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Rape in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina » The Environment

Rape in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

April 14th, 2010 by edanse Leave a reply »

“They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

The above statement was made by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Oprah, on September 6, 2005. These and other similar reports shocked the public in the days following Hurricane Katrina, garnering a response across the country. Shocked, that is, until reports that such statements were exaggerated began surfacing. Newspaper headlines soon switched from “Murder and Mayhem in Superdome” to “Lurid reports of rape, murder in Katrina’s aftermath exposed as frauds.” Frustratingly, little actual research has been done on this issue. Much of the debate has centered on anecdotal, alarmist statements made by the media and politicians, such as the quote given earlier.

Sadly, the nature in which these issues were portrayed and subsequently discussed may have ultimately distracted and detracted from the real problems of sexual violence in Katrina’s aftermath (1). One of the only sources providing actual data is a 2006 report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which is funded by the CDC. The report is based on an anonymous database that drew reports from professionals who had been in direct contact with survivors; the database was closed to the public to maintain its integrity. After 6 months, the database had 47 reported cases, with the vast majority of victims being female. The report called this a ‘remarkably high rate of prevalence’ especially given the difficult reporting conditions. In particular, there were unusually high rates of rapes perpetrated by strangers (38.6% of cases), and gang rapes (2). Still, much more research is needed to illuminate the truth of these issues and extract them from the sensationalism that tends to permeate media reports.

Less controversial is the fact that natural disasters can weaken the support systems available to victims (3). Medical facilities were destroyed or over-ridden with other patients, preventing victims from receiving essential medical care or the time-sensitive exams that could provide evidence of the rape. A reverend volunteering in the Superdome during the week after Katrina said that “there were so many rape victims, and we had to turn (most) of them away because they had life-damaging, but not life-threatening, wounds” (4). One victim interviewed by NPR was unable to find an open clinic, and resorted to washing her genitals with bleach after being raped by a stranger. All that she could do was “pray, pray for rescue, pray that I didn’t have any type of transmitted disease” (5). Reporting systems also struggled. Before the NSVRC database was established, only 4 cases of rape and attempted rape had been officially reported. Sexual assaults and rapes are notoriously under-reported even under normal conditions. With a legal system that is already stretched to its limit, the ability and incentive to report drop even further.

Additionally, Katrina illustrates how disasters often cause people to migrate to different locations, confounding the issue of legal jurisdiction. For example, if a crime were perpetrated in New Orleans, the Houston police was initially unable to help victims that had since moved to the Superdome for shelter. Luckily, after several days, the Houston police were able to take ‘courtesy reports’ that they passed on to the New Orleans police.

Hurricane Katrina is only one example where a disaster seems to have increased rape yet removed resources and support systems. This issue deserves much more attention beyond the sensationalist media reports and controversy that seem to dominate the conversation now.

Sources:

1. Sommers, S., E. Apfelbaum, K. Dukes. (2006). “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 1–17

2. “Hurricanes Katrina/Rita and Sexual Violence: Report on Database of Sexual Violence Prevalence and Incidence Related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” (2006). National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

3. Richter, R. and T. Flowers (2008). “Gendered dimensions of disaster care: critical distinctions in female psychosocial needs, triage, pain assessment, and care.” Am J Disaster Med 3(1), pp. 31–37.

4. The AP. “Reports allege B.R. police misconduct post-Katrina.” March 15, 2010.

5. Burnett, John. (2008). “More Stories Emerge of Rapes in Post-Katrina Chaos.”

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5 comments

  1. lia123 says:

    This is super interesting, Emily! It’s definitely a new facet of a devastating event, and one that I hadn’t really considered. There was a lot of media attention surrounding the failure of the New Orleans and Louisiana disaster relief efforts, focusing on their lack of preparation and inability to act quickly and decisively. I guess it is not surprising, then, that the media was so willing to vilify Nagin and others who discussed rape and crime against bodily integrity. Our society is uncomfortable with the issue of rape and how sexual violence is used as a weapon against women (and, though far less often, against men), and I’m sure it was easier to dismiss allegations as gross exaggerations rather than attempting to fully research the problem at a time when so much was going wrong in New Orleans. The issue of rape has never really been a national priority, and the fact that allegations of rape were so easily dismissed in a time of crisis made that very clear.

  2. trobbins says:

    I’m so glad you’re blogging about this topic. I was initially going to blog under this category (environmental health and women), but I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about. It is clear to me now that environmental disasters really do exacerbate the low social status of women, because they lead leaders to draw the focus away from the more complex issues of equality, justice, and emotional well-being…to focus primarily on survival. I wonder how the incidence of rape after natural disasters varies between societies. I would guess that in societies that are more gender-unequal, the incidence would be greater. But how sad it is that during a time of such physical and emotional damage, women would be subject to even more abuse on top of what they are already suffering through. How do we address this issue, while still ensuring that we are focusing on saving people’s lives? I would argue that rape after natural disasters truly is an issue of the health of whole population — because such events affect children and whole families as well.

  3. snevins says:

    Interesting blog. During times of disaster, it is often thought that everyone becomes vulnerable. Post-natural disaster situations create circumstances in which it has always been thought that all individuals, men and women, are at high risk of becoming victims of harmful acts which infringe on one’s bodily integrity. A very important issue specific to women’s rights and health is that of post-disaster rape. As you outlined in your blog, rape was rampant in times following Hurricane Katrina, yet it was taboo from the public sphere. We see this, sadly, with many different women’s health and human rights issues. Because those who speak out about them get scorned, it makes it even more difficult to tackle such problems that certainly need our every effort. I look forward to more posts.

  4. scottf says:

    This post made me pretty depressed. For me, it compounds the fact that we must not only have laws on the books, but work to facilitate access to methods of accountability and health services for those that are in need of support. Rape is an all too common phenomenon in our society, and it often is widespread in situations where the entire community is under distress. Hurt, no matter in what form it manifests, is passed off continually until all that is left is desperation and rock bottom. Perhaps the greatest hypocrisy that bothers me in this situation, especially with regard to the media, is the fact that our society continues to condone the widespread sexual exploitation of women. I’m not sure how to achieve a sexually healthy society, but repression and the dismissal of blatent realities does not seem to be a step in the right direction.

  5. pcha says:

    Wow, the issue of rape after Hurrican Katrina was definitely never publicized. It’s pretty horrific that these women had to endured such traumatic events without any kind of medical or social support. But given that entire communities and towns were devastated by Hurrican Katrina, how can we focus attention and care of women and girls who might be made more vulnerable by natural disasters as well the entire population that is dealing with the aftermath?

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