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Perspectives on Social Vulnerability
Edited by Koko Warner
Selected Papers from the First Summer Academy on Social Vulnerability
22-28 July 2006, Hohenkammer, Germany
Perspectives on Social Vulnerability: Introduction by Koko Warner
1.1 (Non-)Knowledge in Hazard and Vulnerability Research:
A Heuristic Typology for Empirical Case Studies by Christian Kuhlicke
1.2 Being Temporal and Vulnerability to Natural Disasters
by Danny H. de Vries
1.3 Water Related Health Risk, Social Vulnerability and Pierre Bourdieu by Patrick Sakdapolrak
2.1 Vulnerability, Resilience, and Robustness to Urban Water Scarcity: A Case from Cochabamba, Bolivia by Amber Wutich
2.2 Hard Decisions in the Big Easy: Social Capital and Evacuation of the New Orleans Area Hispanic Community During Hurricane Katrina by Byron Real
2.3 Social Distribution of Risk: A Case Study in Tehuantepec, Mexico by Fernando Briones Gamboa
3.1 Mapping Water Potential: The Use of WATEX to Support UNHCR Refugee Camp Operations in Eastern Chad by Firoz Verjee & Alain Gachet
3.2 The Effectiveness of Water Policy on Reducing People’s Risk Exposure to Water Management Inefficiencies in Mexico City by Fabiola Sagrario Sosa Rodríguez
3.3 Case Study of a Catastrophic Event -Hurricane Katrina: An Evaluation of Social Vulnerability and Community/Organizational Resilience by Laura Olson
UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)
UN Campus
Hermann-Ehlers-Str. 10
D-53113 Bonn, Germany
Copyright UNU-EHS 2007
Cover design by Gerd Zschäbitz
Copy editor: Ilona Roberts, Vilma Liaukonyte
Printed at Paffenholz, Bornheim, Germany
1. edition, 1000 copies, February 2007
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).
Publication does not imply endorsement by the UNU-EHS or
the United Nations University of any of the views expressed.
ISBN: 978-3-939923-00-8 (printed version)
ISBN: 978-3-939923-01-5 (electronic version)
ISSN: 1816-1154
2.2 Hard Decisions in the Big Easy: Social Capital and Evacuation of the New Orleans Area Hispanic Community During Hurricane Katrina
Byron Real

A reinforced social structure allowed the Hispanic population of New Orleans, particularly the poor and undocumented informal immigrants, to successfully respond, reorganize and rapidly recover from Hurricane Katrina. Informal Hispanic immigrants are negatively affected by a number of socioeconomic conditions and legal factors. To offset the social and institutional marginalization these immigrants face, they developed social solidarity by applying traditional elements of social capital that strengthen group identity and cooperation, providing resilience against a disruptive situation such as Hurricane Katrina. Despite the social vulnerability faced by informal Hispanic immigrants due to lack of financial resources, transportation, information, and language barriers during Hurricane Katrina, this community carried out a successful evacuation process which saved many lives. The social experience of informal Hispanic immigrants described in this article is relevant to the study of human security and social vulnerability because it explains the link between cultural factors and social resilience to natural threats and how these aspects may modify social vulnerability.

Introduction A hurricane is an indiscriminate natural threat that does not spare any spot in its path. Evacuation is the best, and possibly the only, real protection of human life, when a significant natural threat is eminent.

Evacuation is a difficult decision to make, not only by local authorities but also by the residents of a given threatened area. After years of evacuating when a natural hazard threatens and is not realized, residents tend to underestimate the threats and decide not to leave their homes. This phenomenon has been called “hurricane fatigue” or “hurricane roulette.” Those who have played the odds of incurring personal tragedy in such situations are generally individuals with some degree of social vulnerability.

Three years before the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina the Times Picayune, the major New Orleans’ newspaper, warned: “once it’s certain a major storm is about to hit, evacuation offers the best chance for survival,” and pointed out that “hurricane evacuations rarely go as planned. Storm tracks are hard to predict, and roads are not designed to hand the traffic flow, so huge traffic jams are a common result” (McQuaid and Schleifstein 2002).

The residents of the New Orleans area were well aware of the probability that a devastating hurricane would one day hit their city. Nevertheless, when in 2005 the feared “Big One” did, in fact, hit the area, the city had not been evacuated. The evacuation process failed despite repeated, insistent warnings. News coverage by the media indicated that a number of federal, state and local authorities, as well as many respected community leaders, cited a lack of organization at all government levels as the direct cause of the failure of the evacuation. The officials failed to apply an adequate decision-making system. This led to a tardy mandatory order to evacuate. The poor handling of transportation issues during the 72 evacuation further complicated the situation. A large number of individuals chose not to leave the city, even though in many cases they had the means to do so (USHR 2006).

Instead of a socially organized process, as evacuation planning intends to facilitate, in this particular evacuation endeavor, decision-making rested largely with each individual or family. The lack of adequate public information as to the exact path and potential degree of destruction of the hurricane hindered many from making timely, and in this case correct, decisions as to how to preserve their safety.

In particular, the populace was totally unprepared for the unforeseen danger of the levee breaches that caused the city to be inundated.

Those residents most vulnerable were not well-informed of the situation and/or those who lacked the means to leave the city. The Hispanic residents were particularly vulnerable, as much of their population met both categories of vulnerability. Most could not understand or follow the information bulletins and instructions, which were provided almost exclusively in English by the authorities. Not only did many Hispanics lack the means of transportation with which to evacuate, most were not even aware of where they might find a safe haven. However, notwithstanding hindrances, this social group evacuated nearly all of its members in a relatively timely and safe manner. Although the evacuation process followed by the Hispanics was unplanned, it was nevertheless effective. The cohesion of this social group, and their evacuation process, which bore a close resemblance to a community-organized one, resulted in relatively few Hispanic casualties from the devastating impact of the hurricane and flooding that followed in its wake.

In order to determine the effects of social vulnerability in the disaster experience of Hispanics, I posed the following questions to organize this research: How did marginality affect their disaster outcome? What was the role of their culture? How did they manage the pre-disaster process? And, was the Hispanic response to the disaster an indicator of social resilience? The response of the Hispanic community lead to hypothesize here that cultural factors such as social networks, language and ethnicity are likely to modify the social vulnerability of the informal Hispanic immigrants, and promote resilience to deal with socio-economic and institutional constraints in the face of natural threats.

The research described in this article is of relevance for the human security and social vulnerability fields because it provides an explanation of the linkage between cultural factors and social resilience to natural threats and how these aspects may modify social vulnerability. This explanation will be useful for improving the understanding of the behavior of marginalized social groups during disasters, and the weight of material aid and social organization in disaster recovery. In addition, the importance of this article for these fields is due to the fact that it is dealing with an issue that has been deficiently researched, which is the effects of natural threats on an immigrant society, which generally is politically hidden in the receiver society. From that situation emerges several additional effects like the lack of a formal migratory status, work insecurity, institutional marginalization, etc., that make worse the social vulnerability that the immigrant group already had.

The phenomena of international migration and social displacement as effect of climate change and natural disasters are likely to increase in the near future. The process of globalization and the periodic economic crisis in poor countries will reinforce this trend. At the same time, as it has been recognized by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC 2004) there is a lack of clear international rules, principles and standards for the protection and assistance of these people when are affected by disasters.


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