Jessica Firger

Jane Henrici, a senior research affiliate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says a closer look determined that disaster relief groups were not prepared to sufficiently respond to incidents of sexual violence during Katrina. Essentially, responding to individual crises such as rape typically isn’t part of the standard protocol for on-the-ground aid in natural disasters. First responders trained with the Red Cross, for example, are only instructed to encourage sexual assault victims to report the incident to law enforcement or to call 911. They’re not given training to provide appropriate medical care or emotional support.

Henrici says during Katrina, responders were more likely to do nothing at all and even avoid intervening in such incidents. Some of the problem appeared to be bureaucratic. Incidents of sexual assault are always legally complicated and require mountains of paperwork and documentation that invariably detracts from other overwhelming needs like rescuing evacuees.

“There was a perception on a part of women that they were not going to be protected when things occurred,” says Henrici. “Women with whom I spoke with heard it was happening or knew it was happening, and they remained traumatized.”

In the years that have followed since Katrina, advocates and public health experts have tried to understand what went wrong in an attempt to develop better protocol as destructive hurricanes become more frequent. These efforts resulted in a planning guide funded by a grant from the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center published the guide online that provides for range of guidelines to ensure safety.

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