During hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, those who have the least to lose are often those who lose the most. Why?
First, the dwellings in which poor people live are not as sturdy, stable, or safe as others. "Shotgun" shacks, mobile homes, and poorly constructed apartment buildings don't do well in hurricane-force winds and tidal surges.
Second, the places where poor people live are also the most vulnerable. The rich often live at the tops of hills, the poor in the valleys and plains that are the first to flood. The living conditions in these neighborhoods are also usually the most dense and overcrowded.
Third, it is much harder for the poor to evacuate. They don't own cars, can't afford to rent them, and often can't even afford a tank of gas - especially at today's prices. They can't afford an airplane, train, or even bus ticket. And, as one low-income person told a New Orleans reporter, they have no place to go. People in poverty can't afford motel or hotel rooms, and often don't have friends or family in other places with space to spare. In New Orleans, there were many people who desperately wanted to leave but couldn't.
Fourth, low-income people are the least likely to have insurance on their homes and belongings, and the least likely to have health insurance. If jobs are lost because of natural disasters, theirs are the first to go. Poverty makes long-term recovery after a disaster more difficult - the communities that are the weakest to begin with usually recover the slowest. The lack of a living family income for most people in those communities leaves no reserve for emergencies.
New Orleans has a poverty rate of 28% - more than twice the national rate. