The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What did we learn from Katrina?

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Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD)

It’s hard not to see Harvey, which hit land as a Category 4 Hurricane and then became a prolonged, enormous rainstorm, as a disaster that parallels to Hurricane Katrina, which struck nearly exactly this date in 2005. Minor Sinclair was on the ground in 2005, and offers insights on the challenges facing Houston.

So far, Hurricane Harvey has walloped Texas with over four feet of water – and it’s not over yet. It’s still raining, the water is still rising, and the country is watching in horror and waiting to see what happens next. Especially in Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, which features a population that’s diverse and vital, but also vulnerable and challenged in many ways.

Twelve years ago, I was part of the team that headed to the Gulf Coast in the ravaged wake of that storm. Oxfam responded with a relief and recovery program in Louisiana and Mississippi that lasted five years. Today, I’ve been considering how the region coped then, and what our country learned that informs efforts now.  Simply put: are we better prepared to handle Harvey than we were to deal with Katrina?

Lessons that I’m remembering and holding onto:

  1. The best first responders come straight from the community: Most often, the people showing up with vehicles and supplies and an extended hand are friends and family and community. I was overwhelmed with the compassion and concern that people demonstrate for each other.
  2. The next best first responders are local organizations: Whether here in the US or abroad, these organizations know their environs and people best; unfortunately, big tent rescue operations sometimes muscle them out. The best way to help from a distance is to send donations to local NGOs and community organizations.
  3. Surviving a storm is expensive, and timing can spell trouble: Once again, it’s the end of the month; people’s checks are running out, and pockets are empty. This hits workers living paycheck to paycheck, as well as those relying on public assistance. The step of evacuating costs serious money (gas, hotels, food); the next steps of returning and cleaning up and going back to work and school may be simply out of reach.
  4. Rescue efforts must extend to everyone: International humanitarian law precludes discrimination against anyone — including undocumented immigrants. People cannot be denied life-saving protections (shelter, evacuation, food); unfortunately, many rescue volunteers don’t know the international humanitarian protocols. During Katrina, many immigrants (especially Latinos) were asked for identification, and then turned away from life-saving public shelters when they couldn’t comply.
  5. People are vulnerable in many ways:Aid agencies often define vulnerable population as people who are elderly (or young) or ill (or disabled). But they often omit others who face sometimes insurmountable challenges. These include people with scant money, or no means of transportation, or undocumented immigrants, or the homeless, or felons. A hurricane can damage not just buildings, but livelihoods and futures.
  6. It’s about the water.Katrina’s deadliest and most destructive blows came from the storm surge and the flooding which lasted for days—and then left mountains of debris, sludge, mold, and rot. Harvey is hitting even harder. Simply, there is no place for the water to go. People are facing days of high water, flooded buildings, blocked roads and then weeks and weeks of mucking out.
  7. It’s about the insurance.While insurance can’t restore life or reproduce family treasures, it can provide vital tools to recover and rebuild. That is – if you have insurance.  And if it covers flood damage, not just wind damage. And those are big if’s.  Many people – particularly those on fixed incomes – don’t carry home insurance. Insurance companies are notorious for exempting out damage from flood water.
  8. Race matters.In many cities—including New Orleans and Houston – people of color disproportionately live in low-lying areas most likely impacted by catastrophes. At the same time, they’re less likely to have full insurance coverage, and more likely to be tenants. When tenants lose their housing, they face innumerable challenges in returning home and recovering their possessions.
  9. It’s a long road to recovery: It’s not exaggeration to say that cleaning up after Katrina took years; and that many spots never fully recovered (many streets in the Lower Ninth Ward are still marked by concrete steps leading up to an empty lot rather than a house). Even after the water recedes, Houston is in for years of cleaning up and rebuilding.
  10. Beware rollbacks of protective regulations: At a time when the administration is already pushing to remove labor and environmental regulations, they may jump on the chance to do so in the name of “speedy recovery.” After Katrina, President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which guaranteed a prevailing wage for workers employed by companies on federal contracts. Companies bid down the wage levels, and brought in immigrant workers from across the country – exactly at the moment when local workers needed jobs to survive and rebuild. Harvey is hitting the oil and gas industry’s epicenter, leading to concerns about environmental and labor regulatory rollbacks.
  11. Hurricane season is not over: After Katrina, there was Rita (category five). It’s still hurricane season through November 30th, and maintaining preparedness even during recovery is critical.
  12. Climate change is speeding up the timeline of disasters: We’re seeing regular instances of “500 year storms” and “100 year storms”—all within a couple decades. The Gulf Coast region has been enduring and surviving major storms for centuries. But as sea level rises, temperature increases (of water and air), and natural protections are eroded, the impact and severity are increased as well.

Of course, the big lesson from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was government failure: during the days leading to the onset, through the storm, and in the days, months and years following. The public evacuation was botched, emergency planning was a disaster, first responders were ill-equipped, and government assistance was slow, inadequately funded, and misdirected.

This time, the region and the nation stand watchful that Hurricane Harvey will show that the US has learned its lesson.


You can help communities respond to the recent floods by supporting the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, housed by the Greater Houston Community Foundation.

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