Updated: Feb 22
Climate Change and Reproductive Injustice in New Orleans Following a Climate Crisis
By: Lindsay Luchinsky
Art by: Nicole Klein
The 2005 Hurricane Katrina that caused massive devastation in New Orleans still affects the city today. The Ninth Ward of New Orleans, however, was displaced to be particularly damaged by the hurricane. Between ineffective evacuation efforts and discriminatory recovery policies, this neighborhood was disproportionately harmed.
Women in the Ninth Ward were especially victimized by the hurricane. Ecofeminism is the philosophy that the oppressive conceptual framework and dualism which is responsible for the oppression of (those who identify as) women by men is also responsible for humanity's domination and destruction of nature (Warren). The philosophy also acknowledges the intersectionality of several other factors (such as race, ethnicity, income, nationality, etc.) which contributes to how severely any given group may be affected by climate crises. As prescribed by ecofeminism, women are more vulnerable to climate change than men are (Rojas-Cheatham et al. 1). The instances of injustice in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Katrina prove this trend. Further, climate injustices surround the legislative responses to the climate crisis, which failed at protecting women. Injustice arose in the wake of Katrina as the legislation addressing the devastation did not acknowledge that marginalized women are more severely affected by climate crises; in fact, recovery efforts specifically targeted these groups.
The Disproportional Impact
Climate change and the resulting climate crises affect marginalized groups most severely; due to systemic barriers, marginalized groups were positioned to be most heavily affected by Katrina even before the hurricane arrived. One of the most common criticisms of governmental responses to Hurricane Katrina is of the ineffective evacuation efforts. In an NPR interview, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, of the New Orleans City Council, explained what exactly went wrong. The original plan was to first facilitate the evacuation of those with vehicles. Those without vehicles would be evacuated with the help of city buses. However, one day before the storm, the Office of Emergency Preparedness opted to instead house the people without vehicles in the Superdome due to congestion in the evacuation routes. For weeks, the Superdome became a refuge house for thousands whose houses became uninhabitable. Many of these people ended up homeless or returning to live in the wreckage (Sullivan). Unfortunately, “Katrina struck on 29 August — two days before paychecks and welfare or disability checks would arrive,” and they were unable to afford the transportation costs (Clutter et al. 11).
Many of New Orleans’ poor were unable to comply with the evacuations measure, regardless of where they were destined. Due to the failed evacuations, over 100,000 people were trapped inside New Orleans unable to escape (Sullivan). Additionally, due to the comparably weaker construction of the houses of the lower Ninth Ward, more homes in this neighborhood were rendered uninhabitable than those in affluent neighborhoods that faced equal hurricane intensity. Unaccommodating evacuation plans and inequality in infrastructure are only two examples of the ways in which marginalized groups were positioned to be most harmed by Katrina, and recovery efforts reflect these trends.
Relationship Between Gender, Race, and Climate
While weather may seem to be the one uniform contender which all humans face, the responses to and recovery in the wake of climate crises are often gendered, classist, and racist. In Susan Clutter’s article discussing the relationship between gender, race, and climate, she explored why people are “overly exposed, non-resistant, and less resilient” to climate crises (11). She found that vulnerability corresponds to access to resources and political power, social capital, income, culture, housing, physical or mental ability, “and type and density of infrastructure and lifelines to access to resources and general social advantage” (11). These groups live in a state of permanent emergency which is only exacerbated in instances of environmental distress. Unfortunately, even after suffering worse devastation after climate crises, these marginalized groups are often excluded from response and recovery decisions.
Kathleen Onís noted in her paper exploring climate justice that “climate change should be considered both locally and globally,” which results in the creation of large organizations composed of “diverse stakeholders” (311). While this assumption of climate justice may seem progressive, it often bars marginalized communities from recovery related decisions, as they often “lack the time, energy, or resources” to represent their interests (Roberts 297). The result is that recovery efforts tend to benefit the interests of those with extensive political and financial influence. This dichotomy between those whose interests are represented and those whose interests are not is furthered by inequalities associated with the dualism of gender.
