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Lessons from Katrina: How Natural Disasters Affect Women's Safety and Economic Status

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

The pictures and stories of lives lost and shattered by Hurricane Sandy are breaking our hearts. Beyond the immediate tragedy, the long-term economic toll Sandy will have on these communities is also staggering. Sandy is expected to result in over $4.3 billion in insured losses -- still paling in comparison to the $65 billion in losses that the far more deadly Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Irene caused. And digging deeper into the overall economic fallout of natural disasters reveals one consistent truth: natural disasters tend to make low income and poor people -- the majority of whom are women -- even more vulnerable to physical assault as well as to greater economic challenges in the years that follow.

According to some post-Katrina studies, women faced higher rates of violence and sexual assault during the immediate aftermath of the disaster and even a year later, due in part to displacement and difficulty lower income women faced in finding a permanent home. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) remarked upon the impact of natural disasters on women in a 2010 policy brief, pointing out that since poorer women have less "mobility and access to resources," they are more vulnerable in natural disasters. For example, sexual assault rates in Mississippi rose from 4.6 per 100,000 per day when Hurricane Katrina first hit the state, to 16.3 per 100,000 per day a year later, in part because many women were forced to leave their homes and live in shelters during that time. Diminished access to transportation and shelter can exacerbate this problem. Even five years after Hurricane Katrina, affordable housing options in New Orleans remain limited.

In addition, Hurricane Katrina is believed by some to have hurt New Orleans women's economic status in the years that followed -- specifically women's workforce participation and the gender gap in wages. Tulane University's Newcomb College Center for Research on Women published a report in December 2008 that primarily evaluates United States Census Bureau data from the two  years following Katrina, showing that post-Katrina labor force participation rates dropped more for women than it did for men (-6.6 percent for females; -3.8 percent for males in 2007).


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