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Not an Equal Opportunity Hurricane

A hurricane approaching land

UO Sociologist Jim Elliott knows just how devastating Hurricane Katrina was; he was there.

Elliott taught at Tulane University in New Orleans from 1999 to 2006. During hurricane season, evacuation notices were common, he said. However, as Katrina approached, even the neighborhood sentries fled. “We heard people say, ‘This is not the one to stay for,’” Elliot recalled. He took one last look around his deserted neighborhood and joined his wife at the local hospital for lockdown.

For sociologists, Katrina became much more than a hurricane costing billions of dollars and hundreds of lives; it developed into a rare opportunity to study networks of people negotiating new physical, economic and social challenges while recovering from a landscape-altering natural disaster.

Since joining the UO in 2006, Elliott, who’s at the forefront of this research, has begun comparing redevelopment in New Orleans to redevelopment in other storm-ravaged cities to see how vulnerable groups fare over the long term.

In 2005, as the storm passed and the levees failed, Elliott and his sociology colleagues began to file for grants, preparing students to act as surveyors documenting the recovery as residents returned. They found surprising disparities amongst racial groups. “The white folks who were displaced were disproportionately able to get help because government aid is directed toward restoring property, not community,” said Elliott.

Rebuilding was an option for those who owned homes and could move back to town quickly, staying with friends or family in undamaged areas. Those undamaged areas were predominantly white. As the recovery progressed, growth in white neighborhoods boomed and the city became a “recovery machine,” said Elliott, “promoting aggressive redevelopment over community and equity concerns.” Inundated black neighborhoods recovered more slowly, and remain in the path of future disasters.

Curious about long-term recovery, Elliott and his colleagues consulted geographic data from cities that suffered hurricanes in the 1990s. They found that New Orleans was following a national trend: Vulnerable populations do not recover from such disasters at the same rate as privileged populations.

In fact, social conditions often worsen afterwards, in spite of redevelopment dollars — a finding that Elliott hopes will alter the design of future recovery plans. His recent work argues for the egalitarian restoration of whole communities.

Armed with historic data, one of Elliott’s graduate students is now looking to the future: Are residents of the Pacific Northwest prepared for a devastating natural disaster?

– Chrisanne Beckner

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