The Women of Katrina
Women in marginalized communities, due to their gender, were even further harmed by Katrina compared to their male counterparts. The increasingly accepted gender analysis of climate change, that “low-income women, women of color, and immigrants will be most impacted by … severe weather events” was only exemplified by “Hurricane Katrina, which hit African American, immigrant, and Indigenous women in Southeast Louisiana the hardest” (Onís 310). For example, instances of gender-based violence increase in frequency during times of climate crisis, as is what happened during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As reported by a study conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, forty-seven cases of rape during Hurricane Katrina were reported in New Orleans (National Sexual Violence Resource Center 1-3). This statistic is significant and remarkably high, especially considering only one in five to six victims report the incident in non-crisis circumstances and the many barriers victims face when seeking to report the crimes in a disaster scenario (Klein 12, 36).
Women also had diminished access to reproductive health care in the wake of the storm. Thousands of adults were left uninsured in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the majority of which were women, especially African American and low-income women (Rojas-Cheatham et al. 6). Increased frequency of gender-related violence and loss of reproductive health care following Katrina contributed to women’s suffering after the storm, though economic factors contribute to this trend as well.
Role of the Wage Gap
Income inequality of women compared to men and job insecurity of women are other factors which influence the fact that women living on the margins are more affected by climate crises. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research provides extensive information proving this issue. The institute first establishes a platform with evidence that women, especially female minorities, were at an economic disadvantage to men even before Katrina: “for every dollar a white man earned in Louisiana, for example, a white woman earned 66.7 cents, a Hispanic woman earned 56.7 cents, and a Black woman earned only 48.9 cents” (Williams et al. 15).
The group shows how Katrina worsened the inequalities. During the first year following the hurricane, the share of New Orleans households which were female-led fell from approximately 53,000 to 17,000 (4). For specifically low-income female-led households in New Orleans, the drop was 18,000 to 3,000 (4). The latter statistic reflects “an 83% population drop and mass displacement of low-income single mothers” (Rojas-Cheatham et al. 5). Further, the ACJR group found that in New Orleans following the hurricane, “men’s median annual income rose to $43,055, while women’s median annual income fell to $28,032” (5). In addition to this income 1 disparity, Louisiana lost a total of 180,000 workers in 2005 after Katrina, of which 103,000 were women -- “female-dominated industries,” especially “health education, and hospitality,” were particularly affected. While income inequality and job insecurity based on race and gender existed prior to the storm, Katrina only exacerbated the issue. Hurricane relief and recovery initiatives did not take this fact into account.
Legislation in the wake of Katrina did take not into account that women, and other, already marginalized groups, are disproportionately affected by climate change. For example, in Louisiana during the time of Katrina, “only adults with dependent children and incomes less than 20% of the federal poverty level (about $3000 per year) qualified for Medicaid” (Anderson). The legislation addressing Medicaid eligibility did not change at all to accommodate the aforementioned newly uninsured New Orleans adults in the wake of Katrina (Anderson). Additionally, to this day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided New Orleans with “no recovery plans and policies specifically designed to address the health and wellness needs of women and girls who are the most vulnerable to poverty, discrimination, and limited health care access” (Rojas-Cheatham 6).
Another poor legislative decision was that FEMA allocated allotted Katrina relief funds in ways which prioritized big businesses, such as repairing casinos, over investing in more accessible health care (FEMA). Furthermore, despite the fact that the rate of gender-related violence tends to spike in the wake of climate crises, there were no efforts made to aid sexual assault and rape victims. Despite the precedent of sending FEMA Disaster Medical Assistant Teams (DMATs) specializing in sexual violence response and aid to other cities affected by climate crises in the past, there were no DMATs of this kind on the ground in New Orleans after Katrina (Klein 36). Additionally, less than half of the federally subsidized child care facilities open in the year following Katrina were still open as of 2009 (ACJR p.5). Less funding went toward repairing child care infrastructure than did casinos, and these closures tend to place additional economic burden on women (FEMA). Each of these examples is representative of the inadequate legislation which failed to acknowledge women’s issues.
1 Men’s incomes rose, rather than fell, in the wake of Katrina. Traditionally male dominated industries necessary for the clean-up and construction fields were in high demand after the storm (Williams et al. 21).
