11/11/2011 11:29 EST | Updated 01/11/2012 05:12 EST

Recovering From Katrina


On my recent visit to New Orleans, I looked forward to seeing how well the city has recovered from the devastating impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the city.

Based on what the various tour guides had to tell me, much of the damage seems to be nothing more than a memory after six years. Although the official death toll stands at 1,836, the actual number is likely far higher given the hundreds of deaths that occurred in the months that followed due to stress-related illnesses and other medical disorders that can be linked to Katrina. Despite the cost in lives and billions of dollars in damage, as well as the displacement of thousands of families, neighbourhoods have largely recovered and the city government is actively campaigning to remove those few houses that remain boarded up. Reconstruction projects are a familiar sight and tourists are eagerly directed towards various signs that inhabitants of the city have come back stronger than ever.

While the strong economic recovery reflects well on the resilience of New Orleans' residents, various social agencies have pointed out that women and visible minorities have not recovered as well and U.S. Census figures reflect this trend. According to Nielsen survey findings, New Orleans lost 595,205 people as a direct result of Katrina which dropped it from the 35th largest housing market in 2000 to the 49th largest market in 2006. The main bulk of New Orleans' refugees went to Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. Although the current population of New Orleans is 1,194,196 (as of 2010), it is still sharply lower than pre-Katrina estimates and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Nielsen findings for New Orleans also indicate that the population tends to be older, less racially diverse (fewer visible minorities), and with a higher median income.

In one study conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the percentage of women (adult and child) in the post-Katrina metropolitan New Orleans population has dropped from 54 per cent to 52.1 per cent. Among African-American females, the drop is even more dramatic, from 42 per cent to 37.3 per cent. In actual numbers, this means that the total New Orleans population has gone down by 108,116 women overall since 2005 while African-American women have dropped by 65,423.

Poverty seems to be the dominant factor in preventing women from returning to New Orleans. While 23 per cent of women lived below the federal poverty line pre-Katrina (36.6 per cent among African-American women), the poverty rate among post-Katrina women and girls is actually lower across all racial and ethnic groups. Despite numerous government and private citizen initiatives to build new houses for New Orleans residents, virtually all of them have minimum income requirements to ensure that benefitting residents can afford to carry the necessary mortgage. Since low-income residents often fail to qualify and couldn't afford flood insurance in the first place, they don't have the economic resources to return to New Orleans. Single mothers caring for dependent children have been especially hard-hit by Katrina and many still haven't been able to return. Whether they ever will likely depends on the current economic recession and the availability of jobs and scarce resources as the city continues to rebuild.

The lingering resentment over the slow rebuilding is also likely to continue. For years following Hurricane Katrina (not to mention Hurricane Rita, which struck just a few months later), thousands of refugees were forced to live in FEMA trailers across Mississippi and Louisiana, often within sight of their devastated neighbourhoods. Many refugees developed mental health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and other serious mental illnesses which often overwhelmed available mental health providers. Psychological research examining 665 households disrupted by the disaster indicated that nearly half of all children and adolescents had developed new emotional or behavioural problems in the months following Katrina. Hardly a surprising result in families forced to relocate an average of 3.5 times, some far more often.

With the massive physical destruction of schools and displacement of thousands of teachers, severe disruptions in education continued for months following Katrina. African-American families tended to be especially hard-hit which led to a significant mistrust of federal relief agencies (as well as lingering rumours that delayed FEMA responding was due to racism). Although FEMA's Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program provided some relief, the inadequacies of the program became apparent soon enough and more specialized treatment service programs were eventually developed. While innovative programming to help children and adults cope with the disaster helped alleviate some of the distress and grief that they experienced, the long-term consequences are still being felt and the traumatic memory of Katrina's devastation will certainly remain with residents for a long time to come.

What lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina and Rita? Although the inadequacy of the government response to the scope of the devastation is well-documented, whether changes in government disaster planning policies will help survivors in future disasters is open to debate. Along with the need for more rapid mobilization of government relief programs coupled with better integration of government and non-government aid agency services, the issue of mental health services for disaster victims remains crucial. Mental health professionals working with trauma victims following 9/11 and Katrina have developed better methods to help disaster victims including psychological first aid to reduce initial distress and to help survivors learn to cope and adapt to their altered environment. Aid organizations such as the Red Cross have formed stronger links with mental health organizations to mobilize counsellors in large numbers to help survivors as the need arises.

Whether or not we'll be ready the next time the "Big One" hits remains to be seen.