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AP poll: Katrina changed Americans’ thinking

A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows Katrina prompted a rethinking about signature issues in American life — changing the way we view race and our safety, how we spend our money, even where we live.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 64-year-old Alabamian frets about frayed race relations. A Utah software programmer ponders the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina and decides he’ll turn to his church first in a disaster created by nature or terrorists.

A woman scraping by on disability pay in northern Virginia puts her house on the market because of surging post-storm gas and food prices. Cheaper to live in Pennsylvania, she figures.

As the Gulf Coast braces for another monster storm, a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows Katrina prompted a rethinking of some signature issues in American life — changing the way we view race and our safety, how we spend our money, even where we live.

The poll shows that issues swirling around Katrina trump other national concerns.

Asked to rank eight topics that should be priorities for President Bush and Congress, respondents placed the economy, gas prices and Iraq high. But when Katrina recovery was added to the list, it swamped everything else.

Storm’s bands span America
Katrina’s reach in American life is vast: 1 in 3 Americans believes the slow response will harm race relations. Two-thirds say surging gas prices will cause hardship for their families. Half say the same of higher food prices.

In Las Cruces, N.M., Ariana Darley relies on carpools to get to parenting classes, or to make doctor’s appointments with her 1-year-old son, Jesse. Before, she chipped in $5 for gas. Now, she pays $10 to $15.

“I didn’t think it would affect me,” she says by telephone, with Jesse crying in the background. “But it costs a lot of money now. I have to go places, and now it adds up.”

After a crisis with indisputable elements of race and class — searing images of mostly poor, mostly black New Orleans residents huddled on rooftops or waiting in lines for buses — some Americans worry about strains in the nation’s social fabric.

Race issues are worrying
One of them is Sue Hubbard of Hueytown, Ala., 64 years old. She does not believe race played a deliberate part in who got out of New Orleans, but she is deeply worried about tensions inflamed by those who do.

“I just think it took everybody by surprise,” says Hubbard, who is white. “I don’t care if it would have been the president himself, they couldn’t have gotten there to those people. Some people — not everybody — are trying to make a racist thing out of it.”

The poll underscores the literal reach of Katrina as well: 55 percent of Americans say evacuees from Katrina have turned up in their cities or communities, raising concerns about living conditions for the refugees, vanishing jobs for locals and — among 1 in 4 respondents — increased crime.

Among respondents with incomes under $25,000 per year, 56 percent were concerned about living conditions for refugees in shelters; that was higher than among those who make more money. And the poll indicates people in the South, which has absorbed huge masses of evacuees, are most concerned about the costs to their local governments.

Concerns about gang violence
Ann McMullen, 52, of Killeen, Texas, who works as a school administrator at Fort Hood, says she worries about gang violence, simply because of the prodigious numbers of people flowing into Texas communities.

“They can’t even locate the sex offenders,” she says. “And every population has gang members. It’s theft, it’s murder, it’s more chaotic crimes in the community. Hopefully we’ll be able to put these people back to work.”

The poll also exposes a divide among Americans in how the government should respond when disasters strike areas particularly prone to catastrophe — landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes. Half say the government should give people in those zones money for recovery, but almost as many say those people should live there at their own risk.

About 4 in 10 say the government should prohibit people from building new homes in those endangered areas in the first place. As McMullen puts it: “You’re asking for another disaster to happen.”

Specter of terrorism
Katrina has also raised grave doubts among Americans about just who will protect them in the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

Only about a quarter of Americans believe the federal government was as prepared as it should have been to cope with a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude. Only slightly more than half, 54 percent, are confident in the federal government’s ability to handle a future major disaster.

Reed Chadwick, a 33-year-old software programmer from Herriman, Utah, has made a mental list of the organizations he can count on should Mother Nature or terrorists strike — church first, then local government, then the feds.

“I think a lot of people have been yelling at Bush,” he says. “But I think they’re not looking at their local leaders for answers or reasons why things did or did not work. A lot of people are asking questions.”

Impact of higher gas, food prices
As for other personal effects of the storm, rising gas prices have not been crippling for his household yet, he says. “But I know it’s going to put a dent into my budget. I won’t be able to do dinner as much, maybe take only one vacation, if that.”

For Pam Koren, the storm’s impact has been more immediate — and more drastic.

Suffering from low blood sugar, spasms of the esophagus and nerve damage, she exists now on disability pay and contributions from her daughter, who attends college and works as an assistant youth minister.

With gas and food prices rising after the storm, she says, she was forced to put her house in Burke, Va., on the market. She is considering east-central Pennsylvania and a less expensive home.

“I’m a wreck because I’m not sure I’m making the right decision,” she says. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but things have become so tight I have not had a choice. I did not expect things were going to get this bad.”

The poll of 1,000 adults conducted by Ipsos, an international polling company, had a margin of potential sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.