Preparedness & Recovery

Lessons Learned About the Social Toll of Major Disasters

Pamela Jenkins, research professor of sociology, addresses the “unevenness of the recovery” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

by / May 15, 2013
New Orleans residents lined up to enter the Superdome, which was opened as a shelter in advance of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photo courtesy of Marty Bahamonde/FEMA Marty Bahamonde/FEMA

Pamela Jenkins is a research professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, she expanded her focus to the human and community impact of disasters. She spoke with Emergency Management recently about the lingering effects of Katrina and lessons learned for long-term planners as they consider the social toll of major events.

Question: What’s been the major social challenge in rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina?

One problem is the unevenness of the recovery. There has been remarkable rebuilding of some neighborhoods, schools and other areas, but there are still whole areas that need a lot of work. Communities can build toward resiliency prior to an event. But communities really need to understand their issues up front, before the disaster, so that when people come back they can fit into a plan that already exists.

What should such a plan include?

We need to plan for the social as well as the physical rebuilding and renewal. The way people come back to work, for example, is by having schools and day cares, so schools and day cares need to be a priority, as well as housing. Overall you have to think about what makes a successful community come back, and plan for that. A community should think about all aspects — about
what families need, what institutions need and how those needs can best be met in phases.

What are some of the social problems still ongoing in New Orleans as a result of Katrina?

Every urban area has social problems and we had our share. After a disaster, they are exacerbated, because so much of the infrastructure is destroyed. Issues of mental health, a spike in homelessness, a spike in crime, all appeared in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. In some ways, it appears simple: When the houses are destroyed and people want to come home anyway, they are going to be homeless.

What role do emergency managers have in mitigating those kinds of impacts?

They have a critical role. They’re the individuals who need to engage people in the conversation about what it takes to make a community resilient. They often don’t see themselves that way, as the ones who need to bring people to the table.

Often they get focused on the infrastructure: How do I plan for the levees not to fail? How do I plan for a building to be available for sheltering in place? They also need to be actively engaged in hearing how a community can be resilient and in planning for that. They need to be in the middle of this conversation, because the decisions they make have an impact on recovery.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.