In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 1.2 million Gulf Coast residents were forced to leave their homes in the largest internal migration within the United States since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Dramatic media coverage focused on the devastation of New Orleans and the arrival of exhausted evacuees in host cities across the country. Private volunteers and public employees worked tirelessly to assist evacuees, and vast public outpourings of supplies for displaced families often exceeded the capacity of disaster-relief organizations to distribute them. However, since late 2005, public attention on the evacuees has waned. As the first anniversary of the storm approached this past August, there was no clear understanding of how the evacuees were faring in their host cities nor of how their needs were being addressed by those cities. It was also clear that the massive disaster-relief efforts on behalf of hundreds of thousands of evacuees had overshadowed attention on important systemic and policy problems uncovered by the hurricane.
Faegre & Benson LLP led a pro bono team of national law firms to produce the first comprehensive report on the status of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The report, A Continuing Storm: The On-going Struggles of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees – A Review of Needs, Best Practices, and Recommendations, was released on August 14, 2006, by project partner Appleseed.1 In addition to painting a picture of the current status of evacuees, it focuses on identifying major policy and systemic challenges related to disaster preparedness and relief, and recommending best practices for future disaster-relief efforts.
The Appleseed Hurricane Katrina Project
As lead firm in the study, Faegre & Benson managed this large-scale pro bono project in the same manner it manages complex litigation matters and sophisticated business transactions. The firm assembled a team of 25 lawyers and two summer associates from its Minneapolis, Denver and Des Moines offices. The firm's Client Technology Services department provided expertise to manage the large amounts of data and information generated by the project. The firm also coordinated the work of participating firms Jones Day; King & Spalding; Kilpatrick Stockton; Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe; Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison; and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton.
In addition to New Orleans, five cities were selected as study sites, based on their hosting of large numbers of evacuees: Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Houston and San Antonio. Six areas of focus were also selected as representative of the evacuees' most pressing needs: housing, health care, mental health care, education, employment, and legal services.
Under project protocols developed by Faegre & Benson, each participating firm researched and prepared a preliminary background report on its assigned city. An inclusive database of interviewees was developed for each city, drawn from the hundreds of public and private agencies that worked on relief efforts. In early June, law firm teams traveled to the host cities and completed more than 350 interviews in a week's time. As part of the site visits, each team conducted a focus group of evacuees to discuss their personal experiences. Individual city reports prepared by the law firms describe the experiences of both the host communities and the evacuees in the period since August 29, 2005.
The final project report, drafted by Faegre & Benson, includes principal findings and recommendations, which are drawn from an analysis of the individual city reports. The report also summarizes the current status of evacuees in each host city and examines their unmet needs. Finally, the report identifies a set of best practices for future disaster-relief efforts.
Hurricane Katrina Evacuees One Year Later
One of the most significant findings of the final report is that, for the most part, information about the evacuees is not available in any organized form, as no public authority or private organization appears to have tracked their whereabouts or status. Although host cities were able to document the number of evacuees who arrived immediately following the hurricane, one year later only estimates can be made of the number who are still in each community. Perhaps as many as 150,000 evacuees are still in Houston; 84,000 in Atlanta; and 50,000 in Baton Rouge.
Most of the cities studied were able to mobilize resources to meet the evacuees' immediate needs for basic shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. Existing short-term disaster-relief plans were implemented. As the scope of the disaster widened, cities improvised means of expanding care for the evacuees. However, it is clear that no city anticipated that one year later, significant numbers of evacuees would remain, and that their needs would continue to strain already limited local resources. This situation has forced host cities to make difficult choices with respect to balancing the ongoing needs of evacuees against the needs of permanent residents who are dependent on public assistance and services.
In each city studied, those who self-evacuated before the storm to be with family or friends, and those who were able to continue their health care coverage or employment, or make use of other private resources, for the most part have fared well. Those who stayed in New Orleans during the storm, or who were unemployed, disabled, mentally or physically ill, or dependent on public housing or public health care, generally have not done well. It is primarily for this latter group that the host communities struggle to resolve long-term issues related to housing, employment, and health care.
Host cities with large evacuee populations face a risk of increased homelessness because their available stocks of affordable housing are inadequate to serve even existing populations. This looming crisis will be exacerbated by the pending phase-out of short-term federal housing assistance programs for evacuees, leaving many in direct competition with local residents for scarce housing resources. Many evacuees also remain in need of employment, but must successfully resolve childcare, transportation, health care and mental health care needs before employment can be secured and maintained. Inadequate job skills or training continue to impede the search for employment by many evacuees.
