When Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States two years ago, tens of thousands of residents were displaced: their homes destroyed, their work gone. Many have not yet returned. This dislocation fell disproportionately heavily upon women, particularly low-income women and women of color. But these same women were among the first and strongest responders to the storm's devastation, forming relief coalitions, distributing aid, and advocating for fair housing, affordable child care, and job training for women affected by the storm.
As Sara Gould and Cynthia Schmae argued convincingly in a recent editorial for Women's ENews, women were particularly well-positioned to address the huge challenges that emerged in Katrina's wake, because they understood better than anyone "the systemic discrimination plaguing the Gulf Coast," and, more importantly, how to address it. As a result of women's efforts in the weeks and months after the storm, millions of dollars flowed quickly into grassroots organizations set up to help victims and evacuees. The Ms. Foundation for Women was a particularlly strong source of financial support, creating a Katrina Women's Response Fund to meet the immediate needs of poor women and women of color by making grants to community-based organizations throughout the Gulf Coast region.
A few examples of efforts by and on behalf of women and families after Katrina:
Gould and Schmae argue that these experiences, and those of other women-led organizations dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate that an integrated approach to supporting women and their families -— bundling multiple services through a single lead contact or agency -— is the most successful route to relief and recovery after a disaster. Moreover, because most of the jobs lost after the hurricane belonged to women, job training in nontraditional industries such as construction was a crucial component of economic recovery, particularly for low-income women. "If nothing else, Katrina and her ravages have given us an opportunity to shift the status quo in a new direction: one in which the needs of women and families fall at the center -- not the margins--of policy agendas."
Image: Hurricane Katrina approaching Gulf Coast, Chinese FY-1 meteorological satellite image, 29 August 2005. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory