Battered Women, Catastrophe, and the Context of Safety after
Feminist Formations, Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 49-68 (Article)
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Battered Women, Catastrophe, and the
Context of Safety after Hurricane Katrina
PAM JENKINS AND BRENDA PHILLIPS
Feminist practice, activism, and scholarship have played critical roles in
bringing the problems of domestic violence to light, shaping legislation
to empower victims and championing improvement in advocacy and
outreach. Yet many women and children not only continue to suffer from
this form of personal violence, but suffer doubly when large-scale catas-
trophes strike—even as large numbers of volunteers turn out to respond,
donors overwhelm local communities, and people open their hearts to
those in need. This paper examines domestic violence and disaster in
post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans while concomitantly contributing
to the literature that demonstrates ways in which feminist orientations
can make vital differences in disaster contexts. We show that by listen-
ing to the voices of victims in postdisaster contexts, new insights can be
gleaned as to how to make all women safer during disasters. Domestic-
violence survivors often experienced heightened levels of violence during
the hurricane and its aftermath; however, even in that difficult context,
some women made the choice to leave abusive situations and advocates
responded in new ways to help these women meet their unique needs.
Keywords: domestic violence / Hurricane Katrina / disaster / disaster
recovery / evacuation / safety
After both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one young, female deputy sheriff
responded to domestic violence calls in a coastal Louisiana Parish. As
she tells it, she replaced her cell phone and computer with a machete and
shotgun because snakes and alligators were ubiquitous after the storms.
During one call she faced a huge alligator in front of a trailer. At rst she
thought she should shoot it, but the alligator’s proximity to the trailer
made that too risky. Remembering that “alligators don’t like lights and
sounds,” she turned on her siren and ashing lights and the alligator
slowly moved away. She was surprised that not everyone who heard her
story knew that about alligators—in her everyday life this knowledge is
vital. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita challenged so many of us in so many
ways by destroying local resources and undermining abilities to respond.
This young deputy met the challenge with local knowledge and a creative,
Disasters often rip open communities and expose previously hidden
or ignored inequalities. Victims and survivors
of domestic violence,
like many women in disasters, are often members of the “invisible”; the
50 P J A B P
severity of Katrina, in particular, exacerbated the invisibility and vulner-
ability of both (Seager 2005). Many women affected by domestic violence
during and after the hurricane became “refugees”—that is, the forcibly
displaced—and thereby linked to other women across the globe who have
experienced such dislocation from place, family, and friends (Zalewski
1995; Felten-Biermann 2006). Thousands in New Orleans endured horric
living conditions, such as in the Superdome and Convention Center, while
hundreds died in their ooded homes or on roadway overpass “islands.”
Many women also survived, saved others’ lives, and work now to
rebuild the city. Yet they do so in an increasingly dangerous city with
heightened crime rates, including a sixty-eight percent jump in reported
rape, increasing rates of interpersonal violence, and rising rates of mental
illness (McCarthy and Philbin 2007). Although most disasters do not
generate such antisocial and destructive behavior, Katrina seems to be
qualitatively different. Perhaps it is the regional hit suffered by the entire
Gulf Coast, which inicted damaged on many of the domestic violence
shelters, sent staff into the Diaspora, and undermined local funding.
Maybe it is due to the rupture of social networks that would otherwise
offer protection. Then again, this increased vulnerability could be in play
because people often ignore the issue of domestic violence in general, and
seem to forget about it almost completely after disaster. Instead other
priorities displace the individual human suffering, which in this instance
is now hidden in Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) trailers and
dispersed across the nation, as evacuees wait to return or rebuild their
lives, too many times in concert with their abusers. For these reasons, we
believe that their narratives documenting the violence and voicing their
survival are a particularly important component to documenting the story
of disaster and gender.
This paper explores a way to understand what happened in this disaster
to women who are victims and survivors of domestic violence. It is not
just that they are victims of violence, nor is it just that they are victims of
disaster. It is at the intersection of these two sets of ongoing events where
our understanding and knowledge is challenged. First, Katrina undermined
regional capacity to respond and taxed national reserves as well (Quar-
entelli 2005). Second, and just as important, it is an ongoing event. The
ood waters may be gone, but what remains are dislocated lives. Women
who are victims of domestic violence are caught in this vortex and their
abilities to keep themselves and their children safe are increasingly chal-
lenged. Theoretically and in praxis the experiences of battered women
in this catastrophe seem to us much like canaries in a mine—predicting
future conditions for other women in the next disaster.
