In Katrina's Wake, Who Will Return?

Even as plans are announced to encourage people to return to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, America remains unprepared for the most realistic alternative for many–resettlement elsewhere. Before Hurricane Rita arrived, forcing further evacuation in the region, more than 71,280 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were still living in shelters across the nation, most of them in Louisiana and Texas.

Cities and other localities need to think beyond temporarily hosting evacuees and prepare for the long term reality of new residents in their communities.

The recent Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey of evacuees in Houston's emergency shelters underscores the fact that a large portion of the displaced will not return to their communities. Forty four percent of evacuees in shelters in the Houston area said that they would not return to Louisiana. Many of these people are already making plans to settle permanently in Texas. Displaced people around the country are still weighing their options, making it hard to predict the long term impact of Katrina on how this group–largely poor, black, and still in shelters—will redistribute themselves. It is becoming clear that some of Katrina's survivors with resources won't return because they have the means to resettle and begin again. But it is also likely that the some of the poorest will not return either.

Some of Katrina's survivors are similar to international migrants who typically have some resources and voluntarily move in search of better economic opportunities abroad. They are the young, the healthy, and the skilled. They had the resources to leave before the hurricane hit. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, and other cities, they are now housing themselves in new rentals, hotels, motels, and second homes, or they are doubling and tripling up with friends and family.

But Hurricane Katrina also displaced the poorest of the poor, who more resemble international refugees forced to flee in times of war, strife, and natural disasters. Ordinarily these Americans would not have made such a move. But in the face of Katrina they had no choice but to leave their homes in a hurry—largely empty-handed. They had to be evacuated to temporary shelters with few provisions and some uncertainty of how long they would stay.

Usually, most voluntary migrants rely on social networks that facilitate movement by lowering its costs and raising its benefits. In this way, family and social ties are a vital form of social capital, whether one makes a move across town or across international borders. Social relationships offer emotional, instrumental, and material benefits by providing tangible assistance such as money, services, goods, job and housing leads, and advice. Ties between people provide security during times of crisis or emergency, and they insure resources for poor, economically marginalized families.

In New Orleans, poor blacks lived in segregated neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and extended family members often lived fairly close by. These factors further limited the chance of independent long distance escape for that city's poor inhabitants. The disappearance of these neighborhoods, and the social capital embedded in them, means that many will not return because they lack the extensive help necessary to do so.

No doubt the strong identification Gulf state citizens have to their communities may pull a good portion of residents to return over the long run. These ties comprise strong glue in Louisiana, where Census 2000 reported that 79 percent of persons living in the state were born there, higher than any other state in the nation. Similarly, Mississippi and Alabama rank high on this nativity rate, with approximately three-quarters of their residents born in-state. This identity promises that many of those with some resources will return to their homes and businesses — even if it means rebuilding from the ground up. Letting New Orleans' residents return as soon as possible will help them make decisions. But it remains unclear exactly what proportion will return permanently.

For those who have fewer personal and familial ties to these communities, the door to permanent resettlement elsewhere is now open. Those with the least to lose (in terms of personal property and social ties) may see their evacuation as an unprecedented opportunity to start a new, and perhaps better, life elsewhere. Some who are in this position may be relative newcomers to the region, but nevertheless have the economic resources needed to get back on their feet. But this is also the case even for those thought to be the most unlikely to move: the poor. It seems that poor evacuees will put down roots elsewhere, as the survey indicates.

Needing the most assistance are the economically marginalized who can no longer count on kin and instead must rely on local communities to help. Fortunately, a network of international refugee resettlement organizations already exists across the country, with a strong presence in Houston, where more than 30,000 international refugees have been resettled in recent years. These community-based organizations have the expertise to guide resettlement decisions and long term integration strategies, including practical programs for matching people with jobs, enrolling children in schools, and interfacing with social service providers.

Local governments and organizations are feeling the extra strain on services and housing and should take advantage of the expertise of these groups for technical assistance and for direct services to evacuees. Whether or not the evacuees establish themselves in new destinations or stay temporarily to regroup, incorporating many of Katrina's survivors is now on the local agenda.