COLUMBIA, Mo. – More than 1,800 people perished in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005—the largest hurricane death toll in the United States since 1928. For the most vulnerable—the urban poor with little money, no transportation and limited resources—Katrina threatened to take everything. According to a University of Missouri researcher, some of those people survived the hurricane because of quick action from key women who, through pre-existing social networks, were able to mobilize for successful evacuation.
Jacqueline Litt, associate professor and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at MU, found that informal family and community networks coordinated by women are vital in emergency situations. More than 50 people were evacuated from New Orleans, La., through the efforts of two “core anchors,” a 58-year-old woman and her daughter, who initiated communication and organization using established familial and social relationships.
“Women in normal times act as the glue for networks,” Litt said. “They coordinate networks of care giving, oversee the pooling of resources and know how to find each other. In emergencies, they use those same skills. That pre-existing interdependence, trust and knowledge is what made successful evacuations happen.”
Litt concurs with previous research that networks are central to survival in low-income families. The question she hoped to answer in her study was whether those networks crack under the pressure of emergency situations. Litt discovered the networks were successful during the Katrina evacuations for three reasons.
First, government warnings did not appear to carry the same authority as the passing of informal knowledge through trusted network members. Second, women were the key to “pulling together” network ties already embedded in their daily lives. Through those network ties, women had previously been organizing child care and sharing money or job information. Third, the network recognized personal ties and allowed for expansion to include other individuals. For example, one person would not leave another behind.
“The importance of respecting and maintaining family and kin ties in disaster response, something we now see the government had no capacity to do, cannot be overestimated,” Litt said. “Any formal disaster planning should take into consideration, in a practical way, not only the existence but the usefulness of these networks. It’s the order in the chaos.”
Litt’s study was based on two years of research on the “Katrina Diaspora” (the flight of storm refugees to other parts of the United States). Litt conducted interviews and attended focus groups with approximately 80 evacuees in mid-Missouri and Baton Rouge, La., examining the significance of women’s work in emergency evacuation. Her research will be published in a special issue of the National Women’s Studies Association Journal (“New Orleans: gender, the meaning of place, and the politics of displacement.”)