This paper is grounded in three sets of overlapping literature—that on
disasters, the sociology of gender, and domestic violence. Although disas-
ter research has existed for well over a half century, gendered examinations
B W, C, C S K 51
have been relatively recent. In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s,
researchers focused on the relevance of gender for understanding disaster
experiences (e.g., see Fothergill 1999; Enarson and Morrow 1997, 1998;
Stockemer 2006). Gendered social systems are affected by disaster and
“the social experience of disaster affirms, reects, disrupts, and otherwise
engages gendered social relationships, practices, and institutions” (Enar-
son and Morrow 1998, 3). Likewise gendered systems affect disaster experi-
ences. As one example of gender and life safety, OXFAM (2005) found that
80% of those who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami were women
and children. Traditional work roles placing women on the shoreline
awaiting returning shermen and culturally inuenced, gender-specic
clothing that became entangled in the waters contributed to women’s
higher death rates.
Battered Women and Disaster
Feminist disaster researchers who recognize these problems have provided
not only gendered analyses of domestic violence in disaster contexts, but
an extensive set of practical materials as well (for example, see various
guidelines at the Gender and Disaster Network website, www.gdnonline.
org). Information from the existing literature formed the basis for our
inquiry and shaped our perspectives on Katrina and the post-Katrina
capabilities of the greater New Orleans set of domestic violence providers.
From this literature we learned that:
ers will be challenged to respond. They will experience internal
agency difficulties and also problems in working with local police,
attorneys, and others who also are overwhelmed and lack resources.
survivors may collapse in a catastrophic context.
pared, and possibly unwilling, to address the domestic violence
problem; they may not recognize it as disaster-driven, but rather as
a pre-existing problem that is not their responsibility.
networks that would otherwise provide safety nets.
Feminist scholarship demonstrates that gender serves as an organizing
principle through which to view the experience of disaster (Enarson and
Meyreles 2004; Enarson and Morrow 1997; Enarson and Phillips 2008;
Fothergill 1999). For example, women tend to organize recovery activities
52 P J A B P
based on a gendered division of labor and take responsibility for house-
holds and families—standing in lines, assisting other family members, and
holding it all together (Enarson and Morrow 1997). Women have bravely
challenged powerful recovery organizations, working hard to ensure that
women’s issues earn attention and funding (Enarson and Morrow 1997).
Gendered disaster research suggests both vulnerability and capacity for
women facing disaster, and that predisaster, gender-situated issues will
likely remain and could worsen after a disaster.
Specifying levels of postdisaster violence remains methodologically and
realistically difficult, comparable to predisaster attempts to enumerate
those affected. Shelter providers report increased calls, overrun shelter
facilities, and limited police ability to respond after disasters (Santa Cruz
1990). What is clear is that a problem exists and remains under-recognized
and often unsupported (Wilson, Phillips, and Neal 1998; Enarson and
Scanlon 1999; Clemens et al. 1999). After disasters, recordkeeping often
becomes difficult. However, after the 1997 Grand Forks ood, researchers
found that domestic violence increased signicantly and that disasters
like this may heighten anxiety, depression, and hostility (Clemens et al.
1999). Enarson (1999) uncovered increased numbers of crisis calls, protec-
tion orders, and referrals from emergency rooms after the Grand Forks
ood. The bulk of the calls came from existing clients, a pattern which
may indicate that those at risk remain or have to move into vulnerable
While an important nding from Grand Forks is that social networks
probably play vital protective roles acting as “buffers” to reduce violence,
women may be exposed to more abuse postdisaster due to a disaster’s
impact on these and other support frameworks (Clemens et al. 1999). Even
more troubling, shelters and providers may nd themselves in situations
of even more limited resources. Fischer (2005) indicated that the level of
response to gendered violence prior to a disaster inuences response levels
afterward. Further, Wilson, Phillips, and Neal (1998) discovered that new
organizations may not emerge to address the problem, which often hap-
pens for other unmet needs. After Hurricane Iniki damaged Kauai, local
shelters faced extensive power losses and problems paying staff. Even
more seriously, one shelter director discovered that those violating pro-
tective orders did not go to jail but were given citations instead (Enarson
1999). Moreover, Weist, Mocellin, and Motsisi (1994) suggest this is not
only a U.S. problem, but rather one with global import. What happened
to women in this storm named Katrina, and to battered women speci-
cally, is a part of a larger pattern of inadequate international response to
women’s needs in both disaster and nondisaster settings.
B W, C, C S K 53
New Orleans: Local Catastrophe and Local Context
The obvious starting point to assess domestic violence in a disaster would
seemingly stem from traditional information sources such as law enforce-
ment calls for service, arrest reports, hospital records, shelter popula-
tions, and surveys of residents and social services (New Orleans Mayor’s
Advisory Committee Yearly Report 2007). Yet when the levees broke, the
city came to a complete standstill with nearly all infrastructural compo-
nents either destroyed or seriously damaged (Laska and Morrow 2006).
