ORLANDO, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–On Tuesday, Aug. 29, Michelle Castillo will be trying very hard to behave as if the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina were just like any other day.
But like tens of thousands of Gulf Coast women, she will be hard pressed to pull it off.
“I’ll probably end up having a good hard cry,” the 42-year-old single mother of two admits. “It will be hard not to when evidence is all around me of the strides that have not been made.”
Castillo’s family received just over $2,000 in rental assistance for a three-month period in January that helped her manage her $1,200 monthly rent bill. But she was among the thousands of Katrina survivors who were denied further assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency between March and June.
Castillo has a drawer full of papers associated with repeated appeals and she names rental assistance as the critical missing link to putting her family back on track. “If we had that leg up, six months from now we would be in a better situation,” she says.
“Castillo’s case is one of thousands that show the failure of the federal government,” believes Margery Turner, director of Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center for the Washington-based Urban Institute.
In a USA Today/Gallup Poll earlier this month of over 700 households of Katrina survivors, 16 percent said their lives were back to normal.
But 51 percent said they needed at least one more year and up to three more years to reach that point. Among those who have not returned to their pre-Katrina homes, 53 percent reported worries over their situation for the next few months; 51 percent are worried about what will happen in the next five years.
Heavy Toll on Women
Few groups have been more adversely affected than women.
Before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, single mothers headed over 50,000 families in New Orleans, and were the most likely to be living at or below the poverty level. Women in general were twice as likely as men across the Gulf Coast to be among the working poor.
In affected areas outside New Orleans, along with cities in other states to which they have relocated, women of color face the prospect of earning 30 to 50 percent less than their white female counterparts. In these areas, women’s earnings in general are 10 to 40 percent less than male counterparts, according to recent findings by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
As of July, 23 percent of those who have not returned to the affected areas remain unemployed.
Men have dominated the cleanup and construction process, while female-heavy industries remain crippled by the slow pace of rebuilding. New Orleans laid off 7,500 public school teachers, secretaries and other civil servants leaving them without income, health benefits or any idea whether they’ll eventually get their jobs back.
In addition, thus far there has been little governmental effort to help returnees and evacuees retrain, find work or attain job-related education.
She Found Her Own Job
In Castillo’s case, despite an early flurry of job fairs and placement efforts coordinated by local officials, churches and businesses, she found a job on her own. Now working in the qualifications department of an Orlando-based debt consolidation company, her earnings are based solely on commissions and don’t quite cover the bills.
One semester away from finishing a journalism degree before Katrina hit, she hoped to transfer university credits to Florida and complete her education.
“Every month we’re late with every bill, there’s no way I can afford to finish my degree without help,” she says. “And I feel stuck.”
“There has been an abysmal response to peoples’ needs in general, and over and over again women keep saying they are voiceless and unrepresented,” says Avis Jones-DeWeever, research director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Women who were just making ends meet before the storm are finding it almost impossible to do so now.”
Up and down the Gulf Coast–and in cities across the country where evacuees have settled–stable permanent housing remains out of reach thanks to rising housing costs and unemployment.
In New Orleans average rent for a one-bedroom apartment hovers around $840, a 36 percent increase over pre-storm prices, while a two-bedroom apartment now averages $940, a 39 percent increase in price.
At the same time, only 1,000 of the 5,000 pre-storm low-income housing units have reopened in New Orleans. City officials came under heavy fire from citizens and advocacy groups for plans to replace other damaged units with apartment buildings that would charge rents beyond what previous residents could afford.
Rents Higher in Storm Region
Rents are also on the rise in other Gulf Coast cities and those where evacuees have settled.
“People stuck at the bottom of the wage barrel, while performing essential job functions, are faced with the prospect of their hard-earned wages being unable to cover housing in most markets under normal conditions,” says Turner. “Now thousands of families have been thrown into limbo because of a situation where it will take months, possibly years, for families to get to a level equitable with their position before Katrina.”
Policy advocates argue the federal government should ensure the repair of houses, apartment and public housing units, make a clear commitment to the creation of affordable housing and rental rates, and expand the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s low-income housing tax credit and Section 8 voucher programs.
Across the affected areas domestic violence shelters, child care centers, women’s clinics and schools are operating at less than 20 percent of their pre-storm levels and often without proper buildings to house their operations.
“Single mothers cannot even hope to work and survive without these things,” says Jones-DeWeever, “and yet none of this is considered a priority in the rebuilding process.”
“I thought we would get the help we needed and the worst would be over within six months,” she says. “A year later we’re barely hanging on to a so-called normal life and the help we need just doesn’t seem to be out there.”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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For more information:
Institute for Women’s Policy Research–
“The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Multiple Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery”
After Katrina – The Urban Institute:
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