USC study examines
why African Americans
did not evacuate in the face of Hurricane Katrina
from authorities, perceived racism and faith they could ride out the
storm were cited by many African Americans as reasons for not evacuating
New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina, according to a study by
the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health.
The study, which
appears online in the First Look section of the American Journal of Public Health,
is based on focus groups of black New Orleans residents who were
evacuated to Columbia, S.C. following the Aug. 29, 2006 storm, the
costliest and one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
The study also concluded
that “culturally sensitive logistical planning for the evacuation of
minority, low-income and underserved communities” is vital for all
future disaster preparedness planning.
need for better planning is the prediction that hurricanes and their
severity are expected to increase in the years ahead, the study
According to the
authors, the study is believed to be the first to examine the
interaction of personal and social factors in African Americans’
evacuation. Dr. Keith Elder was principal investigator of the study.
Others included Dr. Sudha Xirasagar, Dr. Nancy Miller, Shelly Ann Bowen, Dr. Saundra Glover and Crystal
In addition to
better preparedness plans, the study noted: "It is very
important as well that the perception of race-based inequities be
explored in depth, to understand their contribution to the
disproportionate casualties and suffering experienced by minorities in
emergencies such as that created by Hurricane Katrina."
The idea is to avoid
a repeat of Katrina where most of those seeking shelter from the storm
were black, as were three-fourths of the 2,300 reported missing and a
majority of the 668 reported dead in the State of Louisiana. The damage
toll from the storm was $81.2 billion.
SIX GROUPS INTERVIEWED
The study involved
six focus groups with 53 African American who were evacuated to Columbia
within two months of the storm.
among the reasons they did not evacuate were: they had successfully
ridden out a hurricane in the past, they had no money for gasoline to
leave the city, they were afraid to leave their homes and have their
valuables stolen, and they had a fear that police would stop them if
they tried to leave.
Many residents said
their religious faith gave them confidence they could survive the
storm. Additionally, experience with riding out other storms was
reflected in comments such as “If I survived Hurricane Betsy, I can
survive that one too. We all ride the hurricanes, you know.”
Other residents said
they had no money to pay for gasoline because it was late in the month.
“The hurricane came at the wrong time. We were waiting for our payday,”
one participant said.
The study reported
that all focus groups reported dissatisfaction with the government
because of its perceived apathy toward low-income African Americans.
administrations were criticized because of their tolerance of obsolete
drainage systems and levies bordering the lower Ninth Ward where most of
the participants resided.
“Our streets have
always overflowed with water and stuff from the sewer after big storms,”
one resident reported.
Elder said many of the residents also feared police
reprisal if they crossed into affluent parishes to reach shelters or
get to evacuation routes.
“The people in the lower Ninth Ward, who were so severely affected
by the storm, believed that they had to look out for themselves and
could survive the storm as they had done for many years,” he said.
“Evacuees also said that there was confusion about the severity of
the hurricane because of conflicting evacuation orders from the
mayor and the governor. When evacuation orders came, it was too late
for many people to leave.”
Dr. Xirasagar said federal, state and local emergency-management
agencies must develop preparedness plans that address the needs
of minority and low-income people, including plans that include
timely evacuation orders, maps that clearly identify evacuation
routes and vouchers or cash for gasoline and other essential
“Planning must adequately address the needs of under-served
communities,” Xirasagar said. “What happened to the residents
in New Orleans could happen to people in many coastal areas of
the United States.”
In fact, Charleston, S.C., isn’t that different from New
Orleans, Elder said.
“Charleston ranks high in its vulnerability,” Elder said. “You
have a large number of minorities, many of whom are elderly,
live in poverty or have less education. They clearly are at risk
if a hurricane threatens the coast.”
The AJPH report is timely, Xirasagar said, given
the recent predictions that the 2007 hurricane season will have
more storms than 2006.
“This is the time for everyone to examine their
disaster plans and make arrangements for those who are most
vulnerable,” Xirasagar said.
Additional study also is needed, Elder said, to
examine what “receiving cities” can do to assist people when
they are evacuated.
“In Columbia, for example, evacuees said that the
transition was much easier than they imagined,” he said. “We
need to look at the needs of the receiving cities and know what
went right for those who had positive experiences. This is
valuable information for future disasters.”
Publication of the
study in the AJPH will expose it to a wide audience of public health
professionals, but Elder and Xirasagar hope to brief the public and key
South Carolina officials on their finding.
briefed Columbia Mayor Bob Coble on the study, said Coble indicated he
would like to host a public meeting of key disaster preparedness
stakeholders such as the Department of Health and Environmental Control,
the Red Cross and others.
The study is
entitled: Why African Americans Did Not Evacuate Before Hurricane
Katrina: A Qualitative Study of Evacuees from New Orleans.
Subscribers to the American Journal of Public Health can read the study
online at the
First Look section of the journal's website.