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Nicole Gelinas
Katrina Kids Suffering?
Yes, in part thanks to FEMA’s insta-ghettos.
20 April 2006

A new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Children’s Health Fund has found that many of the children whom Hurricane Katrina displaced are suffering physically and mentally, and their ordeal may have a long-term effect on their health. But contrary to the study’s conclusion, the problem isn’t a lack of long-term “disaster” healthcare infrastructure. Rather, the finding of certain evacuees’ poor health is an urgent reminder of the real problem: the Bush administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warehouses too many of Katrina’s underclass families in desolate “FEMA-villes,” throwing up pre-fab ghettos in the guise of emergency housing.

To conduct the health study, researchers visited over 650 Louisiana families uprooted by Katrina, and then compared the results of their interviews with results of pre-Katrina health studies of Louisiana’s urban populations. Six months after Katrina (when researchers did their interviews), the Katrina children studied suffered from high rates of depression or anxiety, with many parents reporting that kids had acquired behavioral problems since Katrina. Fourteen percent of Katrina children who need medication for chronic illnesses like asthma had gone without that medication, compared with 2 percent of kids studied before the storm.

Nearly one-fifth of Katrina kids weren’t in school at all or continued to miss weeks of school. Nearly half of parents had no health insurance, in many cases because they had lost their jobs in the storm and hadn’t found new ones. Many parents (mostly mothers) considered themselves to be in only fair or poor health, and more than half scored poorly on a mental-health test, boding ill for their children’s future.

The researchers determined that the solution to this “emerging humanitarian crisis” is a federal “Health Care Marshall Plan,” including Congressional hearings, long-term Disaster Relief Medicaid with a transition to “permanent” Medicaid, and the deployment of 1,500 National Health Service Corps professionals to evacuee communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

But these proposed solutions would treat symptoms while ignoring the true source of the problem: FEMA’s ill-conceived “temporary” housing solution for Katrina’s underclass families.

As the researchers note, their study is not of Katrina evacuees in general, or even of poor evacuees. It’s a study of the nearly 50,000 evacuees still living in FEMA-built evacuee trailer parks, regular trailer parks, and hotels in Louisiana. (A casual reader of the New York Times wouldn’t know this, since the paper headlined its article on the study: EVACUEE STUDY FINDS DECLINING HEALTH.)

These are families who have so few financial and social resources that, six months after Katrina, they’re still living in makeshift shelters rather than in suitable apartments, even temporary ones, despite available government aid to pay rent. Among them, almost certainly, are many of New Orleans’s entrenched pre-Katrina underclass, who now have brought with them to cramped FEMA-villes the problems endemic to single-mother families, whose wage earners work at low-income jobs (and are in many cases working at all only due to welfare reform), and whose poorly educated and poorly socialized children often grow up to plague their already crime-ridden neighborhoods.

It’s likely that these families would have scored poorly on well-being indices before Katrina: as the researchers note, a disproportionate number of the kids in the study “were already at excessive social and medical risk” before the storm. And it’s no surprise that some children (and parents) are doing much worse than before the storm, as FEMA-villes intensify underclass conditions.

Columbia and CHF note that the jerrybuilt neighborhoods that FEMA constructs for disaster victims are “dismal and desolate. Hastily erected . . . in undesirable locations such as on the edge of a commercial airport, the parks feel more like military encampments than family neighborhoods.” The study continues: “sixty-nine percent of caregivers [interviewed] believed there were people in their current neighborhood who would be a bad influence on their children, compared to 52 percent . . . before Katrina.”

Indeed, even before Katrina, smaller-scale FEMA-villes, including a park constructed in western Florida after Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, were infamous as demoralizing centers of idleness and crime; a new post-Katrina ’ville in northern Louisiana, home to Katrina evacuees, is quickly gaining that reputation now.

One reason FEMA must build many of its new FEMA-villes in isolated locations is that residents of real neighborhoods often veto such trailer parks nearby, not wanting to live near housing-project conditions. But the remote locations only exacerbate the underclass nature of FEMA-villes. Because the parks are often far from transportation, it’s hard for adults to search for jobs or suitable housing (and, for that matter, to receive the health services they need for themselves and their kids).

Even worse, for thousands of Katrina victims who cannot return to their New Orleans neighborhoods indefinitely, FEMA-ville living encourages them to think that their displacement is temporary. This state of suspended animation is doubtless a reason why some mothers haven’t enrolled their children in school or found work that might provide them with the health insurance that the kids need. But FEMA, undaunted, continues to build its ’villes. Just last week, the agency boasted that it’s constructing 45 more “group sites” in Louisiana to house 4,000 Katrina families (or about 15,000 people) quasi-permanently. This announcement came despite New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s correct opposition to the construction of FEMA-villes in his city.

What FEMA should do is raze its FEMA-villes and follow Houston’s path in helping Katrina evacuees (the city took in nearly 200,000 from neighboring Louisiana): award temporary vouchers to displaced families so that they can rent apartments and get on with their lives, with new jobs and new schools and new doctors for their children.

Thanks to Houston, tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, including many poor evacuees unaccustomed to life in a thriving city, are receiving temporary government aid—and are in positions to take over the responsibility to recover their own lives from a momentous disaster.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Choosing Citi Bike
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
More . . .
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