“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Sunday, September 04, 2005

What Next For Katrina's Victims?

I've had some thoughts on how best to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the longer term. I'm aware that this is still a crisis situation and many of them are desperate for basic needs. The human tendency is to give generously in a crisis, but to become fatigued once crisis mode has passed. These people will need help recovering for months to come. Furthermore, it will take time to come up with and implement these longer-term solutions. John F. Kennedy told the following story:

"...we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time. I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.'"

So, what are some of the longer-term needs of Katrina's survivors? It's clear that they've gone through a very traumatic experience, so perhaps they could benefit from some psychological counseling. What may not spring to mind so quickly is that they might benefit from various types of economic counseling, specifically career and credit counseling.

People generally think about what they should do with their lives at specific turning points, e.g., on reaching adulthood or retirement age. At other times the thought of uprooting themselves and possibly their families exerts a strong pull towards staying on their current path. Now that all of these people have been uprooted willy nilly, it may be the right opportunity for them to think about how best to rebuild their lives. To make their new life as much as possible like their old life may not always be the best choice, although it may be the natural first instinct. If they are to start fresh, either because they decide to or because they're forced to, they could benefit from some of the resources which usually are reserved for college career counseling centers.

I don't know much about how credit works for disaster survivors. As noted on Slate, people may owe mortgages on houses that no longer exist, but FEMA aid can help alleviate this problem. However, Americans in general are also saddled with large amounts of consumer debt. What happens to their credit card loans in the event of a disaster? If people are forced into bankruptcy, what are the implications of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005? Will it make a difference whether the survivors go into bankruptcy before or after this law takes effect on October 17th? Whatever the answers may be, it seems clear the survivors could use help with understanding and dealing with them.

The most glaring large-scale need is for housing, but it's not at all clear what to do about it. Homeless shelters constitute the conventional stopgap, but the existing shelters in the area almost certainly don't have the capacity to accomodate so many people. A discussion with Saheli prompted me to think about one of the systemic defects in how we treat homeless people in general: Because many of the homeless have problems with mental illness and drugs, the shelters often assume the worst about all of them. In particular, they separate men from women and children. But breaking up families will often make a bad situation worse, especially at times like these when those families have just been through a disaster. This got me to thinking about whether there's some way these people could at least have some sort of "home base" where they can stay privately with their families and think peacefully about how to rebuild, rather than being trapped with a bunch of stressed-out strangers.

I think it's also important that the survivors regain as much control as possible over their situations, as soon as possible. For this reason I think it would be good if they could have the option of temporary cooperative housing. In this model, often used in college communities, residents use their labor in maintaining the household to make up part or all of their rent. But unfortunately this obviously requires large residential structures, which aren't going to spring up from nowhere.

Habitat for Humanity does great work building affordable housing, but because their model requires human as well as financial capital, it would be hard to scale to fit this situation. It's more geared toward the chronic problems of the working poor. A few months ago Saheli blogged about Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. They're tiny by normal American standards, but may provide more living space than the survivors' current shelters, and have the benefit of looking very home-like and comforting. Alternatively, given access to pre-fabricated housing kits, the survivors might be able to build such shelters themselves. This would have the added benefit of being a positive, cooperative endeavor they could take part in together, giving them a sense of control in the process and accomplishment at the end.

Unfortunately the big problem with all these ideas is land. Where would these structures be built? How long would they stay there? What would happen to them once people pick up the pieces of their lives and move elsewhere? These are very tough questions and I don't know the answers to them, but I hope I've given people something to think about.


Blogger Robert Konigsberg said...

In one of my wife's prior lives, she spent over ten years providing legal services in disasters. Among other things, she ensured that federally mandated resources were appropriately allocated to those who needed them. So just a reminder that while there are people in government organizations who look to save money by denying services they are required, by law, to provide, there are legal services advocates who will do their best to make sure they pay up. Is that a sufficient replacement for organizations who do what they're supposed to? Hardly.

Perhaps this helps identify some of the medium term tactics: http://konigsberg.blogspot.com/2005/09/what-can-be-done.html

Also, you were talking about the impact of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, on these people. Just an hour ago I was passively listening to an NPR program talking just about that.


It looks as though the audio links aren't active yet. I only remember two things: 1) that people have six weeks to file before the Act takes effect and 2) something about the flexibility judges have in enforcing declarations of bankruptcy. Sorry, my wife and I were discussing something, so this was background noise.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Datta said...

Robert: Thanks for pointing me to your post, which has a lot of great information. I'm particularly heartened to learn that SBA loans are specially available to disaster survivors. That certainly seems wise in an area where many of the existing businesses may have been destroyed. If some people take this opportunity to start that small business they've always been dreaming of, all the better for everyone.

Although the only specific issue I mentioned with regard to credit counseling was help with bankruptcy, it need not be limited to that. Assessment of creditworthiness is so computerized these days that it may be a tough decision whether to go bankrupt even in this situation. I don't know that there's a checkbox in one's credit file that says in this bankruptcy, there were indisputably circumstances beyond one's control (although of course there is a place for comments in the file). Consumer credit counseling services generally help people to consolidate their loans and to negotiate payment plans with their creditors, which in this case might include cessation of payment for a short period. Creditors may be more amenable to negotiation if an independent agency can verify that this is indeed a survivor of Katrina, rather than someone looking to cash in on the situation, and can help them keep in contact with their debtors who have been displaced.

1:35 PM  

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