Seidenberg Cultural Competency in Disaster Recovery

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Seidenberg Cultural Competency in Disaster Recovery

Transcript Of Seidenberg Cultural Competency in Disaster Recovery

Cultural Competency in Disaster Recovery: Lessons Learned from the Hurricane Katrina Experience for Better Serving Marginalized Communities
Jennifer Seidenberg
The awareness of federal, state and local governments of the potential for levees in New Orleans to fail and decimate poor neighborhoods of the city was widely reported following the hurricane Katrina disaster. Demographics in the areas likely to incur the most severe damage were known to be neighborhoods of predominately poor, black residents. In addition to understanding the likely geographical impact of the impending disaster, the federal government was aware of the extensive social science and legal challenges detailing the likelihood of minority citizens to experience the worst consequences and slowest recovery from natural disasters. Studies dating back to the 1950s and numerous reports of the Red Cross support this conclusion. FEMA itself was sued in federal court for its inadequate response to marginalized communities during hurricane Andrew in 1992. While the federal government may not be held legally responsible for its discretionary policies within the disaster relief context, the horror of hurricane Katrina surely calls for a long overdue re-thinking of the federal approach to assisting marginalized communities in disaster recovery. Social science, the practical problems raised within legal challenges, as well as successful strategies from other disasters and even within the Katrina tragedy offer numerous opportunities for such reform.
Table of Contents:
I. Introduction II. The Problem
A. Cultural Difference in the Disaster Context: Perspectives from the Social Sciences III. The Long Road to Recovery: Marginalized Groups Fall Further Behind
A. On the Ground: Practical Middle Class Solutions Fail Marginalized Communities B. Maneuvering a Disastrous Bureaucracy: the Importance of Information and Appropriate Financial Assistance mechanisms IV. Responding to Crisis: Examples and Opportunities for Reform A. A Problem the Courts cannot solve B. Structural reforms will better address the needs of marginalized communities
1. Federally managed charitable operations: Coordination and the Red Cross 2. The local NGO approach to disaster recovery: “Our long-term goal is raise the family above prior conditions and not rebuild poverty.” 3. Recommendations for Creating Cultural Competency
i. Structural Reforms a. Contracting with local Non-Profit Organizations b. Drawing from internal strengths c. Pre-planning with community leaders
ii. The missing role of the advocate C. Serving the community: reforming behavior to attack cultural incompetence V. Conclusion: Legal Issues raised by Proposals for Reform
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I. Introduction: Following the great earthquake and fire of 1906, Chinese residents of San Francisco
found themselves shunted to a far corner of the city, denied relief assistance afforded the white population, and arrested for attempting to re-enter their homes in Chinatown.1 San Francisco’s ruling elite took advantage of an opportunity to reclaim Chinatown for white business interests, and formulated a plan to move the refugee Chinese population south of the city to Hunter’s Point.2 In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the Red Cross placed ethnic minority populations within ghettoized districts of tent cities where Latino victims encountered taunting and hostility from other ethnic groups.3 We may lament these events as falling within a familiar pattern of America’s failed poverty policy in the same vein as our welfare and housing systems. Yet, the disaster context presents unique, discrete situations wherein government at all levels may actually find an opportunity to respond directly to the position of marginalized populations, potentially transforming their experience of our social safety net.
In this paper, I argue that FEMA, in coordination with state governments, should decentralize long term recovery efforts and better utilize locally based government and community social services organizations. In order to create real cultural empathy within the bureaucracy, providers of relief must have substantial connections with the impacted community. Although immediate rescue and evacuation responses to disasters must also integrate cultural competency strategies, this paper focuses instead on the long term recovery efforts which follow the first few weeks of a disaster and continue for the following year. This aspect of recovery is aimed at
1 National Park Service, “Presidio of San Francisco: Chinese Displacement,” available at (last visited April 27, 2006). 2 Id. 3 Kevin A. Yelvington, “Coping in a Temporary Way: The tent cities,” in Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, gender and the sociology of disasters, 103-05 (Peacock, Morrow & Gladwin Ed., 1997).
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returning victims to relative financial security, stable housing and access to services for health and general welfare. For purposes of definition, the marginalized populations as discussed in this paper refer to a broad spectrum of citizens who live lives dependent on social services, are often surviving below the poverty line, with disabilities, lack of English language proficiency, depressed social standing due to lack of education or job opportunity.4 “Cultural Competency” refers to a high level of sophistication within organizations’ interactions with diverse populations; it is “a set of values, behaviors, attitudes, and practices…that allows people to work effectively across cultures.”5
Part II of this article reviews social science findings regarding marginalized populations in disaster recovery and the demographics of New Orleans which exacerbated Katrina victims’ experience after the hurricane passed. Part III examines the traditional recovery system after Katrina as it has served middle class recovery yet failed to move poor and marginalized communities towards long term stability. Part IV suggests reforms to create cultural competency within government recovery efforts. Finally, Part V concludes the discussion with a brief look at the legal obstacles to needed reform.
