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What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?
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New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

Nine years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina became a household name—2,000 lives were lost and approximately 1.1 million people were displaced by the end of its eight-day rampage on August 31, 2005. Among those displaced, low-income African Americans living in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward—often concentrated in areas of extreme poverty—were among the worst-affected.

The hurricane and its aftermath made plain the federal government’s inability to accommodate its most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the implications of hyper-segregation and concentrated poverty in our cities. But it also provided a rare opportunity for the most marginalized families: Although those displaced had little say in where they would end up, Katrina catapulted some low-income African American families out of neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty and into new, non-poor, and racially integrated ones with greater opportunities for socioeconomic mobility. Most survivors were relocated to cities such as Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Houston. Despite the nightmarish situation these evacuees traversed, new research suggests that hurricanes have the potential to facilitate long-run improvements in the economic and social standing of some of the country’s most vulnerable populations.

"It’s not the same down here [in New Orleans]. It’s not a good place to be. It’s not a good place to raise kids. I can say this now because I know what we experienced in Dallas."

The statistics show that those displaced from New Orleans after the storm wound up living in better neighborhoods, on average, than those who returned to the city. Why, then, did two-thirds of them decide to return even if it meant forsaking these socioeconomic gains?

Outside observers would argue that those who returned to New Orleans did so because they felt a special attachment to their place of origin, that a sense of home lured them back. But in-depth interviews reveal that most did not view post-Katrina New Orleans as home. Instead, they recounted how the storm decimated their neighborhoods and made their dwellings uninhabitable. Family and friends alike had died; pets were lost. At least in the traditional sense, the floodwaters had washed away all semblance of “home.”

Instead of being lured back to New Orleans by a sense of home, those who returned did so because they were unable to liberate themselves of constraining social ties. Those who were able to take advantage of their friendship networks outside of New Orleans for information about where to go after their initial evacuation, or who cultivated new friendships in their post-Katrina neighborhoods, were more likely to settle into non-poor neighborhoods.

Take 28-year-old Reina. Before Hurricane Katrina, Reina lived in a five-member household with her child, at least one of her parents, and another relative in a house that belonged to a different extended relative. The storm displaced her to a small town in Mississippi, which she did not like because of its “poor” economy and high rates of teenage pregnancy. When a high school friend contacted her and suggested that Reina visit Dallas, she seized the opportunity. Reina used her FEMA benefits to rent a home for herself and her son in Dallas and, in her own words, broke free from her grandmother, who often made her “feel like I’m eight-years-old instead of 28.”

In contrast, those who were heavily dependent upon their parents or grandparents—for financial or social support—were more likely to return to New Orleans and live in relatively more disadvantaged neighborhood settings. Nancy, a 27-year-old black mother of three, for example, relocated to Dallas after Katrina but returned to New Orleans less than two years later. Her decision for doing so was very much due to social ties, or her lack thereof, in Dallas. When her daughter fell ill and was hospitalized, Nancy immediately called her mother in New Orleans because “we were there [in Dallas] by ourselves.” Ultimately returning to New Orleans in the search for social support, Nancy admits, “I still feel like, today, if my cousin or my mom would have stayed [in Dallas], we would still be there.” She continues to “think about going back [because] it’s not the same down here [in New Orleans]. It’s not a good place to be. It’s not a good place to raise kids. I can say this now because I know what we experienced in Dallas.”

For policymakers interested in facilitating the socioeconomic mobility of society’s most disadvantaged groups, helping the displaced to integrate into these new communities rather than return to the desolate ones they left is crucial. Survivors like Reina only became aware of the opportunities available to her in Dallas that were unavailable in New Orleans—such as less violence in the neighborhood, greater economic opportunity, and better schooling choices for her children—after her high school friend encouraged her to give the city a shot. In contrast, Nancy was pulled back to New Orleans because she lacked social connections to make her aware of these opportunities and to anchor her in Dallas. Without efforts to address these social dynamics, we risk denying vulnerable populations an opportunity to achieve post-disaster gains that might help them and their families to escape poverty.

This essay is based on two articles available on the Social Science Research Network: Contexts of Reception, Post-Disaster Migration, and Socioeconomic Mobility and Causal Heterogeneity in Between-Neighborhood Selection.”