Since that time, police have faced an increasing rate of stranger violence
and crime in a city that has not been able to retain sufficient numbers of
officers to manage daily crime. As with other types of interpersonal vio-
lence, incidents of domestic violence before the storm were believed to
be undercounted. After the storm, most institutions that serve survivors
of domestic violence are struggling to function at a prestorm level, thus
capturing those gures was and remains illusive.
We can start, though, with what we knew prestorm. Since the mid-1990s,
statistics in New Orleans were gathered on all the measures provided by
law enforcement and social service agencies. New Orleans, as with many
other communities, had begun to rely on the federal Grants to Encourage
Arrest funding through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which
encouraged a partnership among law enforcement agencies and service pro-
viders. Consequently much of what agencies came to know about battered
women was based on a variety of criminal justice statistics.
In a study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (Tjaden and
Toennes 2000), it was found that violence against women in intimate
relationships occurred more often and was more severe in economically
disadvantaged neighborhoods. Women living in these areas were more
than twice as likely to be victims of intimate violence compared with
women in more advantaged neighborhoods. This same study reports that
African Americans and whites with the same economic characteristics
have similar rates of intimate violence, but African Americans have a
higher overall rate of intimate violence due in part to the fact that a higher
proportion of them experience economic distress and live in disadvantaged
neighborhoods (Benson and Fox 2004). Given New Orleans’ relatively
large African American population, prior to Hurricane Katrina women
there were at greater risk of experiencing intimate personal violence than
women living in many other places in the United States.
Before Katrina, while there were concerted efforts to increase women’s
safety, providing services for victims was difficult in a city with high rates
of poverty and community violence. Pagelow’s (1984) model shows that
54 P J A B P
women are more likely to leave abusive relationships when they have
both the institutional and social support needed to survive. Prior to August
2005, there were ve battered women programs south of Interstate 12 in
Louisiana. Beginning in the early 1990s, an inux of federal funding from
the VAWA grants had helped to support some personnel and programs. The
models used in this programming were based loosely on earlier feminist
reasoning that emphasized holding perpetrators accountable and providing
safety for women. Also there were concerted attempts to professionalize the
staff and to add more clinical support for shelter residents. Given the lack
of widespread infrastructural support for and data on victims of domestic
violence, we chose to report protective orders and police calls for service,
which are consistent and commonly used criminal justice measures.
In August 2005, there were eight domestic violence detectives in
the New Orleans Police Department, one housed at each of the eight
police districts. After the storm, only three domestic violence detectives
remained and all originally were housed in trailers behind Crescent House,
a local battered women’s shelter. Now all of these detectives work out of
the newly opened Family Justice Center.
In 2004, the total number of protective orders issued statewide was at
an all-time high with 23,255 registered with Louisiana Protective Order
Registry (New Orleans Mayor’s Advisory Committee Yearly Report 2007).
In 2006, the protective orders were down state-wide to 18,544, with the
decreases occurring in the areas hardest-hit by Katrina. In 2006, domestic
violence calls for service decreased all over the city (down forty-ve per-
cent from the rst six months of 2005). In the two districts most affected
by the storm, the decrease reected the population shifts. In the Third
and Seventh Wards (Gentilly, Lakeview, and Eastern New Orleans) not
only was there major home ooding, but the ooding destroyed police
buildings. In both those districts in 2006, the reporting (calls for service)
decreased more than seventy percent.
These statistics convey a static picture in a landscape that is changing
everyday. What emerges shows that, at that time, fewer cases were show-
ing up in the court system as evidenced by the reduction in the number of
protective orders, especially in Orleans Parish and the reduction in domes-
tic violence calls for service. These numbers, however, do not capture the
patterns and social context of abuse. We turn next to that context.
Measuring phenomena in a postdisaster context is, at best, difficult. In
this context, we approach our understanding from the perspective that we
can capture the actual lives of people, “grounded in their people’s actual
B W, C, C S K 55
experience” (Phillips 2002, 203). This paper is part of a larger project that
documents the resilience, resistance, and change of the advocates provid-
ing a variety of services to victims and survivors of domestic violence.
The data used herein derive from focus groups with survivors, interviews
with advocates, secondary data on the incidence of domestic violence,
and observations at community meetings. To capture the local domestic
violence realities, these multiple techniques allowed varying perspec-
tives to emerge; methodologically such triangulation also enhances the
credibility of the data (Erlandson et al. 1993).
