Mary Harter, 66, is a grandmother from Orleans Parish, Louisiana. She currently lives in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with her daughter, Carol, and two grandchildren. Mary worked at a hotel laundry before the disastrous Hurricane Katrina of 2005, but since the storm destroyed much of the hotel, she is now out of work. Carol had a job as a receptionist but couldn't keep it because there is no bus route from the trailer to her place of employment.
Carol has an additional worry. Her ex-boyfriend has been making threats again, despite the court order that once prevented him from coming anywhere near her or the children. To add to their woes, Mary hasn't been feeling well - she suspects the trailer she is living in is giving her respiratory problems. However, she can't go for a medical evaluation as the nearest clinic has been shut down since the storm.
Mary and her family are not real. They are a composite based on what life is like for low-income women in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the south-eastern United States with a vengeance two years ago. But these facts are true: The majority of evacuees after the storm were women and the elderly. Over 75,000 of them are still living in FEMA-provided trailers alleged to have made many people ill.
The public housing units these women lived in before the hurricane are largely gone now. So too are their jobs, transportation, childcare and health care. Of the 180,000 jobs lost in Louisiana alone, almost 60 per cent belonged to women. Before the storm, New Orleans had over 180 child-care centres; only 92 have reopened. Schools, libraries and transportation systems are operating below 50 per cent capacity. At least 20 per cent of people who have returned to New Orleans still have no access to health care.
According to Avis Jones-DeWeever, author of the report, 'Women in the Wake of the Storm: Examining the Post-Katrina Realities of the Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast" (June 2007), "Nearly all of those within the crosshairs of this historic storm have their own tales of challenges and heartache. But what is commonplace around the world in times of natural disaster is that those groups who are most marginalized before tragedy strikes, bear the brunt of ill-effects during the disaster and long afterwards. As a result, the on-the-ground impact of natural disasters are anything but 'natural'."
In the aftermath of the devastating hurricane that exposed America's vulnerability to weather-borne disasters, both class and race as issues in rescue and recovery were widely explored. But the role of gender was largely overlooked. Jones-DeWeever's report for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research addresses specific gender issues in the aftermath of Katrina.
First, women's exposure to violence and sexual assault increased as a result of the housing shortage. In New Orleans, nearly four-fifths of affordable housing units were damaged or lost. Since then, overcrowding has led to an increase in abuse, specifically linked to the Katrina experience.
In addition, the number of women in the workforce has decreased dramatically. So have women's wages. At the same time, there is a 45 per cent jump in rental rates.
Childcare is scarce, and women are having a particularly hard time returning to gainful employment. And health care needs are all but forgotten. New Orleans' state-sponsored Charity Hospital system remains unopened and there are virtually no mental health services available to address the high level of stress that women are experiencing. (Stress is a special factor for immigrant women, largely Latina, who are worried about their immigration status if they remain jobless.) As one elderly woman told Dr Jones-DeWeever, "We down here have been forgotten."
But as desperate as things are, the women of the south have not been forgotten. Individual women and women's organizations - locally and nationally - have come to the fore to help meet the needs of their southern sisters. For example, according to a recent report from Women's ENews, the Biloxi, Mississippi organization Coastal Women for Change organized to push for fair housing and affordable child care after the disaster. It was also successful in getting women of color onto a planning commission charged by the mayor of Biloxi with rebuilding the city.
Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe in the south-east and the largest tribe in Louisiana, single-handedly organized a relief fund for her people. The Houma Nation of 18,000 people lives just 45 miles from New Orleans, exactly where Hurricanes Katrina and then Rita struck. Robichaux and her husband set up a centre where tribal members could get food, clothing, water, cleaning supplies and more, providing assistance to more than 8,000 Houma families. Robichaux cooked, housed volunteers and challenged the Federal government. "The tears are always here," she says. "I see so much suffering, so much need. But it is the strong spirit of the people that inspires me. The strength of our people is to say, 'We can overcome this and rebuild'."
A grant of US $1.3 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, given jointly to the international Women's Funding Network (WFN is an organization with over 100 member funds committed to improving the status of women and girls globally) and the Ms. Foundation for Women (a multi-issue women's fund in the US), resulted in channeled support to a number of grassroots organizations providing direct services. The Ms. Foundation also established the Katrina Women's Response Fund in order to provide strategic support to low-income women and women of color in the Gulf Coast region and to ensure their participation in recovery and rebuilding efforts.
"Women are at the epicenter of the crisis because they are the heartbeats of their families and communities," says Christine Grumm, President and CEO, WFN. "Yet, households headed by women, particularly women of color, represent a disproportionate share of displaced families and those under-served by federal disaster assistance programmes."
Adds Sara Gould, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, "Funding community-based women's organizations in the Gulf Coast has offered the opportunity to help elevate women's voices, support their leadership and bring them to the policy table as real partners. This is the only road to just and equitable policies that meet the needs of all people."
But perhaps it is columnist Elaine Enarson, writing on the WFN blog immediately after the catastrophe, who said it best:- "Hurricane Katrina is an American story ... as much about women and men as it is about race and class. It was low-income African American women, many of them single mothers, whose pleas for food and water were broadcast around the world; women, more than men, who were evacuated (or not) from nursing homes; and women, more than men, whose precarious 'escape' was made with infants, children and the elderly in tow.
Conversely, we know from other disasters that women will also be at the heart of the city's rebirth and the emotional centre of gravity for others on the long road to the 'new normal'. It is often said that men rebuild structures while women reweave the social fabric of life - and women along this hard-hit coast will surely stitch the quilts, tell the stories, organize the memorials, and sing the songs of Katrina."