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Women-Led Groups Crucial to Katrina Recovery
Erica Barnett, 12 Sep 07
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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:

  • In January 2006, a group of women in East Biloxi, Mississippi organized as Coastal Women for Change, which advocates for the inclusion of women and people of color in the hurricane recovery effort. Last year, CWC convinced Biloxi's mayor to grant them five seats on his Katrina recovery commission. On August 27, CWC met with a delegation of tsunami survivors from India to talk about recovery efforts and lessons both groups had learned.
  • The Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative, also in Biloxi, is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides childcare and after-school programs for children of low-income Mississippi residents. After Katrina, MLICI director Carol Burnett and her staff tracked down displaced clients and raised money to help provide the services they had provided before the storm. After the federal government rejected MLICI's request for funds to rebuild their headquarters, the group launched a nationwide fundraising drive to raise the nearly $2 million they needed to rebuild.
  • The Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis has helped thousands of displaced families who ended up in the Memphis, Tennessee region after their homes were damaged or destroyed. The organization has provided grants to provide women and families with direct services related to employment opportunities, permanent housing, and child care.
  • The United Houma Nation Hurricane Relief Fund was founded by Brenda Dardar Robichaux to provide assistance to Houma Indians displaced by the hurricane. The fund eventually assisted more than 8,000 families. A grant from the Ms. Foundation helped the Houma Nation provide relief to women and children affected by the storm, and funded the training of women for nontraditional jobs, including repairing and rebuilding structures that were destroyed in the storm.
  • The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance recovered more than $1 million in back pay owed to nearly 600 immigrants; most worked in the construction and hospitality industries.

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

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