Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina stole the lives of more than 1,800 Americans and plunged New Orleans into pandemonium. Locals marked the storm’s anniversary by looking to the past, reflecting on its legacy and honoring those who were lost. Some, however, also looked to the years ahead with the knowledge that rising temperatures will only make hurricanes more ferocious.
Katrina, they say, wasn’t an anomaly, but an introduction.
One of the lessons from the storm was that women are at greater risk than men in times of crisis. To prepare for the next Katrina, advocates say, the government must provide more protection for women, including higher wages, more affordable housing and better access to health care — including contraception and abortion.
“This is not just about recovering from Katrina. This is about building a system of recovery for what we know is coming,” said Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy at a town hall Wednesday on protecting women from natural disasters. The event was part of the Freedom to Breathe Tour, which is bringing together experts and advocates in cities across the South and West for conversations about climate change and social justice.
“We cannot address climate change as solely an environmental problem,” said Michele Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, at the town hall. “It is also a human rights imperative, and thus, a women’s rights imperative.” Speakers noted that New Orleans is exquisitely vulnerable to severe storms. This is partly a function of geography — most of the city sits below sea level, making it prone to flooding — but it is also a function of inequality, a matter of who can afford shelter and health care.
When disaster strikes, pharmacies may be shut down, limiting access to contraceptives, leading to unplanned pregnancies. Likewise, hospitals may be closed, leaving pregnant women without the care they need. Finally, abortion clinics may be inaccessible, leaving women who have lost a job or home or suffered physically or emotionally as the result of a catastrophic storm without a means to terminate a pregnancy.
“In Louisiana, for example, there are [health care] provider shortages in almost all 64 parishes,” Erenberg said. “There are large numbers of uninsured women and policies restricting access to reproductive health care services. So these conditions are likely to leave women — who may have to evacuate during a hurricane — unable to access the reproductive health care they need, like prenatal care, contraception or abortion.”
A recent analysis from the nonpartisan Population Reference Bureau contends that post-disaster rebuilding efforts should “be responsive to women’s reproductive health needs,” and that officials should ensure “equitable access to health services, so that those most affected by a disaster are able to access the same reproductive health resources despite social and economic barriers.”
On the link between climate change and reproductive rights, Erenberg said, “These movements share a common concern about the health of families and communities, and both recognize the right of all people to reproductive health, including the right of all women to have healthy pregnancies and to raise their children in safe and healthy environments.”
Perhaps more pressing than the need for reproductive care is the need for housing to protect women against violence. After Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, many women were left homeless. In the ensuing chaos, the city saw a spike in sexual assaults. Some women, desperate to find shelter for themselves or their children, returned to living with known domestic abusers.
“When people are in a state of acute shock, they will do anything,” said Denese Shervington, founder of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies and a psychiatrist at the Tulane University School of Medicine. “Housing is the key protective factor against developing post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Unfortunately, housing is costly, and in New Orleans, around one in four women live below the poverty line, meaning that when the next storm hits, they will likely won’t have the resources needed to repair, rebuild or relocate. Disaster aid may offer some relief after a major storm, but by and large, rebuilding policies tend to favor the wealthy. Post-Katrina recovery efforts, for example, were biased toward more affluent families, who were more likely to own homes and possess flood insurance.
In this way, natural disasters perpetuate inequality, not just between the rich and the poor, but between women and men. In New Orleans and across the United States, women are more likely than men to live in poverty. The same is true of single mothers as compared to single fathers or married mothers. Natural disasters make these divisions more entrenched.
“We know that climate change worsens the cycle of poverty and vulnerability for women and girls,” Erenberg said. “As a nation, we have sought to extract as many resources from Mother Earth as technology allows, and at the same time we’ve restricted access to the resources that women and mothers need. And this has resulted in critical threats to the health and well-being of both.”
To help guard against future calamities, advocates have called for job training for women, child care for single mothers, public assistance for impoverished families, and a higher minimum wage to help ensure that workers can provide for themselves and their children. Advocates say that, like protecting reproductive rights, pulling women out of poverty is critical to dealing with climate change.
“We know that all of these issues are part of one broader social system,” Battle said. “We’ve got to start addressing them together, and it’s going to take a lot of love and kindness and patience for us to really get a handle on it.”