New project uncovers true stories of Katrina survivors

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A. Sue Weisler

In her latest book project, Jessica Pardee brings to life the devastating experiences of 51 low-income, African-American women who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Jessica Pardee’s eyes often fill with tears when she starts talking about her beloved New Orleans. It was in August 2005 when the lives of millions of people completely unraveled in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina wiped away the few possessions some had. Pardee fled to Houston two days before Katrina made landfall, but her emotional anguish is still palpable.

“Katrina is in my soul and it will always be there,” she said.

Fast-forward to 2014—the ninth anniversary of Katrina—and Pardee, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, is as passionate as ever about her disaster recovery research. Her latest project, Surviving Katrina: The Experiences of Low-income African American Women, is a chilling account of 51 survivors that has a two-pronged goal: helping to formulate federal policies and protocols that quickly deliver disaster assistance to those in greatest need, and encouraging others to treat disaster survivors with civility and respect, regardless of race, class or gender.

“My book gives a true voice to the poor, African-American population that was so disrespectfully talked about in the days and months following Katrina,” said Pardee. “I felt that it was important that they were heard.”

Pardee began collecting the stories of the women who were forced onto buses or airplanes, not knowing where they would end up or when they could return home—if ever. Many were abandoned at the Louisiana Superdome where they survived for days without food and watched as others were robbed or raped. Other women were taken out of state where they were stigmatized for being evacuees and unable to find jobs or housing, or access to necessities like food stamps.

During the course of her research, Pardee discovered some misperceptions about disaster survivors—and Katrina survivors, in particular.

“A lot of people assumed that those who survived Katrina didn’t evacuate because they didn’t have the resources to leave. Yes, they were low income, but the message the government issued about the gravity of the storm was misleading; they didn’t think it would be that bad. Sometimes when we talk about people in disaster situations, we talk about them as if they don’t have the capacity to make decisions. We undermine their humanity in that way. But sometimes the decisions that are made are solely based on the information that is available, and there can be devastating consequences if that information is not accurate.”

Looking ahead, Pardee says that our nation must respond faster and better to disasters and provide assistance directly to survivors. She said Medicaid, WIC, food stamps and social security benefits are all crucial elements of survival for low-income people, but qualifications vary by state and participants must re-apply after relocating.

“Think about it,” Pardee said. “You’re desperately trying to rebuild your life for your family, but you don’t even have the basic monetary stability to do that. Where do you go from there? As a country, we need to think about the full range of experiences and the worse things that happen to people in disasters, then develop and implement policies that address these experiences.”

Pardee also says that Katrina has put a magnifying glass on race, gender and class.

“Writing this book was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I did my best to represent their humanity—because this can happen to any one of us. The line between the middle class experience and their experiences is pretty thin. This is still the reality for people still living along the Gulf Coast; there are constant reminders everywhere.”