Talking to Survivors and Program Staff
As programs for victims of domestic violence returned after the storm, ve
focus groups were conducted with survivors in two programs. These focus
groups documented how the events of the storm and its aftermath affected
a woman’s decision to leave her abusive partner. Participants of these focus
groups ranged from women who had left their abusive partners pre-Katrina
to those who had left after a year post-Katrina. Each focus group lasted for
approximately one and a half hours and included ethnographic note takers.
Shelter staff also participated in order to be present and available for the
survivors. Focus groups ranged in size from six to twelve participants.
The participants were sixty percent African-American, thirty-ve percent
white, and ve percent Asian and Latin. We used these focus groups for
two reasons: 1) to capture narratives explaining any link between the
disaster and a woman’s decision to leave an abusive situation; and 2) to
create a forum in which women might exchange ideas on ways to create
greater safety for battered women. Interviews were conducted with shel-
ter staff at a variety of the programs post-Katrina. The interviews covered
the difference in service provision before and after Katrina and how the
storm impacted their services. These interviews were conducted over the
phone with a variety of providers (shelter counselors, shelter directors, and
other shelter staff). Initial interviews focused on information rather than
description. Eventually interviewees were selected to provide in-depth
descriptions of their lived experiences (Seidman 2006).
By late fall 2005, community meetings about domestic violence reconvened
in Orleans Parish. Once a month, legal and social services providers came
together to discuss the issues surrounding domestic violence in the area.
Other related meetings occurred between November 2005 and Novem-
ber 2007—nearly twenty in all. Observations of these meeting and their
proceedings were documented (Emerson et al. 1995; Spradley 1980).
56 P J A B P
Over time, all interviews, as well as meeting and focus group notes, were
reviewed and then coded into the major categories discussed below (Cres-
well 2007; Yin 2003). At each stage of the analysis, the ndings were
checked by comparing them to issues raised by the advocates and survi-
vors in a variety of settings. From January 2006 to September 2008, the
themes presented below concerning the link between domestic violence
and disasters were discussed at advisory and steering committee meetings,
as well as in focus groups.
Leaving New Orleans
After a catastrophe of Katrina’s magnitude and the dislocation of so many
residents, the dynamics and patterns of domestic violence appeared to
remain in the same state of ux as the rest of the city. Before the storm,
almost eighty percent of the city was evacuated, yet evacuating those
involved with domestic violence, both survivors and staff, proved chal-
lenging. Evacuation and decision-making about evacuation is part of life
in South Louisiana, and some programs, such as Crescent House (the only
shelter in Orleans Parish), successfully evacuated its residents and some
staff to the Baton Rouge Battered Women’s Program. Yet the speed and
direction of Katrina outpaced many others’ efforts.
From rst-person survivor accounts and reports from advocates, victims
of domestic violence faced difficult decisions throughout the evacuation.
To illustrate, one woman described a range of custody problems she faced
prior to the storm ranging from the late return of her daughter to not
knowing where her daughter was to threats and intimidation about cus-
tody. She grew very worried about the storm and evacuation, was afraid
to leave her child with her ex-husband, and literally sneaked her child
out of the house. Advocates report custody arrangements have lingered
as long-term issues of concern after the storm. If it was the noncustodial
parent’s weekend, the children often evacuated with them. Because of the
length of the evacuation, some custodians, primarily mothers, are still
ghting (more than two years later) to retrieve children back from the
Initially after the storm, nearly all of the victims of domestic violence
whom we interviewed found themselves living in potentially threaten-
ing situations with few options for escape. One woman talked about her
I had no roof over my head, no place to live, so I put up with it for 9 months.
I left for a few days because of physical and verbal abuse, would go to friend’s
house or to ex-husband’s house where my children live, saw it was upsetting
B W, C, C S K 57
the children. I made a choice that I was going to leave for good after too many
times going back.
The disaster also created situations where women found themselves
in dangerous situations they could not have anticipated. Due to the mas-
sive loss of local housing and disruption of familial and social networks,
women reported that they had no alternative but to return to their abusive
spouse in order to receive FEMA monies. Conversely, some reported that
an abusive spouse tracked them down in order to be part of the household
that received the FEMA monies. One advocate reported a typical story:
A domestic violence victim evacuated to Houston with her children and
received a FEMA voucher to house her and her children. At that time there
were, and still are, two open criminal cases against the husband in New
Orleans. They had been living apart and she not yet received her divorce. He
initially evacuated to Lafayette. He was able to nd her, and he moved into her
apartment in Houston and won’t leave as he argued that the voucher is meant
for him also. Her divorce attorney told her she cannot get the divorce until they
are living apart. She now has the choice to move out with nothing or live there
hoping the police can come should the continuing verbal abuse escalate.