II The Problem Well before hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, the geography and
demography of New Orleans placed its poor and minority populations in a state of “social
4 California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), “Meeting the Needs of Vulnerable People in Times of Disaster: A Guide for Emergency Managers,” at 3, available at$file/Vulnerable%20Population s.PDF, (last visited April 27, 2006) (hereinafter “California OES”). 5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Cultural Competence in Disaster Mental Health Programs: Guiding Principles and Recommendations (2003) at 12, available at (last visited April 27, 2006).
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vulnerability” leaving them at severe risk from the impact of a natural disaster.6 In Louisiana,
21.4% of the population impacted by the storm was below the poverty line in a state where
19.6% of the total population live below poverty level (compared to 12.4% of the total US
population).7 Poverty conditions are even more endemic in New Orleans, where 28% of people
live in poverty; 84% of these are African-American.8 Thus, a significant portion of those
impacted by the hurricane were African-American citizens living below the poverty line.
New Orleans’ history of racial division meant that modern African-American
communities were segregated in certain portions of the city. Segregation lead to the
phenomenon of “public housing … invariably located in the most undesirable areas—along
major transportation corridors, on reclaimed land, or next to industrial facilities.”9 Apart from
public housing woes, the lowest lying areas of New Orleans most likely to be inundated by water
were neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward where 98% of the population was African-
American.10 Homeownership has proved to be a key factor aiding recovery from the disaster.11
Sadly, the areas most severely impacted by Katrina had a low proportion of homeowners; only
55% compared to the national average of 66%.12 Despite their inability to buy homes, renters of
6 See Susan Cutter, “The Geography of Social Vulnerability: Race, Class and Catastrophe,” in SSRC, available at (last visited January 22, 2006). Cutter explains that in addition to housing and financial concerns social vulnerability involves intangible elements, many of which social scientists studying disasters have noted and are discussed infra at 5. Cutter includes within this intangible list, “the basic provisions of health care, the livability of places, overall indicators of quality of life…capital, and political representation.” 7 Congressional Research Service (hereinafter “CRS”), Hurricane Katrina: Social-Demographic Characteristics of Impacted Areas, RL33141, (November 4, 2005) at 14-15. 8 Center for Progressive Reform, “An Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” CPR Publication #512, September 2005. 9 Cutter at 2. 10 Center for Progressive Reform at 35. 11 See discussion infra, on middle-class solutions including FEMA’s blue roof program and trailer allocation which has allowed homeowners to establish stability sooner than their counterparts. However, working class homeowners are less likely to reap these advantages, as they have “acquired some of the trappings associated with economic success, they may lack the ‘defense in depth’—the economic security, political and social influence, and personal power of the professional classes which can be especially crucial in times of disaster.” Betty Hearn Morrow, “Stretching the Bonds: The families of Andrew,” at 152-54 in Peacock, Morrow & Gladwin (see supra note 3). 12 CRS at 23.
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single family homes in the Lower Ninth Ward had long term ties to the area, with many renting the same property for more than a decade.13 These citizens who were certainly part of and contributed to the community still held no tangible property rights in the neighborhood. At the end of August 2005, New Orleans’ significant population of underprivileged African-American families were living at a dangerous intersection of housing discrimination, economic disadvantage and weak interests in real property.
A. Cultural Difference in the Disaster Context: Perspectives from the Social Sciences Marginalized populations are not only more likely to be vulnerable to disasters due to
self-evident problems of geography and resources, but are also considerably disadvantaged by less obvious social and cultural phenomena. Social scientists studying minority populations within modern disaster recovery efforts have amassed a substantial literature detailing the outcomes of federal programs seeking to aid these groups.14 W.G. Peacock notes that the United States has adopted a largely “market-based approach” to disaster recovery wherein individuals are expected to rely upon private insurance payments and financial reserves, with government and charity funds potentially “filling in some of the gaps.”15 Government responses rooted in assumptions of market-based recovery “tend to magnify the consequences of these conditions [poverty, discrimination and other cultural factors], placing minority households at greater risk of failing to recover.”16
13 CRS at 24. 14 See Fothergill, Maestas & Darlington, Race, Ethnicity and Disaster in the United States: A Review of the Literature, 23 Disasters 156 (1999). 15 Walter Gillis Peacock with A. Kathleen Ragsdale, “Social Systems, Ecological Networks and Disasters: Toward a socio-political ecology of disasters,” in Peacock, Morrow & Gladwin Ed. Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, gender and the sociology of disasters, (Routledge, 1997) at 26. 16 Id. at 27.