Perhaps the most significant unmet need is for mental health care. According to federal officials, more than 500,000 individuals in the Gulf Coast region are in need of such services. Many of these people suffer from preexisting, untreated conditions, while substantial numbers of evacuees suffer from problems caused by the hurricane, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, many frontline relief workers are now facing burn-out, and have themselves developed depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other such problems as a result of caring for evacuees. Across the region, there is a serious shortage of mental health care services to meet these escalating needs.
The Future of New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina is best understood in the context of a regional disaster. Although the storm devastated New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, cities and towns across the region continue to be affected by the slow progress in rebuilding New Orleans.
More than 80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina, and much of the city's infrastructure was destroyed or severely degraded. One year after the storm, approximately 200,000 of the 450,000 evacuated residents have returned. New Orleans today is a city in the midst of an unprecedented era of rebuilding, restructuring and transition — but largely without a clear vision of the process, the timeline or the outcome.
Major decisions have yet to be made about which parts of the city will be rebuilt and in what order. Decisions must also be made about applicable building requirements and whether or when municipal services will be restored. Responsibility for funding the rebuilding is an unresolved issue. Critical decisions have yet to be made about whether the US Army Corps of Engineers will bring the city's levee system up to the original design goal of protection against a 100-year event, and whether the coastal wetlands vital to the city's safety will be restored. Overarching all is uncertainty about whether another devastating hurricane will hit the city this year.
The indecision of public authorities is mirrored by the indecision of New Orleans evacuees who have not yet returned to the city and remain in host cities. In turn, the evacuees' indecision requires each of the cities to plan for the long-term needs of evacuees without knowing how many will stay or for how long. The longer the delay in rebuilding, the less likely it is that evacuees will return to New Orleans, and the more likely it is that they will become permanent residents of the host cities.
Best Practices for Future Disasters
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the forced evacuation of a major American city was unimaginable. Cities must now consider a new reality and plan for potentially long-term relief efforts. The report analyzes disaster plans implemented in the host cities and makes the following recommendations for future disaster-relief planning:
- Every American city should develop a disaster plan. An effective, realistic plan cannot depend solely on assistance from the federal government and national organizations. City officials and community leaders must think critically about how to handle a large-scale evacuation and how to manage the human impact of such a situation.
- Cities must think regionally — and nationally — when preparing for a disaster. Unlike past natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina required a regional response effort. Cities must work together to establish cooperative relationships prior to a crisis. Strong relationships across city and state borders will facilitate a coordinated response to a major disaster.
- Flexibility is key. Organizations and agencies must be prepared to bend rigid policies and adapt to evolving conditions and needs during a crisis. A principal finding of the report is that local nonprofit and government agencies responded more quickly to assist evacuees than did the federal government and national organizations. Federal agencies and national nonprofit organizations, while able to provide massive financial aid and supplies, were often constrained by cumbersome eligibility and application requirements, which precluded them from acting quickly. The federal response was most effective when stringent eligibility requirements were relaxed, allowing evacuees to carry their benefits into host cities and states.
- Cities' plans must establish clear lines of responsibility for disaster relief. Every organization — public and private — that responds to a disaster should be assigned a predefined role, based on that organization's specialty, in order to ensure that all needs are met and unnecessary overlap is prevented. The overall relief effort should be coordinated by a single designated responsible agency or group.
- Technology will be critical in future relief efforts. Many organizations, both public and private, lack the information technology necessary for effective disaster management. The host cities studied had great difficulty accessing school, medical, housing and benefits records for the evacuees they were serving. No city developed a central database to track evacuees, and organizations serving evacuees often could not locate the people they were helping. Consideration should be given to developing a national database of basic information, to be used only for an individual's benefit in times of crisis or disaster.
Going Forward A Continuing Storm: The Ongoing Struggles of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees – A Review of Needs, Best Practices, and Recommendations will be used by Appleseed as a tool to encourage American cities to reexamine their existing disaster-preparedness efforts in light of the Hurricane Katrina experience. In addition, Appleseed will recruit pro bono lawyers to address issues raised in the report related to housing, mental health services, and medical care for evacuees.