Menus Subscribe Search

Go Outside

new-orleans

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

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

• August 25, 2014 • 10:00 AM

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

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?

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.”

Asad L. Asad
Asad L. Asad is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @asasad.

More From Asad L. Asad

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.