Hurricane Katrina's unheeded lesson: The climate refugee crisis we still won't address

Climate displacement has deleterious social and personal consequences. So why aren't we confronting it head-on?

Published August 21, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

In the immediate lead-up to Hurricane Katrina and the devastating flooding that followed, some 1.5 million people were driven from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was America's largest forced exodus since the Dust Bowl, and it all went down in just two weeks' time.

Two and a half years after the storm hit, 40 percent of those people still hadn't returned home. And a decade after the fact, we're still struggling to learn one the storm's most important lessons. Since Katrina, hundreds of thousands of people have been been displaced, at least temporarily, by extreme weather events. Recovery, more often than not, is painfully slow: Hurricane Sandy displaced tens of thousands of people, some 39,000 of which still await housing assistance; it took years to rebuild the public housing wiped out by Hurricane Ike.

"We talk about climate resilience, and making our structures more able to withstand extreme weather events, and in their aftermath, we focus on a safe evacuation process -- which is exactly what we should be doing," said Danielle Baussan, the managing director of energy policy at the Center for American Progress and the author of a new report on climate displacement in the wake of Katrina. "But we aren't necessarily looking at how we're bringing people home."

As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently put it, his city "is a canary in the coal mine for this country.” And so far as displacement from extreme weather events goes, this couldn't be more true -- though he may as well have said that Katrina was a warning to the entire world.  According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, the average number of people forced from their homes by natural disasters has doubled since 1970. And as the 21st century progresses, found the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment report, the number of people displaced from their homes is expected to increase, a function of rising sea levels and the extreme weather events that scientists say are already being made worse by climate change. This is captured most dramatically in the public imagination by the image of entire low-lying island nations disappearing under the waves, but the growing class of so-called "climate refugees" can be taken to include anyone forced to abandon their homes due to the impacts of a changing climate. This can include migrations undertaken as the result of "slow-onset disasters" like drought and even people displaced by conflicts -- of which climate change is being increasingly understood as a contributing factor.

And as is practically the rule with the impacts of climate change, it is the already disadvantaged who will be disproportionately affected by displacement. In her report, Baussan highlights several reasons why this is the case in the U.S.: low-income housing tends to be less resilient to climate change in the first place; historically, low-income neighborhoods have been built in regions that are more vulnerable to extreme weather. And then there's the question of having the resources, financial, social and otherwise, to rebuild one's life after disaster strikes. "Weather is going to impact everybody," Baussan told Salon. "But the aftermath will be different for people who don't have the same resources to draw on."

In this week's issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell offered a counterintuitive (of course) look at how being forced to leave home -- and in some cases, having no home to return to -- may have accidentally ended up benefitting some of Katrina's victims. The argument is that this allowed them, albeit through incredibly tragic means, to escape their previous circumstance and start over in a place that could offer them better opportunities. He cites the work of sociologist David Kirk, who found that after the hurricane, parolees that weren't able to return to their old neighborhoods and thus, their own ways, were far less likely to end up back in prison. Katrina, Gladwell writes, "reminds us that sometimes a clean break with the past has its advantages."

But the full body of sociological research suggests that while some of the displaced may have come out of the experience for the better --  the Vietnamese population is another example of a "success story" -- such an outcome is hardly the rule. A major reason for that, Baussan posits, is because of how utterly unprepared the U.S. was to follow-up with and provide services for the displaced. Gladwell describes the way Katrina's destruction prodded New Orleans to overhaul its entire public school system, but five years after the storm, researchers found that more than a third of the 163,000 children it displaced were at least a year behind in school; they were 4.5 more likely than other children to have symptoms consistent with serious emotional disturbance.

Surveys undertaken by researchers at Harvard Medical School in 2007 offered a similarly bleak perspective on Katrina's long-term impact on mental health. Typically, the prevalence of mental illness following a natural disaster decreases over time. But when the researchers followed up with survivors nearly two years after the storm, they found that the number of people with mood or anxiety disorders hadn't changed from when they were first surveyed, in the storm's more immediate aftermath. What's more, the prevalence of severe mental illness and suicidality had, in many instances, actually increased. The authors posited that part of the reason why mental health problems remained so pervasive may have had to do with the survivors' need for practical assistance, which for many, two years later, remained largely unmet. That many of these people were now living in different parts of the country, they noted, made it particularly difficult to get them the required services; still, they concluded, "it is especially important to reach these geographically displaced people because of their comparatively high risk of serious mental illness."

This is all to say nothing, meanwhile, of the people who were left behind -- victims themselves, in a way, of displacement. The large-scale abandonment or, more recently, rapid gentrification of New Orleans' most heavily impacted neighborhoods has, ten years later, left the low-income and African American population that wasn't displaced are also, by many measures, worse off now than they were before the storm. Having a system in place to rapidly return the displaced to their homes, when possible, could help prevent such community-wide decay in the future.

"We're only going to see an increase in the number of storms," Baussan said. "We're only going to see an increase in the number of people who are at least temporarily displaced from their homes. So if we don't try to think of a safety net for them beforehand, chances are they're not going to have a very successful return."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Change Climate Refugees Extreme Weather Hurricane Katrina Natural Disasters