AMERICAN ORGANIZING FOR LIBERTY RESPONDING TO A DISASTER
That Monday would change Mandisa's life, along with the lives of many others. In fact, the life of the entire city of New Orleans changed that Monday, August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit town.
Mandisa was born in 1985 in Brooklyn, New York, where her parents had moved a dozen years earlier. Both were southerners: her mother was from South Carolina, her father from New Orleans. They had travelled up north looking for a better place to live: a place where being African American did not make things that much harder.
Historically, the South has always been lacking in resources and investment. At that time racism, although legally ended, was still alive around here. And New York was seen as the city where dreams could come true.
Mandisa's father was a doctor, the son of a dock worker and a hairdresser, who had received scholarships to study in California; he practiced, at that time, in a New York hospital. Her mother was a community organizer fighting for women's rights. When Mandisa was six years old they decided to return to New Orleans, where their family and their roots were, to raise their kids — Mandisa has two older siblings — within their own culture. In New Orleans, culture is a very deep word: the city was Spanish and French before becoming the cradle of one of America's most important cultural forms, jazz music.
In New Orleans, Mandisa started school and she had to cope with some new problems: she was big, a stutterer and an African American, and for those reasons, some kids teased her.
I remember some kids saying 'you're dirty, you're dirty', so I went home crying and my mom wondered what's wrong and I said 'I want to take a shower, I'm dirty', and she said 'you're not dirty' and then she showed me pictures of my family: 'look, your dad's dark, your grandma, your uncles, we're all dark, there is nothing dirty about you, this is the way we are and it's perfectly okay'.
Quite soon, Mandisa learned that people who consider themselves "normal" tend to despise "others," and she felt she had to stress her own position. In middle school, her group of friends consisted of seven or eight classmates whose identities were based on being different. Together they did anything that was out of fashion; they played chess, read sophisticated books, took French classes, played quiz contests, refused to go to the mall. They wanted to show the others that they were not like them.
Mandisa also attended a creative arts school where she got involved in the writing program; she was very busy, but that didn't stop her from spending a couple of hours a day in front of the TV set, or chatting with her friends through the Internet. When Mandisa was 16, she heard of a place where victims of domestic violence were given shelter, and that summer, Mandisa started to volunteer at the Crescent House, an institution where hundreds of abused women and their children are given support, temporary housing, education, legal advice. She couldn't stand the idea of a man beating his partner, and she had decided that she was going to be a family lawyer: that shelter was a good starting point.
Two years later, when it was time for her to go through that very American rite of passage, graduation and college visiting, Mandisa chose to stay in New Orleans, so she could continue with her work against domestic violence. Loyola University was a traditional Catholic institution, where she qualified for a scholarship.
Anti-violence shaped my feminist identity, it's why I ended up with a minor in Women's Studies as an undergraduate. But I was also getting a very strong anti-racist identity, a pro-black identity. Racial profiling and discrimination were happening simultaneously.
In college, Mandisa met lots of new people: people from other states and countries. But she could not help feeling "othered" again: like that Parent's Day when she was told not to wear that t-shirt with the face of Angela Davis, the famous black activist, printed on it. Manisa started to get involved in campus politics, but she had to cope with the fact that the groups that opposed discrimination were scattered and, therefore, less effective. The groups dealing with gender or sexuality were not interested in issues of race, and vice versa. Mandisa tried to create bridges between the groups, and she grew too accustomed to hearing the same words time and again: "But that is not the real issue."
Though Mandisa moved to an apartment she shared with some classmates, she was growing weary of the college environment: she felt that, for too many, college life was about partying all the time, getting drunk and missing classes; it was not about taking any responsibility or trying to do any good in the world. So she began to withdraw from campus activism and go back to her community work. She took a class in Liberation Theology and, she says, it changed her life: she understood that she thought of her political work in terms of "helping people," rather than justice and liberation. She realized that, by trying to "help" poor people she was "othering" them the same way people had "othered" her.
