No place like home

By Lori Peek and Alice Fothergill

The following guest blog by Lori Peek and Alice Fothergill reflects the importance of people when considering the impacts of extreme weather and climate. ECEP's goal is to improve understanding and communication of the impacts of, and response to, weather and climate extremes. Understanding the long term consequences from social vulnerability and exposure to the hazards is as important in resilient design as knowledge of the risks posed by the hazards.

Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. We have spent the decade since working to understand how that monumental disaster has unfolded in the lives of children who evacuated and were temporarily or permanently displaced.

Over the past decade, we interviewed and observed hundreds of children and we asked them and their adult caregivers about personal health and well-being, schooling, peer and adult relationships and social networks, extracurricular activities, neighborhood conditions, and housing.Drawing of flooded house

In order to recover from a disaster like Katrina, children need many things. It is impossible to list all those things that children do indeed need (especially those who were most vulnerable before the disaster and/or most affected in the event itself). But we hope that by sharing a brief inventory here, we might get people thinking and talking about this issue.

Children need supportive friends and adults in their lives who can offer them assistance and care. They need functioning schools and effective teachers. They need opportunities for growth and development—both in school and out of school. They need access to preventive and responsive health care and health care providers. They need to live and play in neighborhoods, parks, and playgrounds that are safe and child-friendly. And, last but certainly not least, they need access to post-disaster shelter and housing that is secure in the fullest sense of the word.

Many children do not have access to safe and stable housing during non-disaster times. But disasters can and do open up opportunities for change and for new ways of doing things. Most important is focusing on getting children and families into safe shelter, into secure temporary housing, and eventually into permanent housing, so that children and families can develop a sense of routine and recover from disaster.

All too often, shelter and housing needs after disaster are conceptualized as a linear progression from emergency to temporary to permanent housing, with each new move along the way assumed to become more secure. But in some cases, especially for those in the most vulnerable pre-disaster circumstances, housing may be much more uncertain and unstable for long periods of time, and this can have serious ramifications for children’s health and well-being.

In regards to post-disaster shelter and housing, priority needs include:

  • offering free childcare and creating child-friendly spaces for children to rest, play, interact, and study at all shelters after disaster
  • making sure that those spaces also include key people who will protect, comfort, and otherwise support children recently affected by disaster
  • ensuring that shelters have private spaces for girls and boys, men and women, and transgendered individuals, so that child disaster survivors and their families can have privacy and maintain a sense of dignity
  • making temporary and transition-to-permanent-housing assistance a top policy priority and funding local, state, and federal government housing programs for families; this is especially vital for those with the least access to private recovery resources, such as low-income renters
  • offering temporary housing options that are built using materials that are safe and healthy for occupants
  • setting up temporary housing sites that include parks, playgrounds, and other safe spaces
  • assisting families to move back into pre-storm homes if desired
  • giving displaced residents as well as returnees (including children and youth) a voice in communicating and shaping post-disaster housing options
  • being cognizant of potential class, race, and ability biases in housing aid and working to overcome resultant structural disadvantages
  • ensuring that emergency shelter spaces and post-disaster temporary and permanent housing options meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and are accessible for children and members of their families with disabilities
  • investing in rapidly repairing, rebuilding, and/or creating affordable housing options for families.

Shelter comes in many forms, and home can obviously be defined in many different ways. Regardless of those differences, there is a common need to focus on safe, stable shelter and housing after disaster, so that children and families can get on the long road to recovery.

Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek are the co-authors of Children of Katrina, published by the University of Texas Press, 2015. Children of Katrina, explores many aspects of affected children’s pre- and post-disaster lives. Fothergill is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Peek is associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University.

Cover page of Children of Katrina