Elevated rape risk for Katrina evacuees

Almost 10 months after the disaster, tens of thousands of households are still living in crowded temporary housing.

Published June 22, 2006 9:23PM (EDT)

The tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who remain displaced surely have enough to worry about, but here's one more grim thing: Women's eNews reported today that "the risk of violence against evacuee children and women is intensified by crowded, temporary housing nine months after the storm," according to Gulf Coast relief workers.

The elevated risk doesn't just apply to evacuees living in shelter conditions. There's also potential for intrafamily violence, as prevention worker Alisa Klein notes: "We have families doubling and tripling up in substandard housing, families living with extended family members they wouldn't normally choose to live with." And Lt. David Benelli, who commands the NOPD's sex crimes unit, says that "the number of acquaintance cases lately has increased, the number of 'stranger' cases of sexual assault has decreased."

Of course, cramped conditions and coping with tragedy don't automatically lead to violence, but as Klein points out, "When people are stressed, feel powerless, out of control, one thing we know: People do -- if they already have violent tendencies -- act out sexually."

Katrina's coverage was marked by exaggerated reports of desperate violence in New Orleans, and while it's clear that some violence occurred, journalists, public officials and the public may have been too willing to believe that the mostly poor and black evacuee population would descend into chaos. With that in mind, we should be careful not to draw conclusions that aren't based on hard evidence. But Klein's assessment of the situation seems pretty measured; when she suggests that the 70 post-Katrina sexual assaults that have been reported and verified so far may be "the tip of the iceberg," that's because only an estimated one in six such assaults usually gets reported.

Displaced families can't rebuild until new federal building regulations are finalized and funding decisions made, processes that are currently stalled. In the meantime, Klein's organization, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, is preparing for the future by creating specific sexual-assault prevention strategies for use in disaster situations.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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