People living in the path of Hurricane Katrina’s worst devastation were twice as likely as most Americans to be poor and without a car — factors that may help explain why so many failed to evacuate as the storm approached.
An Associated Press analysis of Census data shows that the residents in the three dozen hardest-hit neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama also were disproportionately minority and had incomes $10,000 below the national average.
“Let them know we’re not bums. We have houses. Our houses were destroyed. We have jobs. It’s not our fault that we didn’t have cars to leave,” Shatonia Thomas, 27, said as she walked near New Orleans’ convention center five days after the storm, still trapped in the destruction with her children, ages 6 and 9.
‘A different equation’
Money and transportation — two keys to surviving a natural disaster — were inaccessible for many who got left behind in the Gulf region’s worst squalor.
“It’s a different equation for poor people,” explained Dan Carter, a University of South Carolina historian. “There’s a certain ease of transportation and funds that the middle class in this country takes for granted.”
Catina Miller, a 32-year-old grocery deli worker who lived in the Ninth Ward, a poverty-stricken New Orleans enclave created in the 1870s by immigrants who were too poor to find higher ground, said she certainly would have liked to have left the city before the hurricane hit.
“But where can you go if you don’t have a car?” she asked. “Not everyone can just pick up and take off.”
‘Enough blame to go around’
Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University in Washington, said emergency planners have known for years that the poverty and lack of transportation in New Orleans would be a significant problem, but the government spent more time and money preparing itself — rather than communities — for disaster.
“All issues were known,” said Harrald, whose institute had been scheduling a series of emergency planning community meetings through a partnership with the University of New Orleans. “But it was still a work in progress. ... There’s enough blame to go around for everybody.”
From the analysis
The AP analysis showed:
- Median household income in the most devastated neighborhood was $32,000, or $10,000 less than the national average.
- Two in 10 households in the disaster area had no car, compared with 1 in 10 in nationwide.
- Nearly 25 percent of those living in the hardest-hit areas were below the poverty line, about double the national average. About 4.5 percent in the disaster area received public assistance; nationwide, the number was about 3.5 percent.
- About 60 percent of the 700,000 people in the three dozen neighborhoods were minority. Nationwide, about 1 in 3 Americans is a racial minority.
- One in 200 American households doesn’t have adequate plumbing. One in 100 households in the most affected areas didn’t have decent plumbing, which, according to the Census, includes running hot and cold water, a shower or bath and an indoor toilet.
- Nationwide, about 7 percent of households with children are headed by a single mother. In the three dozen neighborhoods, 12 percent were single-mother households.
“It’s the same people who don’t have the wherewithal to get out of Dodge,” said National Guard Lt. Col. Connie McNabb, who was running a medical unit at the besieged convention center in New Orleans.
The disparities were even more glaring in large, urban areas. One of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the heart of New Orleans, for example, had a median household income of less than $7,500. Nearly three of every four residents fell below the poverty line, and barely 1 in 3 people had a car.
“I didn’t have much in there,” said Deanna Harris, a 57-year-old unemployed New Orleans resident, “but it was mine.
“Now, this is what I’ve got,” she said, patting a plastic bag.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
The Ground Zero victims of Mississippi have much the same story. In one Pascagoula neighborhood, where 30 percent of residents are minorities, more than 20 percent live in poverty.
In Alabama, where Katrina wasn’t as severe, one of the hardest hit areas was a downtown Mobile neighborhood, where the median household income is barely $25,000 and 1 of every 4 residents lives below the poverty line.
“There’s not a lot of interest in this issue, except when there’s something dramatic,” said Carter, the South Carolina historian. “By and large, the poor are simply out of sight, out of mind.”