The fact that post-Katrina recovery legislation did not acknowledge these issues is wholly unjust and violates FEMA’s stated mission. The detailed, official FEMA mission statement is: “to reduce the loss of life and property and protect our institutions from all hazards by leading and supporting the nation in a comprehensive, risk-based emergency management program of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery” (FEMA). To achieve this mission, FEMA has five stated agenda items to assist in disaster responses. One of these agenda items is to “provide a rapid and effective response to, and recovery from, disaster” (FEMA). FEMA ignored this agenda item by not addressing inequalities faced by women, especially already marginalized women, exacerbated by climate crises. A response is not “effective” if it is not inclusive. Thus, FEMA violated its mission statement which indicates that the legislative responses to Hurricane Katrina were unjust. An effective response and recovery must acknowledge and address the problems faced by marginalized women after climate crises.
Not only did post-Katrina recovery efforts fail to accommodate women living on the margins, but political efforts were made to specifically target this group. In 2008, three years following the devastating storm, Former Louisiana House Representative John LaBruzzo feared
a potential economic crash in Louisiana. His worry was based on the increasing numbers of families dependent on government welfare, especially as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast (Rojas-Cheatham et al.). Rather than addressing the underlying, systemic issues which led to more women having more children without the means to support large families, LaBruzzo proposed a plan rooted in misogyny. As articulated by The New Orleans Metro Times and other local New Orleans journals in 2008, LaBruzzo studied and invested in “a plan to pay poor women $1,000 to have their Fallopian tubes tied” (Waller). Further, the politician indicated that college educated, higher-income people in New Orleans could receive tax incentives to have larger families (Waller). It should be noted that instead of funding programs to address issues related to reproductive health and rights, LaBruzzo and other Louisiana officials invested in research which demoralizes women. LaBruzzo’s proposal of coercive sterilization based on income villanizes women, especially women of color, as being responsible for economic trends following Hurricane Katrina. His plan is reflective of a perspective which does not recognize the undue plight of marginalized women in the wake of climate crises.
The harmful legislative responses to the devastation caused in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina failed to address the exacerbated suffering of marginalized women. Ecofeminism provides a platform arguing that the systematic oppression of women and the natural environment are linked; marginalized women tend to experience the negative effects of climate change more so than men. It is wholly unjust not to respond to this trend with urgency and intensity. The poor legislative decisions made before and after Katrina should serve as a dangerous precedent we do not seek to repeat. As climate disasters augment in frequency and severity with climate change, are we going to allow ourselves to respond to climate disasters in such an inadequate way? We must do better.
Anderson, Matthew. “Health Care Access in New Orleans Following Hurricane Katrina: A Case Study in the Failure of a Two Tiered Health Care System.” The Social Medicine Portal (2009).
Clutter, Susan. “The Long Road Home: Race, Class, and Recovery from Hurricane Katrina.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development , 48:2, 8-20 (2010). Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Federal Dollars Continue to Assist New Orleans' Recovery.” Federal Emergency Management Agency . 2011.
Klein, Alisa. Sexual Violence in Disasters: A Planning Guide for Prevention and Response. Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Violence and Assault and National Sexual Violence Resource Center. N.d
National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Hurricanes Katrina/Rita and Sexual Violence: Report on Database of Sexual Violence Prevalence and Incidence Related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” 2006.
de Onís, Kathleen. “‘Looking Both Ways’: Metaphor and the Rhetorical Alignment of Intersectional Climate Justice and Reproductive Justice Concerns.” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture , 6:3, 308-327 (2012).
Roberts, J. Timmons. “Globalizing Environmental Justice.” Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement , 285-307 (2007).
Rojas-Cheatham, Ann et al. “Looking Both Ways: Women’s Lives at the Crossroads of Reproductive Justice and Climate Justice.” The Momentum Series , Vol. 5 (2009).
Sullivan, Laura. “How New Orleans’ Evacuation Plan Fell Apart.” NPR . 2005. Waller, Mark. “LaBruzzo Considering Plan to Pay Poor Women $1,000 to Have Tubes Tied.” New Orleans Metro Times . 2008.
Warren, Karen. “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism.” Environmental Ethics , 12:2, 125-146 (1990).
Williams, Erica et al. “The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Multiple Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery Part II. Gender, Race, and Class in the Labor Market.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research . 2006.