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Hurricane Katrina left survivors vulnerable to sexual assault. Here’s how to protect Irma evacuees.

Aid workers have learned that evacuation doesn’t always mean safety.

Evacuees take shelter from flood waters at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas
Evacuees take shelter from flood waters at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas on August 29, 2017.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Charmaine Neville spoke to a local television station a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, she didn’t just want to talk about the storm. When she took shelter on the roof of a school, she said, she was raped by a stranger.

“I had lain down and gone to sleep and somebody woke me up,” she said in an interview with the TV station WAFB. “They put their hand over my mouth, and a knife to my throat.” Her rapist threatened her, she added: “If you don’t do what I want, I’m gonna kill you and then I’ll do what I want to you anyway and throw your body over the side of the building.”

The chaos during and after Hurricane Katrina left many people vulnerable to sexual assault, as William E. Thornton and Lydia Voigt note in a 2007 paper in which Neville’s story appears. As Hurricanes Harvey and Irma continue to cause flooding and other damage, some of the same risks apply as people are forced from their homes into shelters or into other temporary living arrangements that may not be safe. The good news: Aid workers have the lessons of Katrina to fall back on as they try to help the thousands of people displaced by this storm.

Overcrowded, understaffed shelters put people at risk of sexual assault

A disaster like a hurricane can exacerbate the factors that lead people to commit sexual assault, like poverty, displacement, lack of housing, and lack of a law enforcement presence, said Annie Gebhardt, the training and technical assistance director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which works with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. A disaster can also put people in situations where they’re at greater risk of being assaulted, from living with an abusive family member to staying at a crowded shelter.

A reliable count of sexual assaults during Katrina is hard to come by, Gebhardt said, because the barriers to reporting assault — always high, even without a natural disaster looming — are even higher during a storm, when resources are stretched and law enforcement is focused on search and rescue. But Gebhardt and her colleagues believe a rise in sexual assaults did occur in the aftermath of Katrina.

Almost a third of sexual assaults reported during that storm and Hurricane Rita, which hit New Orleans a month later, took place at evacuation shelters, according to a survey by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Shelters were the most common site of reported sexual violence.

The most dangerous shelters tended to be those that were understaffed, or where staff were not trained in disaster relief, said Greg Forrester, the president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which is helping to coordinate shelter efforts in Texas.

Overcrowding and chaotic shelter conditions can put evacuees at increased risk of sexual assault, said Gebhardt. So can inadequate lighting and an abundance of out-of-the-way areas where people can commit violence unobserved.

Every shelter needs workers distributed throughout who can be on the lookout for signs of sexual violence, said Ann Robison, the executive director of the Montrose Center, which offers mental health counseling and other services for LGBTQ people in Houston. “It’s almost like posting a guard,” she said.

The American Red Cross, which runs the majority of shelters in the Houston area, requires that each shelter have law enforcement present at all times, said Forrester. All Red Cross shelters also have safety officers who are trained to spot warning signs of sexual abuse and assault.

Shelters run by churches or other local organizations have their own safety protocols, Forrester said. Most church shelters abide by variants on a policy called Safe Sanctuaries, which dictates that workers receive background checks and training, and that a minimum of two adults be present anywhere where there are children. Background checks can be performed in a matter of hours, Forrester said, and new volunteers who have not yet passed their checks can be assigned tasks that don’t require direct interaction with evacuees, like setting up cots.

Shelters should approach gender segregation with caution

Many church-run shelters have separate areas for single men, single women, and families to help prevent assault, Forrester said.

Some form of gender segregation may help some evacuees feel safer, said Gebhardt, but “it’s important to consider how that gender segregation is being structured and defined, and what choice people are being allowed.” Transgender evacuees may not necessarily feel safest in gender-segregated settings.

Robison was more critical of gender segregation. “It doesn’t help,” she said. In larger shelters, “you can segregate them all you want, there’s a lot of freedom to walk around, and it doesn’t really matter,” she explained.

During past disasters, gender policies at shelters have sometimes done more harm than good, Robison said. When distributing clean clothing, some volunteers from faith groups have refused to allow transgender people to wear clothes that match their gender identity. “It’s pretty demoralizing after what everybody’s been through,” she said. “After they have to swim through or wade through dirty water, they want to take a shower and get changed.”

Information and advance planning are key

During a disaster like Harvey, all first responders, shelter staff, volunteers, and law enforcement officers need to know “how to respond if someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted, and where to refer them,” Gebhardt said. If evacuees do report assault, shelter workers need to make clear to them that what happened was not their fault. “People are often making really difficult choices in a disaster,” Gebhardt said, which can fuel self-blame.

Shelter staff may also have to prepare to respect survivors’ choices about whether or not to report assault to law enforcement. “We really want to honor each individual’s choice about who they want to talk to and what kinds of services they choose,” Gebhardt said. And law enforcement agencies need to be prepared to take reports of crimes in other jurisdictions, since people displaced by the disaster may want to report something that happened before they left.

Evacuees, not just the people helping them, need information about sexual assault, Gebhardt said. Distributing such information, in multiple languages, to survivors of a disaster can help “people who may have experienced sexual violence know that they are not alone,” as well as making them aware of resources that can help them, Gebhardt said. That information can include simple strategies to help bystanders step in if they see someone being harmed. Sharing information widely also “helps to indicate to people who may be inclined to commit sexual violence that the people around them are mindful about this possibility and that people are going to be on the lookout,” Gebhardt added.

While all of this can happen during or immediately before a disaster, it’s important to plan in times of safety too. Much of Gebhardt’s work focuses on establishing connections between rape crisis services, emergency responders, and other groups so that they can work together effectively when a disaster does hit. Fortunately, because of past storms, that kind of preparation has already taken place in many parts of Texas that are affected by Harvey, Gebhardt said.

Houston will also benefit from advance training when it comes to the needs of LGBTQ evacuees. “After years of us doing cultural competency training throughout the region, there’s more people now than during Katrina days that know what to look for and know how to treat people,” Robison said. And some Montrose Center staff, who are specifically trained to work with LGBTQ people, are working at Houston-area shelters.

While the disaster continues in Texas, with much of the city of Port Arthur now underwater, there are reasons to be hopeful that the lessons of past storms will help keep evacuees safer. “Our city and our county leadership are doing a great job in just a horrible situation,” said Robison. “I know we’ll learn from this and make it even better the next time.”