Washington, DC

—In advance of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released a report presenting a comprehensive analysis of the interview responses of 184 low-income black women who were living in “The Big Four”—four large housing projects within the city of New Orleans, known as “the Bricks”—and who were displaced by the twin disasters of the hurricane and the flooding. The report finds that disaster relief and housing policies put in place following Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—in particular, the demolition of the Big Four public housing buildings—were implemented in a manner that took away opportunities, supports, and infrastructures from low-income women and their families most in need of a reliable safety net, especially as they sought to recover from a catastrophic set of disasters and endure the Great Recession.

Get to the Bricks: The Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing After Hurricane Katrina 
is the culmination of a five-year research project exploring the experiences of women who lived in public housing when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005 and the levees protecting the city of New Orleans failed. Based on in-depth ethnographic interviews with the women conducted over a two-year period from 2008 to 2010, the study explores the reasoning behind these women’s choices to either return to New Orleans or remain displaced and the resources that were or were not available to these women as they attempted to make the best decisions for themselves and their families after the historic disaster.

The major findings of the study include:

  • –Contrary to the statements made by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), most of the former tenants of New Orleans public housing preferred to return home to New Orleans.
  • –The sturdy brick public housing buildings created a reliable infrastructure for the women interviewed, both in terms of safety and social networks. IWPR researchers were told that the brick construction of the public housing made the women feel safe. In addition, the close proximity of family and friends who lived in the buildings or nearby created a social network that they often turned to for financial, caregiving, and emotional assistance prior to the storm.
  • –The abrupt switch to a voucher system to meet low-income families’ housing needs added to the hardship of no longer being able to return to the homes they had inhabited prior to the storm, since it required these women to demonstrate established credit histories, in addition to paying higher rents and utilities.
  • –The lack of transportation, both while displaced and in New Orleans post-Katrina, hampered these women’s ability to attend school, get a job, or simply perform daily tasks. While displaced, the women reported that, without cars, they were isolated found it difficult to navigate their new cities with the available public transportation.
  • –Despite the notable generosity of the communities that received the displaced women, these women nevertheless faced an incomplete emergency safety net with information gaps, inconsistencies among services available, and inadequacies in supports such as child care and transportation.

“Despite facing mounting losses, which included emotional trauma from surviving a horrific disaster, economic hardship of being displaced from their homes and communities, and the political invisibility of having their needs largely ignored by disaster relief policies, these women exhibited remarkable courage, determination, and resiliency as they sought to keep their children and themselves safe and move on with their lives,” said the study’s author, IWPR Senior Research Fellow Jane Henrici, Ph.D.

Based on the findings from the study, the report offers policy recommendations concerning U.S. anti-poverty, housing, and disaster recovery policies that call for implementing a more holistic approach to disaster relief efforts in the United States. These policy recommendations include:

  • –Improving communication among different service providers;
  • –De-prioritizing the construction of mixed income housing which seeks to integrate neighborhoods, but generally results in an increase in market-rate housing at the expense of affordable housing;
  • –Expanding tenant vouchers and using them to address not only housing, but also education, health care, job training, and transportation;
  • –Diversifying policy to focus on the needs of women and their families in a variety of circumstances;
  • –Guaranteeing the right to return for all residents; and
  • –Including the voices of low-income women and their families in policy planning and development.

“As we look back on Katrina at the ten year anniversary, we hope this report, and the voices of the women interviewed, will encourage policymakers to consider the lived experiences of women and their families to ensure that future disasters do not perpetuate the marginalization of the most disadvantaged members of our communities,” said IWPR President Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

The research is one of a set of investigations conducted as a part of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Katrina Task Force. Major funding for the project was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the SSRC. The report is also a part of IWPR’slong-term research effort, begun in 2005, focusing on women from different communities, backgrounds, and race and ethnic groups along the U.S. Gulf Coast following the Katrina-related disasters.

 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that conducts rigorous research and disseminates its findings to address the needs of women and their families, promote public dialogue, and strengthen communities and societies.