Lessons from Katrina: How Natural Disasters Affect Women’s Safety and Economic Status

Natural disasters tend to make low income and poor people—the majority of whom are women—even more vulnerable to physical assault as well as to greater economic challenges in the years that follow.

Hurricane Katrina NOAA

The pictures and stories of lives lost and shattered by Hurricane Sandy are breaking our hearts. Beyond the immediate tragedy, the long-term economic toll Sandy will have on these communities is also staggering. Sandy is expected to result in over $4.3 billion in insured losses—still paling in comparison to the $65 billion in losses that the far more deadly Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Irene caused. And digging deeper into the overall economic fallout of natural disasters reveals one consistent truth: natural disasters tend to make low income and poor people—the majority of whom are women—even more vulnerable to physical assault as well as to greater economic challenges in the years that follow.

According to some post-Katrina studies, women faced higher rates of violence and sexual assault during the immediate aftermath of the disaster and even a year later, due in part to displacement and difficulty lower income women faced in finding a permanent home. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) remarked upon the impact of natural disasters on women in a 2010 policy brief, pointing out that since poorer women have less “mobility and access to resources,” they are more vulnerable in natural disasters. For example, sexual assault rates in Mississippi rose from 4.6 per 100,000 per day when Hurricane Katrina first hit the state, to 16.3 per 100,000 per day a year later, in part because many women were forced to leave their homes and live in shelters during that time. Diminished access to transportation and shelter can exacerbate this problem. Even five years after Hurricane Katrina, affordable housing options in New Orleans remain limited.

In addition, Hurricane Katrina is believed by some to have hurt New Orleans women’s economic status in the years that followed—specifically women’s workforce participation and the gender gap in wages. Tulane University’s Newcomb College Center for Research on Women published a report in December 2008 that primarily evaluates United States Census Bureau data from the two  years following Katrina, showing that post-Katrina labor force participation rates dropped more for women than it did for men (-6.6 percent for females; -3.8 percent for males in 2007).

And a year after Hurricane Katrina, the average earnings of women of color declined as well. The Tulane report notes that “the median earnings of White, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino men increased. In contrast, only the average earnings of White women showed a slight increase; the median earnings of Black/ African American women and Hispanic/Latinas fell.”

The Tulane report explains that barriers to women’s employment—including lack of schools, childcare facilities, housing and public transportation—magnified in post-storm New Orleans, and may have resulted in drops in both workforce participation and wages.

Do these trends predict anything about the future of New York, New Jersey and other states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy? To be sure, Louisiana’s economy and labor force is far different from that of the Eastern seaboard. The Tulane study even acknowledges that labor force participation rates among women in the South have historically been lower than in other areas of the country. Women in New York are more likely than New Orleans to work outside the home, and to hold higher paying jobs.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any poor women in the Northeast: 20 percent of the women in New York are living below the federal poverty level, and 11 percent of the women in New Jersey are in poverty. An advocate at the Welfare Rights Initiative tells us that most people receiving welfare in New York are women.

Though we are still reeling from the tragedy, Hurricane Sandy is less severe than Katrina, thus the economic impact of Hurricane Sandy will hopefully be less severe. But women who are displaced and/or poor may face similar safety concerns and drops in employment prospects. Just as in New Orleans, the impact may not be apparent for another few years.