Highlighting hurricane survivors
November 3, 2011
Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina blew through the Atlantic Gulf Coast, becoming one of the five deadliest hurricanes in United States history. On Friday, the women studies and Africana Studies departments hosted Professor Ophera Davis as part of their brown-bag lunch series. Davis is currently researching the effect of Hurricane Katrina on black, middle-class women in Mississippi.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Davis traveled to Mississippi in order to help with the relief effort. She ended up interviewing 12 black, middle-class women affected by the storm, capturing their voices throughout the relief effort.
Davis conducted her study with the purpose of showing the public the broad effects this storm had on the entire Gulf Coast region. While Katrina nearly demolished New Orleans, Davis feels that the public tends to overlook the similar detrimental situation in Mississippi.
“Katrina hit Mississippi, and there is another story about these Mississippi survivors that has never been told,” Davis said.
The 12 women Davis interviewed live in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, specifically located in the cities of Pass Christian, Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.
“They were Mississippi residents lifelong,” Davis said. “No one is relocating. They said they are rebuilding.”
While capturing the hardships of Mississippi as a whole is a significant purpose of her research, Davis’ most central focus is capturing the voices of women survivors. The lack of studies focusing on women after natural disasters spurred Davis’ research, especially since women suffer higher death rates in natural disaster situations. According to the National Resources Defense Council, women are 14 times more likely to die in natural disasters than men are.
“I ended up getting a story I had no idea I would get,” Davis said, “Usually when you hear about hurricanes, you rarely hear about women, and I think Hurricane Katrina changed that.”
As a whole, Davis’s interviews serve as a medium for these women to discuss the hardships they have faced since the hurricane, especially in terms of employment.
“After being homeless, it makes you realize what’s important,” one of Davis’ interviewees said.
Davis’s interviews also reveal the lasting psychological effects of Hurricane Katrina on black, middle-class women even after six years of growth.
“[The interviewees] said housing and counseling are still important to the victims of Katrina six years after the storm,” Davis said.
Davis’s ethnographic research utilizes the methods of snowball sampling, in-depth interviews and narrative analysis. These methods allowed her to analyze the specifics of the economic change experienced by the 12 women she continues to interview.
According to Davis’s research after Hurricane Katrina, the unemployment rate of Mississippi skyrocketed, jumping from 5.9 percent to 22.6 percent. Casinos were chief employers in the Gulf Coast region before the storm, and when Katrina demolished many of these establishments, unemployment spiked in the region. 127,000 casino jobs were lost in Harrison County alone in the aftermath of Katrina, according to Davis.
Davis also drew attention to the specific plight of women in Mississippi in comparison to the rest of the United States. For example, the average income of women in the United States is $49,660, while in Mississippi, the average income for women is half that figure.
All of the women Davis interviewed had to change jobs after Hurricane Katrina. According to Davis, few economic security remains in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, even 6 years after the catastrophe. The Federal Emergency Management Agency currently employs a number of the women in Davis’ study, and as FEMA pulls out of the region, these women will be unemployed yet again.
However, Davis speaks with hope for continued economic improvement and growth of these black, middle-class women.
“The ability of women to find new jobs after Katrina speaks of their perseverance and resilience,” Davis said. “They are able to do something that other women were not able to do because of their social standing.”
Most students and professors attended the lecture as a class assignment, although they walked away with an appreciation for the new approach of Davis’ research.
“I’m appreciative of the fact Davis is studying this particular group of women,” Collin Scott ’15 said. “As a student, I am glad she is looking at an area of study that hasn’t been examined.”
Davis will continue to interview these 12 women as relief efforts end and Mississippi continues on the path towards recovery. She is also currently working on a book to publish the findings of her research.