At the same time, the disaster and relief response created opportuni-
ties for women to leave their abusive partners and create new patterns
of safety. Court advocates report that some of their former clients called
in late 2005 and 2006 to say they were now safe and using their FEMA
monies to build a life elsewhere.
Coming Home to New Orleans
Yet women came “home” as well. Local programs report that they are
seeing as many (in some cases, more) women since the storm, particularly
given the lag in repopulation of the city (Landry 2006; Standifer 2006). Our
data reveal that the storm and its related response and recovery efforts
exacer bated domestic violence patterns of behavior. Critical recovery issues
faced by survivors of domestic violence included housing shortages, a lack
of transportation, restricted access to health care, loss of neighborhood and
community, loss of jobs, loss of informal support systems, isolation in some
neighborhoods, and crowding in other living situations.
Social, Medical, and Institutional Context
The storm and the levee breaches changed not only individual lives but
irrevocably altered many aspects of city infrastructure and services. From
the water that stayed in the streets and homes for two weeks to the lack
of potable water in some areas for more than a year, the infrastructure of
58 P J A B P
the city at all levels has been slow to come back. When a woman who is
a victim of interpersonal violence returns, she faces a number of barriers
to her safety.
Law Enforcement Response
As we know, law enforcement is one of the rst groups that some women
call in a crisis (Dutton 1998). Yet almost three years after the storm, many
aspects of law enforcement in New Orleans remain in a crisis state. Virtu-
ally every aspect of the criminal justice system was damaged or destroyed
by the effects of the hurricane, including the courts, jails, and police.
Before the storm, the criminal justice system in New Orleans was difficult
for many to maneuver through, but after the storm it became even more
fragmented and complicated (Fairling and Hopper 2007). In 2008, rates of
violent stranger crimes (homicide and armed robbery) reached an all-time
high for what was already a violent city.
Prior to the storm, medical services were provided through a dual system:
private physicians for the insured and public health services for the unin-
sured. The public health-care system was nearly destroyed by the storm
and its aftermath and has been slow to come back (Rudowtiz, Rowland,
and Shartzer 2006). In addition, a mental-health crisis in New Orleans has
been aggravated by the lack of beds, psychiatrists, psychologists, and com-
munity health centers. As of July 2007, ten acute-care hospitals, psychi-
atric hospitals, long-term disability, and rehabilitation facilities remained
shuttered, out of the original twenty-three in New Orleans. For the region
as a whole, only four more such facilities have opened since August 2006
(New Orleans Index, www.gnocdc.org).
This structural crisis compounds the vulnerability of women and their
partners. One of the women stated that after the storm her husband, a
contractor, became more and more dependent upon illegal drugs as his
on-the-job stress increased. Eventually she came to believe that she and
her children were in serious danger and left. Another woman stated that
after the storm her partner’s drinking and drug use also increased as did
his controlling behavior toward her and her child.
When women affected by domestic violence ask for help they commonly
turn to their families and friends, especially important support networks
in this city (Dutton 1998; Hutchison and Hirschel 1998). In New Orleans,
families in many neighborhoods lived near each other and evacuated with
one another. Accounts from advocates and survivors report that many
of these informal networks have fractured since the evacuation and an
estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people have not returned home. Survivors
B W, C, C S K 59
from the focus groups talked about not just losing their homes, but their
mothers, their grandmothers, and siblings as well—all of whom may have
offered safe refuge. One woman stated:
My closest friends are struggling because of the condition of the city. I was
staying with a friend, but her roof caved in. I felt like a puppy on the side of
the highway, it’s rainy and cold and I have no place to go
Crucial to women’s survival in leaving an abusive situation is the avail-
ability of housing. More than four thousand public housing units remain
permanently closed down after the storm, stranding thousands of women
and children. This lack of housing has led to families doubling and tripling
up in small apartments and houses. Some families have lived in tiny tem-
porary travel trailers for more than two years. The issues of less-defensible
close quarters and a lack of affordable permanent housing options are
problematic for women attempting to create safety.
Without family nearby and given the haphazard repopulation of the city,
other women nd themselves isolated. Families return to trailers or homes
that are far from the next neighbor. Whole blocks in neighborhoods still
have only one or two occupied houses. Such isolation increases chances
of experiencing both stranger and intimate-partner crime. With eighty per-
cent of the city ooded, the housing shortage emerges as one of the salient
factors in a woman’s choice to leave. According to advocates and law
enforcement, some are making decisions to stay in an abusive situation
because the housing shortage does not give them many options. Speaking
of one woman, a domestic-violence detective recounted that, “She told
me that she would rather stay with her abusive husband she knew, than
leave and not know where she was going.” Over and over again, survivors
worry about where they would go and if they could continue to live with
families and friends.
