Hurricane Katrina and Political Science

Sep 1 '10

In the five years since the Hurricane, what has political science taught us about Katrina and its aftermath?

* _Contrary to images of anarchy, there was substantial cooperation among the evacuees in the days after the storm._ Sam Whitt and Rick Wilson’s research in Houston’s post-Katrina shelters undermines the popular image that the storm led to a breakdown in social norms. Evacuees played a “public goods” game, where they could divide $10 between themselves and the group. Donations to the group were then collected, doubled, and distributed equally. There is a clear incentive to free ride–to contribute nothing and reap the rewards of others’ generosity. But despite everything they had experienced, the evacuees showed considerable cooperative behavior, putting almost 40% of their money into the pool.

* _Communities that hosted Katrina evacuees responded with a remarkable mobilization of volunteers, much of it coordinated through churches._ Some of my own research on Katrina details that the call to help the evacuees led to a midnight traffic jam in Houston, as thousands of volunteers rushed to assist. In fact, 36% of Houston residents reported volunteering to assist the evacuees. In Baton Rouge, the figure was even higher, at 52%. Arkansas opted to mobilize church-based networks; there, an astounding 87% of weekly church attendees made Katrina-related donations.

* _Networks could also work against the evacuees, keeping them out of communities._ Daniel Aldrich and Kevin Crook (gated) find that communities with higher pre-storm levels of volunteerism were less likely to be sites for FEMA trailers.

* _Public opinion in the host communities were shaped by the unflattering public image the evacuees brought with them._ That’s from more of my research. Looking at a survey conducted in the months after Katrina, I found that Houston residents’ political attitudes looked very similar to people with the same demographics living elsewhere in the South. The one important exception: Houston residents were notably more worried about crime. In Baton Rouge, residents stuck out for being more opposed to public spending on the poor.

* _The blame for Katrina’s aftermath didn’t fall entirely along partisan lines._ Separate articles by Neil Malhotra and Alexander Kuo (gated) and Brad Gomez and J. Matthew Wilson (gated) consider how blame for Katrina was partitioned given that multiple levels of government were involved. As voters’ information improves, so too does their willingness to blame the poor governmental response on actors beyond the President.