after Hurricane Katrina struck and therefore how they evacuated, they also will continue to shape how displaced New Orleanians reconstruct their lives. But not all social networks are equal – some connect people who can offer generous assistance in attractive destinations, while others connect people who are similarly disadvantaged (Menjivar 2000). Speaking from personal experience, my family and many of my friends – most of whom are college-educated and middle- or upper-income – evacuated in our own cars before the storm and found friends and relatives to stay with in Louisiana or nearby states. We reconnected by phone or email within days of the evacuation. Five days after the storm I arrived at a friend’s house in St. Martinville, Louisiana to find a group of evacuees all hovered over their lap-tops and chatting on their cell phones while living comfortably although tightly packed into a home with air-conditioning, water, and electricity. Though crowded and anxious, our social networks were intact and operating to support each other. Through these social networks people were able to restart their lives in ways that were materially not so different from their lives before the storm.

In stark contrast, my husband and I searched for a man and his family whom we had seen in a photo on the cover of a local newspaper and whom we knew because he had done work on our home. Although we located him at the Red Cross shelter at the River Center in Baton Rouge, we never actually made contact with him because the messaging system there was so primitive. We volunteered at the shelter in order to help others and to find our friend, but on day three of the evacuation the only way to send a message to shelter residents was by announcing messages through a public address system during the daytime when most of the residents had left the shelter anyway to spend the day outside. Eight days after the storm, this system had only marginally improved. We never found our friend. This may illustrate why the number of evacuees in the shelter declined so slowly. Shelter residents needed to connect with friends, family, or to find generous strangers, churches, and social service organizations to assist them in relocating, but the means to do so were scarce. By failing to provide the telephones and computers that would have allowed shelter residents to reconstitute their own social networks or employ other strategies for relocating, the Red Cross failed to take advantage of the shelter residents' own human and social capital, especially their social networks. Consequently, the process of rebuilding one’s life from a Red Cross shelter may take longer than necessary.

In fact, the ideology of disaster management disempowered the people it was supposed to help. Few evacuees living in massive stadiums were able to recuperate their physical health in order to cope with their losses. These living conditions promoted communicable disease, stress, and made it difficult for families to keep track of one another, especially children. While I was working at the communications station of the Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge several people approached me saying they had a job in another city, but needed to find housing there, or that they had relatives in other cities but couldn’t reach them because they didn’t have their contact information. These problems are easily solved, but the disaster professionals were focused on distributing food, clothing, and medical supplies and neglected to provide phones, computers, and social workers to assist people in utilizing their own resources.

Social networks play a key role in both evacuation and recovery. But the resources embedded in these social networks are socially stratified. People living in social isolation and poverty, especially the elderly, the disabled, and those with chronic diseases, have scarce economic resources and social networks that are more locally concentrated and connect them to people in similar socioeconomic circumstances Therefore, they are less able to use these social networks to evacuate before a hurricane or recuperate their losses after such an event. In contrast, those with more geographically extensive and wealthier networks of friends and family are more resilient in the face of such events. One of the most powerful means of recovering from such a traumatic event is to take action to rebuild one’s own life. An important lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina is that the survivors of such disasters who are most in need of public assistance are not helpless victims deserving blame for their predicament. Disaster professionals can and should capitalize on the social resources that disaster survivors possess to assist them in restarting their lives. After removing survivors from harm’s way, the next step should be to reconnect them with their friends, family, and others in a position to offer assistance of any kind as quickly as possible.


1 Comparable statistics for the U.S. as a whole are as follows: 10.9 percent of U.S. residents live at or below the poverty line, 12.4 percent are age 65 or older, 80.3 percent are high school graduates, 9.4 percent of householders do not own cars, and 8.1 percent of 5-20 year olds, 19.2 percent of 21-64 year olds, and 41.9 percent of those 65 and older have disabilities. In the U.S., 60.0 percent of the population lives in their state of birth and 12.3 percent are African-American.


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