Many families in New Orleans are engaged in some way in the difficult
rebuilding effort. Accessing insurance and governmental monies, build-
ing material supplies, contractors, plumbers and electricians are all key
aspects of the rebuilding process. Yet as of August 6, 2007, only twenty-
two percent of total applicants to the Road Home2 program had gone to
closing, and the average benet per applicant had fallen by more than
$12,000 to about $68,700. Further complicating access to these funds is
the fact that as of August 6, 2007, 180,424 Road Home applications had
been received, which was a far higher number than the 123,000 for which
the program was originally designed (The New Orleans Index 2007). Not
only is the funding difficult to attain, but for women who are in relation-
ships with intimate partner violence, this rebuilding effort can be directly
related to the context of coercion and control. One woman describes
60 P J A B P
how her husband took the insurance money to “do the work himself,”
but allowed the family to live in an uncompleted house without doing
any repairs. Doing the repairs became part of the issue of control and
violence in this home. She left to be safe from physical abuse, nancial
exploitation, and an unsafe housing situation.
Issues of Work and Child Care
Finding or keeping employment, plus the necessary child care, often are
crucial to survivors’ safety. A lack of affordable child care was a prob-
lem before Katrina, but became even more difficult after the storm. A
little more than one-third of the number of daycare centers have opened
since Katrina hit, and many of the pre-existing smaller venues of six or
fewer children remain closed (The New Orleans Index 2007). At every
focus group, when asked what was most needed, the majority of women
answered “long-term dependable day care.”
Rebuilding the Safety Network in a Post-Katrina Context
Of the ve programs for battered women that existed before Katrina
south of Interstate 12, three were heavily damaged. One program (New
Orleans YWCA) has not come back at all. The St. Bernard Parish program
is struggling but is open to nonresidential survivors, and Crescent House
in New Orleans, which was ooded and then caught re, returned. Cres-
cent House did not rebuild the shelter, but is rebuilding its program with
a different service model that includes temporary housing, but not as a
traditional shelter. Metropolitan Battered Women’s Program in Jefferson
Parish was not seriously damaged and reopened to more than a full house
in January 2006 (Standifer 2006 ).
The community of advocates and providers in place before the storms
have almost all came back. For nearly 15 years, the New Orleans Mayor’s
Domestic Violence Committee has offered aid with funding and coordi-
nating efforts. With few exceptions, nearly all of the 30 members of the
advisory committee returned to the city by late 2005. Aware of the chal-
lenging conditions facing domestic-violence victims described above, the
committee has worked to help improve outreach and services.
Members of the committee believed that the risk to women post-
Katrina was greater than before the storm. While unwilling to say that
there were more women in need of service—in part because of the sig-
nicantly low repopulation of the city—service providers observed that
women reported more rapidly escalating violence resulting in more serious
injury than pre-Katrina (Landry 2006; Standifer 2006). They also acknowl-
edged a new demographic in those seeking assistance. As one shelter
B W, C, C S K 61
Now, we see more professional people coming into the program, before we had
a lot of homeless people coming to the shelter . . . That’s the biggest change for
me, we see more professional, working ladies coming into the shelter, families,
women with families, and a lot of women with children.
She continued by noting that,
They’re new. After Katrina, they’re new. We don’t have the same people, we
have people who had never heard of our program . . . a lot people aren’t work-
ing, can’t pay rent. The population now is totally different. Most, they are so
Survivors in our study often agreed with this assessment. Some of them
talked about being able to live with the abuse before the storm, but unable
to tolerate it after. One woman said, “The storm opened my eyes—he
didn’t provide support.” Another woman felt that the storm provided a
moment to change her circumstances, “The storm allowed me to leave.
We ended up evacuating to different places. I went to North Louisiana, he
went west. We came back to the city at different times, and I was able to
leave for good.”
Not only did the storm change how some survivors viewed their situ-
ation, but it also claried the issues for the advocates in New Orleans.
Within a year, the advocates were meeting with the VAWA offices to
create a Family Justice Center as a one-stop shop for survivors. By 2007,
the Family Justice Center opened with the cooperation of all partners
including the city, state, nonprots, and survivors. In the midst of rebuild-
ing the city, the advocates created a new and better structure for battered
Implications for Feminist Research
Feminist literature and feminist organizing is credited with bringing an
understanding of domestic violence to light (for example, see Dobash and
Dobash 1979; Pagelow 1984; Schechter 1982; Stark and Fliltcraft 1996).
Beginning in the late 1960s and extending to the present day, feminist
scholars have dened the problem of violence against women as inclusive
of domestic violence, spousal abuse, and child abuse. Feminist scholarship
explored through the humanities, social sciences, and the arts and its cor-
responding activism have changed laws, practice, and policy.
