- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005


The unprecedented exodus of people from their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could unleash changes for years to come.

“I think we’re looking at an event of enormous political and historical importance,” said Steven Hahn, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve never faced this type of relocation because of a natural disaster. It’s likely to have an enormous impact on our entire country.”

While many expect New Orleans to rebuild, it’s unlikely that the nearly half-million evacuees are going to move back. Specialists say there are lessons to be drawn from historic moves.

For example, “New Orleans-style” neighborhoods may develop in larger cities with restaurants, music and cultural aspects of home. Racial and social tensions also may emerge, as thousands of people move into less-diverse neighborhoods.

“If you have mass numbers going to one place, you’re going to have the same tensions you have with any immigrants,” said Phillip Gay, a sociology professor at San Diego State University. “But if you distribute them in smaller groups, there’s a better chance they can settle.”

In 1980, at least 125,000 Cubans came to Miami in boats. The resulting social service burden was enormous, and eventually the federal government paid Florida $370 million in emergency assistance to help defray the costs of such a large, irregular migration.

Last week in Texas, authorities soon were overwhelmed by food-stamp applications — 26,000 in four days. Elsewhere in the country, communities taking in Gulf Coast evacuees worried about taxing social programs that in many cases already were stretched thin.

When large numbers of people from one culture have moved — by force or by choice — into a new community, there is “real friction and real problems,” said Robert Wheelersburg, an anthropology professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

While thousands are being welcomed with warm meals and new clothes across the country, Mr. Wheelersburg said it is only a matter of time before some tensions emerge.

“I think it could create some real cultural problems moving people to different parts of the country,” he said.

Authorities might find some important lessons in the aftermath of natural disasters abroad, such as Hurricane Mitch in Central America and the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador, which prompted waves of migration, said Vincent Gawronski, a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“We now have ‘internally displaced peoples’ in the United States,” he said. “And the communities bordering the disaster zone are going to feel the brunt of an influx of these people looking for shelter and for a job. The Hurricane Katrina disaster is beginning to look more and more like a disaster in the developing world.”

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