Who Leaves, Who Comes Back After Disasters Strike a Community? – A Dr. Plodinec Analysis

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Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” — Kris Kristoffersonkatrina wind contours

When a community endures catastrophic damage, residents must evacuate.  One of the hallmarks of a resilient community is that most of the residents come back.  But what we don’t know is who will or won’t return.  While I don’t have the answer let me illuminate the question a bit, if only so those of you smarter than me can see it more clearly.

It is well-established that many did not return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Currently the population of the city is about 80% of what it was pre-Katrina.  The median household income has jumped and school performance has also improved. Income inequality was, and is, quite high, however (the ratio of median household incomes at the 95% to the 20% level now > 11).  A huge proportion of the population (>20%) still live in poverty 12 years after Katrina. Prior to Katrina unemployment levels of the poorest were as high as 30%.

Contrast this with Christchurch in New Zealand which experienced devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 (the quake last November was several tens of kilometers north and east of the city and did little damage to Christchurch itself). Its population is very nearly the same as before the quakes (and about the same as NOLA’s). While income disparities exist, they were and are much less stark than NOLA’s. When I drove through the city last September, I was struck by how normal everything seemed (with the exception of the cathedral – the Church and the government can’t seem to agree about what to do with it), in contrast to the blocks of boarded-up houses in New Orleans. While unemployment among the poor is higher than the average, it is dwarfed by the unemployment of the poor in New Orleans.

If we measure a community’s resilience in terms of either time to reach normalcy or how close to normalcy it has reached in a given time, I am forced to say that Christchurch was (and probably still is) more resilient than New Orleans. But that still begs the questions of who didn’t come back to New Orleans.

If we look at New Orleans now vs 2005, it’s less black and more Hispanic and white. The average size of the family has decreased about 10%, indicating that children make up less of the population than before. Almost all of the boarded up properties are in the poorer sections of the city. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the poor and the black and families with children make up a higher proportion of those who haven’t come back compared to their proportion in the city’s population in 2005. But why?

I don’t know, but I have a hypothesis. As Kristofferson’s lyric implies, those who have weak ties to the community were the ones who didn’t come back.  No job – why come back?  A house that was destroyed – why come back?  Schools that were doing a poor job of educating your kids – why come back? Mired in intergenerational poverty – why come back to that?

New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005.
Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

If I’m right, this has profound implications for what might happen to cities such as Memphis or Los Angeles or even Houston when the inevitable disaster hits. As I’ve noted before, too often we think of communities as closed systems, and residents as statistics. Resilience is then seen as a numbers game in which we look at some metrics and evaluate whether the community is as functional as before. But communities are open systems, and residents aren’t statistics but people acting in what they believe to be their best interests. I advance this hypothesis not because it’s right but rather to goad the research community to replace it with a better one.  Who will leave, who will come back – important for understanding community resilience.
The U.S. is currently more divided than I have seen it in my lifetime. Partisan politics too often wobble into demonization of the opposition; civility is at a premium.  We seem to be forgetting the words of our first President:

“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

Thus; We are all Americans:

I am black. I am white. But we are all Americans.
I am gay. I am straight. But we are all Americans.
I am Protestant. Catholic. Muslim. Jew. But we are all Americans.
I am Man. I am Woman. But we are all Americans.
My ancestor died at the Little Big Horn. Mine died at Wounded Knee.
But we are all Americans.
My ancestor was part of Pickett’s charge. Mine defended Little Round Top.
But we are all Americans.
My ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock. Mine came through Ellis Island.
But we are all Americans.

As Americans, we must listen to others.
We must seek the common ground on which to build a better future.
A future in which:
We help those who have fallen to stand on their own.
Our children are prepared for the challenges of a changing world.
Our elders are respected and supported, but not patronized.
The freedoms fought for by so many are cherished by all.
And in spite of our differences, we recognize that we are all Americans.

Article republished with permission of: Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI)

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