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Migration Examined After Katrina Devastation

August 24, 2010 –Nearly five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29, 2005. The Category 5 hurricane caused massive floods that claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people and left thousands homeless. Daniel Hopkins, assistant professor of government explores the impact the disaster had on the hurricane’s evacuees and the different government responses to the devastation.

Q. How did your research into the migration of Hurricane Katrina evacuees begin?
A. Five years ago, I can recall being at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, and I remember many of us watching the news coverage about Hurricane Katrina. We started thinking about what it would mean for American politics and what it might teach us about American politics.

Q. What exactly did the Katrina disaster teach us about American politics?
A. One of the challenges, but also one of the opportunities in our American political system is that many different officials and governments were involved with Hurricane Katrina, and they responded differently.

Some responded in a more centralized way while others responded in a decentralized manner. I think one of the things I was surprised by was how effective different strategies could be in helping the evacuees.

Houston pursued a very different strategy from the state of Arkansas. Both carefully tailored plans to the number of evacuees they were confronting.

As undoubtedly the single largest receiving city for evacuees, Houston was able to mobilize a tremendous number of people in responding. We saw millions of people volunteering in different ways. There were lots of good deeds out a very tragic moment.

Q. What impact did the evacuees have in the communities that received them?
A. I spent a lot of time at church-run camps in Arkansas.

Arkansas took in 75,000 evacuees, including 8,000 to 9,000 who lacked transportation and had been evacuated from the Superdome, the New Orleans Convention Center, bridges and other places within the city. Arkansas’ population of just over 2 million increased almost overnight by 2.8 percent.

You have small rural towns with church camps like Lonsdale, Ark. Lonsdale only had, if you believe the sign as you drive in, about 100 people in the town.

Suddenly they had 400 evacuees, and there were lots of ways the evacuees differed from the townsfolk.

Q. What were some of the differences between the evacuees and townspeople?
A. The evacuees were racially and ethnically diverse, and I wondered at the time if their politics would be totally different from the majority in the areas they wound up living in. I wondered if they would have particular tensions or issues that would need confronting.

Knowing that Hurricane Katrina was causing tens of thousands of people to relocate from New Orleans to other parts of the South, it became a really important case study in understanding how people get along, how they deal with disaster, and it also provided an opportunity for people to get acquainted with others from very different social groups.

There were lots of groups of people who were evacuated from New Orleans and surrounding areas. Some of who returned to the city quickly, some wealthy, poor, white, and black.

But the group of evacuees who attracted the most public policy attention was largely – but not exclusively – a black population from places such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

Q. Where else did evacuees wind up living?
A. Evacuees were scattered all over the country – Utah, Massachusetts, but most were concentrated in the South. In fact, a year or so later when New Orleans held its mayoral elections, a number of cities such as Houston and Atlanta set up stations where New Orleans residents could vote for their mayor.

Q. Once people migrated, did they tend to stay n the new cities?
As of a year after Katrina, there were tens of thousands of people in Houston who were interested in returning to New Orleans. But there were many who started to develop roots in Houston and other places. They had found jobs, friends and had family.

A number of things kept people out of New Orleans. For those who wanted to return, one of the central challenges in the couple of years after the storm was finding affordable housing and jobs, which were lacking.

Social networks also played a huge role. If you relied on an aunt who helped you with child care or a father to split the rent with, it’s difficult to move when your network isn’t moving.

Q. Do you think the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will spur further migration?
A. These are two very different disasters. I think people looking at the impact of the oil spill on migration will look at the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, among other places to see what recovery looks like.

There’s one important caveat. The Gulf region is one with millions of people, and the state of Alaska has a population of roughly 600,000 – very few of who live near Prince William Sound.

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