A few weeks later, in spring of 2005, Mandisa attended a conference held by a group called Insight about Women of Colour against Violence. There, she felt she had found a space that could address her questions not one by one but all together. This group was able and willing to relate issues of gender, race, class, violence and sex in order to understand the whole picture.
And then came that Monday. Hurricanes have always existed, but many scientists think that their strength and frequency are on the rise because of climate change: what used to be a very unusual occurrence is going to become more and more frequent. Hurricane Katrina was a moderate Category 1 storm when it crossed southern Florida, but it gained force while crossing the Gulf of Mexico because of what scientists call a "diminished braking mechanism": if a cyclone finds in its path colder water, its intensity weakens. Katrina, on the contrary, was intensified by the warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it arrived to southeast Louisiana on Monday morning, Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm that broke through New Orleans's protection system at fifty points, flooding more than three quarters of the city.
Earlier in the summer, Mandisa had started to work as a bartender in the French Quarter. That Saturday, Mandisa had worked until 9 am; she was very tired when her mother called her to say that a hurricane was coming and she had to leave town; the whole family was going to an aunt's house in Atlanta. She said she wouldn't go; she had already made plans for the day. Her parents did not give up; in the end, on Sunday morning, her older brother came by her apartment to pack her stuff and take her with them to Atlanta.
The images on TV that Monday were not so dramatic, and Mandisa thought it hadn't been that bad after all. But in the evening she got text messages from her friends saying that the levees were breaking and the city was full of water. The TV started to show it too, and she began to understand that something terrible was happening. The next day, a roommate of Mandisa's told her that their apartment was under six feet of water and they had lost everything in it; then she learned that the community centre she worked at was completely flooded, and the university was not going to open for some months. Little by little, she came to realize that her city was never going to be the same.
Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,836 people, and was qualified as "the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States." Economic damage is estimated in excess of 100 billion U.S. dollars. Thousands and thousands lost their houses; in those first days, a great number of the city's inhabitants did not have anywhere to go home to. To this day, many haven't been able to return.
In Mandisa's eyes, the whole thing was a mess. Far from everyone had the capacity to leave the city when the evacuation order came, and as with most natural disasters, things weren't making sense. Mandisa was furious:
How was it possible that reporters could get into the city to take pictures of people dying yet people couldn't get out? I couldn't fathom it. I couldn't understand how animals in the zoo could be evacuated before people.
When Mandisa came back to New Orleans, her question was "How do I live with what I want do in this world?" And her first answer was to get involved in the housing issue, to work to bring back the displaced people to suitable places. Mandisa would spend days listening to victims of the Hurricane, who were waiting to be forced to leave their shelters at any minute. Many other problems emerged as well; people were out of work, as the Hurricane had destroyed their workplace, and the service industry suffered greatly from the halt in tourism. There was also social unrest. Mandisa had lost everything she had, and she started to drink, as a way to cope with so much loss, and to create a space in which to talk with friends about their experiences of the Hurricane:
After Katrina many people had mental health related needs, like counselling and therapy, but it was difficult to access. And as one of my friends always says, 'A Mad Dog only costs one dollar and forty-nine cents'.
In her work, Mandisa noticed that in this natural disaster as in many others, women tended to bear the brunt of the burden. They are the most vulnerable heads of households; they have to take care of the children; they risk being victims of sexual violence; and they might not be able to access the specific health care they need. Through a woman she had met at the Insight Conference, she contacted the Women's Health and Justice Initiative and in 2006 became part of a group that decided to establish a specialized women's health clinic.
We wanted a place where women can access free or low cost quality, affordable, holistic health care, in an environment that was not judgmental, and acknowledged that people are dealing with multiple personal problems, post Katrina.
For Mandisa it was important to engage in addressing the root causes of why women have health concerns, and what that means in a situation following a natural disaster. After a lot of volunteering and fundraising, the clinic opened in May 2007. At the same time, Mandisa received a grant from a foundation that allowed her to give up bartending and work full time as a community organizer, with both the Women's Health Initiative and another group called the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, on a HIV and AIDS project where she would become a sexual health educator.