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At risk citizens are likely to have had experience previous to a disaster with the social
welfare system, yet this practice may not aid them in navigating the massive federal bureaucracy
in charge of provisioning aid following a disaster; instead negative associations may impede
their willingness to approach with government authorities.17 Perhaps due to this skepticism of
government bureaucracy, non-white victims of disasters are “more likely than whites to cite
churches and the Red Cross as helpful sources of information during recovery.”18 Despite
minority groups’ cynicism of such signals of government authority, during the Katrina recovery
FEMA continued to operate information and processing sites such as Disaster Relief Centers
(“DRCs”) with khaki-clad private security guards outfitted with weapons and sporting
unfortunately named “Blackwater” security T-shirts.19 In a New York Times study of recovery
seven months after the hurricane, about half of all black evacuees surveyed “called race a major
factor in the government’s slow response.”20
The Hurricane Andrew experience in 1992 taught federal agencies and charities alike that
maneuvering the aid process requires education, time, and skill that poor families simply do not
possess.21 Numerous South Florida families never entered the relief system, and were living
with the effects of the disaster long after the deadline to register for FEMA assistance had
17 Ronald W. Perry & Alvin H. Mushkatel, Minority Citizens in Disasters (University of Georgia Press, 1986) at 154, “Another aspect of cultural differences is that some minority members perceive authority figures—particularly uniformed government representatives – differently from majority group members. Amongst members of some urban/ethnic racial minority groups in the United States, public safety personnel…are not necessarily viewed in positive terms or as sources from whom to expect help and protection.” 18 Fothergill at 163. 19 Griff Witte, “Private Security Contractors Head to Gulf,” The Washington Post (September 8, 2005) A14. Many of Blackwater USA’s personnel who worked in DRCs following Katrina had recently returned to the United States from security work in Iraq. 20 Shaila Dewan, Marjorie Connelly and Andrew Lehren, “Evacuees’ Lives Still Upended Seven Months After Hurricane,” The New York Times, March 22, 2006. (337 respondents were selected randomly from a Red Cross Katrina victim database). Contrasting black perspectives on the government response, “almost three-quarters of the white evacuees said race was not a factor at all.” 21 Betty Hearn Morrow, “Stretching the Bonds: The families of Andrew,” at 152-54 in Peacock, Morrow & Gladwin (see supra note 3).
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passed.22 In contrast, upper-middle class victims are generally more likely to understand how to navigate the government system and are better able to perform bureaucratic tasks such as filling out forms and providing relevant information to disaster personnel.23 Consequently, marginalized populations are less likely to receive federal disaster aid.24
Social networks also play a key role in disaster recovery, as victims are able to rely upon neighborhood, workplace and kinship ties for temporary housing, emotional support and access to other practical resources such as transportation and communication.25 Most residents of poor urban areas tend to have limited social networks with limited resources and are thus disadvantaged from accessing a variety of non-government safety nets.26 New Orleans’ tradition of voluntary organizations (such as the Mardi Gras tribes) and multi-generational families within the same neighborhoods might have made Katrina victims’ social networks a potential strength in disaster recovery. Yet, after hurricane Katrina, indigent victims likely had a much more difficult time staying connected with these potentially critical social networks due to lack of communication resources, and the population’s wide dispersal across the United States through evacuation efforts.27 Future efforts at disaster recovery should be sensitive to maintaining underprivileged families’ social networks to the extent practicable by allowing victims to stay closer to home and facilitating contact amongst those who must be displaced.28
22 Id. 23 Fothergill at 165. 24 See discussion infra at 11. 25 Jeanne S. Hurlbert, John J. Beggs, Valerie A. Haines, “Bridges Over Troubled Waters: What are the Optimal Networks for Katrina’s Victims?” available at (last visited March 2006). 26 Id. 27 Id. 28 See discussion infra on Catholic Charities’ “Operation Starfish” program at 21.
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III. The Long Road to Recovery: Marginalized Groups Fall Further Behind
"The vast majority of debris on public property has been removed. Most of the remaining debris is on private property, in yards or inside houses that need to be gutted or demolished. To get the debris, the residents need to give permission, in most cases, to the local authorities. They need to get back to their houses, so they can decide what to keep and what to remove."29 -- President George W. Bush
On a visit to New Orleans in March 2006, President Bush reflected the ignorance of the federal government to the unique position of marginalized communities in disaster recovery. While touring the Lower Ninth Ward, the President implored black residents to return home, demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the situation of former residents of the neighborhood, many of whom were hundreds of miles away without the ability to hop into their cars and speed back to New Orleans upon the President’s call.