Despite media reports to the contrary, people often tend to be quite gen-
erous to those affected by disaster and, in general, crime rates drop. Given
these heightened levels of prosocial behavior, it seems extraordinarily
problematical that support of victims of domestic violence takes a giant
step backwards. Further those seeking justice must await an even longer
response within a system overwhelmed with basic disaster activities—too
often at the cost of their lives.
62 P J A B P
Traditional feminist epistemologies can make a difference in a disaster
context (Enarson and Phillips 2008). Listening to the voices of victims in
a catastrophic, postdisaster context provides new insights into how to
make all women safe during a disaster. When long term access to housing,
transportation, child care, and jobs are scarce, sheltering a woman for four
to six weeks, while she “gets back on her feet,” will not in a post-Katrina
environment make her safe.
The lived experiences of post-Katrina domestic-violence survivors and
their advocates highlight several points that can be further rened in the
literature on the intersections of domestic violence and disaster. First,
Wilson et al. (1998) stated that services continued in communities where
there was already support for victims. In New Orleans, the advocates
not only provided more services, they changed and altered how they
provided service, as evidenced by transforming one closed shelter into
a much broader program and opening the Family Justice Center. This
change in service provision is reected in how one local shelter changed
I think we were very much caught up in what I call the institutionalization
of shelters, kind of becoming institutionalized because we have government
money, we have government regulations, and so it’s very easy to fall into that
trap, to go after money so that you can continue to sustain services.
In the recovery process, shelter workers began to think that the focus of
the work is not at this time to reopen as a traditional shelter:
And, I think the storm really has changed my perspective, it’s the foundation
of why we have changed everything and how we do it here because everything
is driven by are we really meeting the needs of survivors, are we hearing their
voices. So after Katrina it wasn’t so much how do we get the shelter back up
and running, but is that the best way to meet the needs?
Second, Enarson (1999) stated that, after the Grand Forks ood, shelters
saw primarily the same women. In post-Katrina New Orleans, those
asking for help were not only previous victims, but new faces of the
middle class and newly arrived immigrants. Third, the voices of women
in the focus groups revealed that the storm not only further marginal-
ized but, concomitantly, also provided a means to escape. The dual-edged
reality of this post-Katrina context matters greatly, particularly in how
domestic-violence providers should approach future disasters. Fourth, the
dedication of many domestic-violence detectives and shelter staff often
emerges as a heroic act during the recovery period, particularly when we
take into account the challenges involved with their own personal and
During this catastrophe, when knowledge about victims was not avail-
able in ways that were provided by institutional means, advocates began
B W, C, C S K 63
to rely again on the voices and experiences of battered women. This return
to the earlier feminist understanding of domestic violence illustrates
how thin in many cases the institutional veneer of protection really was.
Whether the more informal response of some service providers in post-
Katrina New Orleans will diminish the marginalization, and increase the
empowerment, of women should be assessed (Wiest et al. 1994).
Future work on domestic violence and disaster needs to reect the
ongoing struggles commonly associated with different types of commu-
nity recovery. For a catastrophe of this magnitude, there is no going back
to the “normal” of before the storm. There is, instead, the work to be done
that takes into consideration the deep effects of the recovery, particularly
because issues of women and children do not often emerge in the response
and planning in postdisaster context. Holistic approaches must be used
to understand the desperate circumstances of catastrophe and how they
intersect with gender.
One young woman facing alligators and snakes while trying to create a safe
environment is just one example of the agency and creativity that emerged
from the storm. This event and its aftermath changed individuals, fami-
lies, and institutions. From these experiences, there is the potential to
change policy and practice in future devastating events.
Clearly policy formulation for future disasters needs to consider how
disasters affect victims of domestic violence. This includes determining
ways to fairly allocate federal funding to households, training for disaster
workers on the vital issues, and researching custody issues for families
during evacuation. Federal policies must address the problem of violence
in temporary Federal housing, including assurances that survivors will be
protected from offenders and enjoy priority in housing arrangements in
order to remain separate and alive.
Also funders offering money, donations, and other resources must listen
to those enmeshed in the local context. Well-meaning donors may not
understand how local circumstances affect individual’s options and may
not offer what is truly needed. Domestic-violence service providers may
need to educate rst responders, shelter managers and others involved
in response and recovery about the specic issues of domestic violence.
Part of their effort can encourage policies regarding the enforcement of
protective orders and arrest as a deterrent; any reduction in these efforts
is neither warranted nor safe. Emergency-shelter providers can be edu-
cated to develop policies posted in shelters regarding violence, can design
intake strategies to identify those at risk in a condential manner, and can
facilitate moving those at risk into a safer environment.
