Families Displaced by Disasters May Have Opportunity to Improve Their Neighborhoods

By Karen Appold 

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, socioeconomically vulnerable populations returned to their pre-disaster neighborhoods more slowly than other groups. While many of the evacuees' neighborhoods were poor and segregated before Katrina, little is known about the quality of their post-disaster neighborhoods. Research has shown that vulnerable groups rarely escape neighborhood poverty, yet some Katrina evacuees showed signs of neighborhood improvement.

Given this, Corina Graif, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Population Research Institute at Penn State University, set out to investigate the puzzle and significance of how neighborhoods change as a result of long-distance moves among participants in the “Resilience in the Survivors of Katrina Project.”1

In particular, Dr. Graif studied 700 low-income parents in New Orleans who were enrolled in community college in 2004 to 2005 before Katrina. Many were African-American women; half were employed. The study tracked their residential addresses before the hurricane and wherever they moved a year and a half later.

“Understanding the residential outcomes of those who are vulnerable and displaced is important because, even without hurricane-related trauma and losses, exposures to neighborhood disadvantage and segregation have been shown to contribute to a broad range of negative outcomes, including unemployment, school dropout, teen parenthood, poor health, and crime,” Dr. Graif says.

Graif’s paper, “(Un)natural Disaster: Vulnerability, Long-Distance Displacement, and the Extended Geography of Neighborhood Distress and Attainment After Katrina,” is published online in “Population and Environment” (see the link below). In addition, Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer with “The New Yorker,” will be writing about the research on August 17, 2015.

Challenges in locating displaced individuals has limited researchers in understanding the quality of their new neighborhoods compared to their neighborhoods before the hurricane. Dr. Graif’s study bridges this gap by investigating the post-evacuation neighborhoods of a sample of vulnerable families displaced by Katrina compared to their neighborhoods before Katrina, and the neighborhoods of those who returned or stayed behind.

Main Findings

Dr. Graif’s research showed that respondents’ immediate and extended neighborhoods and metropolitan areas after Katrina were less distressed (i.e., less socioeconomically disadvantaged, less organizationally isolated, and more racially and ethnically diverse) compared to their pre-hurricane environments, and to the environments of those staying or returning home. 

“Analyses showed that more than within-neighborhood changes over time, between-neighborhood mobility and long-distance migration decreased respondents’ exposures to distress in their neighborhood, extended geographic area, and metropolitan area,” Dr. Graif reports.

She believes that the results suggest important effects of long-distance mobility on neighborhood attainment after the disaster’s shock. The highest likelihood of flooding in the sample was seen among African Americans and unemployed respondents who lived in densely populated neighborhoods with low racial and ethnic diversity. Katrina’s flooding led respondents to move away from their neighborhood and outside the New Orleans metro area. “That flooding significantly increased the chances of all respondents and their families to move, even those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, suggests that it displaced families that may not have moved otherwise,” Dr. Graif says.

Importantly, the analyses showed evidence that after Katrina, respondents who moved during the duration of the study moved to better quality neighborhoods than they originally lived in or they may have moved to otherwise. Moving, especially long-distance moving, seemed to be most important in lowering neighborhood and surrounding distress levels compared to those who stayed behind, returned, or moved a short distance within the metro area. The results are robust to adjusting for individual and neighborhood selection factors.

Change due to moving as well as change within place were assessed. “The levels and increases in neighborhood quality factors (e.g., disadvantage declines, diversity gains) in these extended neighborhoods are comparable to and in some cases larger than, those in the immediate neighborhoods,” Dr. Graif reports.

Research Implications

Hurricanes of Katrina-like intensity are occurring more often, and their number is predicted to increase. “Whether or not mass displacement becomes a fact of life or not, it is important to understand how disaster-related losses may be alleviated by new beginnings and opportunities,” Dr. Graif maintains.

She believes her findings suggest that vulnerable families displaced by disasters may have a rare and small window of opportunity to improve their neighborhood environment, which otherwise may not come about naturally. “As those displaced continue to move, the window may close as they may gradually move back to distressed neighborhoods,” Dr. Graif says.

The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars through mobility programs to create such opportunities, Dr. Graif continues. The decreases in neighborhood poverty found in her study parallel those observed in voluntary residential mobility programs such as the Moving to Opportunity intervention. The results suggest that refining such programs to encourage long-distance moves may contribute to broader neighborhood gains.

To retain neighborhood gains and translate them into further benefits, Dr. Graif says future programs should prepare movers to capitalize on resources in their new neighborhoods at different geographic scales, from their immediate and extended neighborhoods to their metro area. Relatedly, they would assist in widening access to transportation and housing; strengthening communication between movers and receiving communities; mitigating the disaster’s psychological and financial tolls; and helping evacuees overcome employment obstacles, such as interrupted education, discrimination, disrupted networks, and prohibitive childcare costs. 

Her future research will examine the challenges that study respondents faced in turning their neighborhood gains into individual gains.

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1.   Overview. The Risk Project. http://www.riskproject.org/. Accessed August 5, 2015.