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Hurricane Katrina 10 years later: What we know about victims’ health, wealth, and happiness

A home in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, abandoned during Katrina, is still vacant.
A home in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, abandoned during Katrina, is still vacant.
Lee Celano/AFP via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Hurricane Katrina pushed hundreds of thousands of people from their home in New Orleans, some never to return. After a decade, we know more than ever about what happened to them next — and about the hurricane's lingering impact on their education, their health, and their happiness.

Some of the research came from following and interviewing displaced New Orleans residents to determine what effect the storm had on their mental and physical health. Others came from the "natural experiment" that Hurricane Katrina created: The hurricane forced people to move who might not otherwise have done so, and researchers investigated how that affected their lives in the long term.

The results are a confusing picture. The storm left residents of the Gulf Coast displaced and suffering, physically and psychologically. (Nationwide, even the happiness of people not directly affected by the storm dropped in its aftermath.) But it also led some to establish new lives in better neighborhoods, and an increase in income.

1) Overall, incomes for hurricane victims rose after the storm

Hurricane Katrina was terrible for the short-term financial lives of the people affected: Their incomes fell by 6 percent in 2005 and 10 percent the following year when compared with similar people who weren't affected by the hurricane. But research published in December 2013 showed those effects didn't last. The income of people affected by Hurricane Katrina eventually rebounded, exceeding the similar, unaffected people by 6 percent by 2009.

The authors of the study found the results to be pretty remarkable, and they said it suggested that aid to victims was effective. But they cautioned that it might not have meant that Katrina victims were actually better off. It's possible, they wrote, that the cost of living went up as their wages increased.

2) Katrina had lasting, terrible effects on displaced children in precarious situations

The majority of children displaced by Hurricane Katrina to trailer parks, hotels, or other unstable housing situations still didn't have stable housing, were suffering from emotional or behavioral disorders, or both, even five years after the storm. And most parents of those children thought they needed psychological help, but didn't know how or where to get it.

These findings are from the Gulf Coast Child and Family Health Study, which tracked children and families displaced by Hurricane Katrina for five years. (A similar study is now underway on children who were displaced by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.)

They found that 36 percent of children displaced to "congregate settings," such as hotels or other transient settings, had symptoms of significant emotional disturbance, nearly five times the rate of American children as a whole. More than one-third were at least a year behind in school, and 7 percent were still homeless.

The study hasn't continued to follow those children. But they found that after five years, these families' situation was still an emergency in need of "urgent assistance," and warned of significant future challenges for the 20,000 affected children.

3) Evacuees from flooded neighborhoods ended up in better neighborhoods than they were living in before

Hurricane Katrina pushed people out of New Orleans, and out of their neighborhood, who might not otherwise have left — and many of those families never returned.

Corina Graif, a researcher at Tulane University, studied more than 700 mostly low-income and African-American women from New Orleans who were enrolled in community college when the storm hit.

She found that after the storm, they lived in more diverse, higher-earning neighborhoods with lower concentrations of poverty. This was particularly true for families who lived in neighborhoods that flooded, neighborhoods that were poorer and more disadvantaged before Katrina. After Katrina, families who left flooded neighborhoods moved to dramatically better neighborhoods, in some ways better than those that never flooded in the first place.

"The poverty traps in which low-income minority families tend to repeatedly find themselves even as they move from a neighborhood to another can be escaped," Graif wrote — and the challenge is now to help families do that without needing a disaster.

4) Hurricane Katrina made Americans as a whole unhappier, even outside New Orleans — but they bounced back quickly

Researchers looked at a survey administered to a sample of adults all over the US in August, September, and October 2005, the period preceding and immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The survey, the Michigan Survey of Consumers, asks about people's emotional well-being as well as their finances.

The analysis, published in 2006 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that nationally, people were more likely to report feeling sad or depressed about a week after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, particularly in the first week of September, once it was evident how much damage the hurricane had done. The effects were particularly strong in the south central US, near where Katrina struck.

But for those not directly affected by the storm, the effects didn't last. For most of the country, happiness returned to normal within two weeks. In the south central region, it took an additional week.

5) Happiness for people affected by the hurricane dropped, but eventually rebounded

Another study, this one published in 2014, looked at 491 women affected by Hurricane Katrina, the same group of community college students studied in Graif's research on neighborhoods. It found that in the first year after the hurricane, the women reported being substantially less happy than they were before the storm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women who had suffered the most in the hurricane or who had experienced the death of a loved one were the most likely to be unhappy a year later.

But by the time four years had passed, their happiness had returned to pre-hurricane levels — for the most part. The exception was a group of 38 women who were mostly living alone and reported they had low levels of support from their social circles.

Self-reported happiness, though, could mask deeper levels of trauma. Another study using the same data set found that nearly 30 percent of the women had levels of emotional distress high enough to suggest mental illness. One-third of the women could have been suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. "The effects of exposure to traumatic events during the hurricane on mental health have not faded over time and, in some cases, have become worse," the researchers wrote.

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