64 P J A B P
But it remains insufficient to focus exclusively on the domestic violence
support system. Those who prepare for disasters must also participate in
the process. Emergency managers, for example, organize their work activi-
ties into four phases of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery—
each of which can incorporate domestic violence issues. Mitigation is
dened as efforts to reduce loss of life, obviously a goal in concert with
domestic violence providers. Shelter providers may work with emergency
managers to identify structural points of intervention, such as hurricane
clamps on roofs or safe rooms in shelters and other facilities. Donors may
want to help with insurance coverage, a nonstructural mitigation measure,
to expedite postdisaster rebuilding.
Preparedness involves efforts to plan, train, and get ready for an impact.
Emergency managers can assist domestic violence providers with design-
ing shelter evacuation plans, transportation routing, and educational
materials. Ideally emergency managers will involve domestic-violence ser-
vice providers on boards, response teams, and in training opportunities—
and vice versa—because the emergency management community needs
the insights of providers. Further the preparedness phase is a good time
to develop mutual aid agreements that spell out where to send those in
shelters, how to provide evacuation transportation assistance, how their
services will be continued by regional partners, and vice versa. Finally,
each program should have a carefully written plan of how to continue
post-disaster operations in several different contexts from small event to
The response phase means that activities are underway to save lives
and protect property. Programs, including official disaster shelters, must
be prepared to accept and protect domestic violence survivors and to be
ready to move them on to an even safer location. First responders and
others involved in evacuation must take care not to separate children
and mothers, as doing so may result in years of court activity as a mother
ghts to regain custody or place children at risk. Domestic violence sur-
vivors should have priority in securing temporary housing, coupled with
adequate security in such housing, particularly when housing, such as
trailers, are isolated.
The recovery phase represents the time when healing can take place
in a community. Voluntary and faith-based organizations often pour into
a devastated area, working on rebuilding homes and lives. These organi-
zations can be tapped into and educated to distribute safety materials,
identify those at risk, provide appropriate counseling, and prioritize hous-
ing. Usually these organizations work through a local long-term recovery
committee, an interfaith organization or an unmet needs committee.
Incorporating the specic needs of domestic violence survivors into these
organizational structures is an effective means for reaching and serving
B W, C, C S K 65
Before Katrina, it was surprising that women left violent situations at
all. Now, given the momentous obstacles described herein, the women
who leave are remarkable. These women have something to teach us all
about resilience, resistance, and rebuilding (Moore 1987). This moment
in history has the ability to shift how we view our frameworks about
providing service for battered women in a disaster.
Most of the efforts to increase women’s safety in the ongoing recovery
of the storm happened outside of the normal recovery discourse. Pro-
viding services for victims and survivors of domestic violence is rarely
mentioned in any of the plans for recovery. As with most other disasters,
gender issues specically are not part of the mainstream of the recovery
model (Schwoebel and Menon 2004). For women in general and battered
women specically, the advocates and the survivors themselves are doing
the work to rebuild the safety net and to refashion services.
Pamela Jenkins is a professor of sociology and faculty in the Women’s
Studies Program at the University of New Orleans. She is a founding and
associate member of UNO’s Center for Hazard Assessment, Response, and
Technology. She has published on a variety of community issues including
several manuscripts outlining community responses to domestic violence
and more recently several articles focusing on Louisiana coastal communi-
ties’ response to coastal erosion. Post-Katrina, she has been documenting
the response to Katrina as part of a national research team on Hurricane
Katrina evacuees. She has published on rst responders, faith-based com-
munities, response to the storm, and the experiences of the elderly during
and after Katrina. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brenda Phillips is a professor in the Fire and Emergency Management
Program, an affiliated faculty member in the Gender & Women’s Studies
and the International Studies Programs, and a senior researcher in the
Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State
University. She recently co-edited Women and Disasters: From Theory
to Practice with Betty Hearn Morrow and has a forthcoming co-edited
book titled Social Vulnerability with Deborah Thomas, Alice Fother-
gill, and Lynn Blinn-Pike. She is a member of the Gender and Disaster
Network and the International Research Committee on Disasters. Send
correspondence to email@example.com.
In this paper, we refer to women who experience interpersonal violence as 1.
both survivors and victims. We acknowledge that the women we refer to in
this study have survival strategies that are life-saving.
66 P J A B P
The Road Home program is designed to provide compensation to Louisiana 2.
homeowners affected by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita for the damage to their
homes. The Road Home program reports to be the largest single housing
recovery program in U.S. history. The Road Home program, through the state
government, uses federal funds to disburse to residents who suffered damage
to their homes, and also includes some grants for mitigation of homes and for
some rental property.
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