A. On the Ground: Practical Middle Class Solutions Fail Marginalized Communities A comparison of recovery between the Lower Ninth Ward versus the upper-middle class
Lakeview neighborhood and working class St. Bernard Parish provides a lens for evaluating the effectiveness of ongoing government response to the plight of underprivileged victims of hurricane Katrina. Since the initial deluge, the three communities have moved in starkly different directions; two steadily towards recovery while third’s future existence remains a question mark. A look at these communities reveals that their divergent paths following the hurricane are the result of an interplay between socio-cultural reactions to disaster and government’s inability to adequately serve marginalized populations. Solutions such as SBA loans, blue roofs and trailer programs though well intentioned, only work effectively for middle class communities with private resources, stable social networks, and a firm hold on property rights.
29 Quoting President Bush, Pear, “Bush Visits Gulf Region as It Struggles to Rebuild,” The New York Times, March 8, 2006.
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Black survivors surveyed in a March 2006 New York Times study “were having the most
difficulty returning” to New Orleans, and were also “more likely to have had their homes destroyed or to have lost a close friend or relative.”30 In contrast, whites were far more likely to have returned to the area and kept their old jobs or found new ones.31 In the Lower Ninth Ward,
where comparatively low numbers of residents owned homes (yet most rental properties were
black-owned), Louisiana ACORN and other local organizations had to fight in court to stop bulldozing scheduled without notice or consultation with residents and homeowners.32 Despite
FEMA’s stated desire, “We want to keep you as close to your home and as comfortable as possible,”33 the agency has found it impossible to locate travel trailers for black families within wealthier neighborhoods of New Orleans.34 Neither has the federal government made any
concerted effort to clean up, restore basic services and move trailers into the Lower Ninth Ward
and other black neighborhoods to facilitate the return of black citizens to New Orleans.
St. Bernard Parish, a close knit working class community was the hardest hit Parish
outside of Orleans. An estimated 65,000 residents (97% of the Parish’s total population) were
impacted by flooding and a portion of the Parish was exposed to toxic floodwaters from the Murphy Oil Refinery spill.35 Despite this extensive damage, within the few months of the
disaster the Parish was humming with construction activity. Numerous St. Bernard homeowners
were living in front of their damaged homes, working to rip out rotted material and begin
30 See Dewan, Connelly & Lehren supra at note 20. 31 Id. 32 “9th Ward ACORN Members Win Bulldozing Settlement,” available at ACORN website; (last visited March 17, 2006). 33 FEMA, “Katrina Recovery Times,” (Vol. 1, October 7, 2005) Available at (last visited April 4, 2005). 34 See Andrew Martin, “Hitches show in FEMA trailer plan; $2 billion program for hurricane homeless moving slowly, critics say,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2006. “Ten weeks after Hurricane Katrina..[FEMA] has delivered just 15 percent of the travel trailers that it hurriedly purchased for temporary housing.” 35 CRS Report at 7.
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structural repairs.36 A backdrop of stronger individual financial resources, coupled with the
response of citizen groups such as the St. Bernard Citizens Recovery Committee has allowed the community to move forward quite rapidly.37 Contrasting the situation in the Lower Ninth Ward,
the local government has stepped back and allowed the community influence how it will rebuild
without the threat of bulldozers though a majority of the land mass in St. Bernard Parish is reclaimed and below sea level.38
The Lakeview neighborhood of Orleans Parish is also on a fast track to recovery, even though the area was subject to massive flooding from a breach of the 17th Street Canal levee.39
Overwhelmingly white and middle class, “an estimated 400 to 500 families have moved back...most are living in government-issued trailers while gutting their homes.”40 FEMA’s “blue
roof” program which installed heavy duty plastic coverings also allowed many Katrina victims to stay in their moderately damaged homes during the recovery period.41
Readily available FEMA programs such as blue roofs and trailers have thus allowed the
middle class able to stay within the community and rebuild while the most of the indigent
community remains far from home, unable to even begin the process of reconstructing their lives.42 Louisiana legislators have urged FEMA to re-work their trailer system so that “parish
36 See “Louisiana Speaks” Website, (Louisiana Speaks is the public relations arm of the Louisiana Recovery Authority), St. Bernard Parish Recovery information is available at (last visited April 20, 2006). 37 Karen Turni Bazile “St. Bernard gets recovery going: Council gives nod to planner’s big ideas,” The TimesPicayune, March 22, 2006. 38 Id. 39 David Zucchino, “In Katrina’s Ruins, a Land of Opportunity; Residents, new buyers and real estate agents await a neighborhood’s rebirth.” Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2006. 40 Id. 41 Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 82,000 blue roofs were installed in Louisiana. The blue roof program was administered by FEMA, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operated the program on the ground, hiring contractors, and volunteers. FEMA, “Blue Roof Program Reaches Lofty Goals,” at FEMA website, available at, (last visited April 25, 2006). 42 Id.
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