Mandisa had already finished college, in a rush: she did not feel any need to do it at the time, but she did not want to lose her previous efforts, and graduated in History, Sociology, Political Science, and Women's Studies.
How would you define yourself?
As someone who is working for liberation. Or as an organizer. I guess I'm undecided as to what term I'd use. But now everything's changing a little bit, because I have enrolled in law school for next year, at Louisiana State University, which is like an hour from here.
Mandisa doesn't want to be a lawyer, she says, but rather to acquire the legal skills that she will need for her social and political work. So she will leave the city where she has always lived, and her activities, to get new tools that will allow her to continue organizing.
Katrina played a major part in all this. For me it was a tremendous shock; it disrupted and changed my life. And I think it showed a lot of people that we don't have to rely on the government to save us, but to build social networks to save ourselves.
WOMEN IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
Hurricanes, such as Katrina in 2005, are striking examples of extreme weather phenomena that claim a high human toll, destroy infrastructure, cause psychological suffering and burden governments and cities with heavy financial implications. As the climate changes and temperatures rise, disasters induced by weather are likely to become more common, and more severe. Projections of such an increased impact are difficult, but one attempt has been made by the Global Humanitarian Forum, predicting that in 2030, the number of weather-related disasters globally will multiply, compared to the period 1975-2008.(1)
Currently, coastal cities in both developed and developing countries are growing and expanding, due to rural-to-urban migration and natural population growth within cities. Such urban growth sometimes leads to loss of wetlands in river deltas, which is problematic because wetlands have the ability to buff the effects of storms and floods. The same applies to forests, with one example being the flood damage in Central America after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which was more severe than it would have been without deforestation in the region.(2) Cities in other locations sensitive to dramatic weather events, such as inland ravines and slopes, are also growing, meaning that people living in such inland cities can expect similar challenges.
The impacts of natural disasters are both immediate and long term. Death or injuries through drowning, electrocution or asphyxiation are the most immediate effects. In the first months after water related disasters such as a hurricane or flood, the risk of outbreaks of water-borne and vector-borne diseases increases. The risk increases if there are significant population displacements. However, with the appropriate strategies, major disease outbreaks are usually prevented.(3, 4) The challenge for developing countries lies in adapting to more frequent risks, which requires infrastructure and funding, straining already strained economies.
The long term effects of natural disasters are manifold, and vary between different disasters, based on factors such as the type of disaster, the effectiveness of emergency response and the number of people affected. Generally, there are risks for social unrest, trauma and disruption of the rule of law. Mental health aspects of post-disaster situations might not be as visible as physical injury or damage to infrastructure, but are nonetheless a great part of the impact. Behaviours of people in post-disaster areas may change, including more risk-taking and activities that might be harmful to oneself (such as excessive consumption of alcohol) or others (such as violence).
With regards to reproductive health, disasters and crisis situations are a serious concern. Typically, when people are displaced due to a crisis, the percentage of pregnant women who suffer life-threatening complications is on par with pregnant women in general, but the access to emergency obstetric care might be seriously hampered. Distribution of reproductive health commodities such as medication and contraceptives risks being temporarily reduced. If people are displaced for longer periods, living in camps or temporary homes, problems such as domestic violence and rape are likely to increase.(5)
Overall, women are more vulnerable to the impact of disasters than men, due to their subordinate position in male-dominated societies. Moreover, during a crisis, gender-based inequalities are often enhanced. Carrying out household chores risks being more difficult in a crisis context in which access to fuel, water and food is scarce. Further, perceiving men as the breadwinner of a family, disaster relief authorities and organizations might turn to them in order to reach families, leaving women and their specific concerns in the shadows, especially those of single-female headed households. Women's economic recovery after a disaster often takes longer compared to men's economic recovery, due to the precariousness of the socio-economic status of women.(6)
With regards to young people, disasters risk depriving them of education, health services and social networks, increasing the risks of engaging in hazardous practices. Efforts to mitigate the effects (short term and long term) of disasters must therefore take into account, among many other factors, that young people are sexually active, and that the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections might increase if access to reproductive health services are disrupted.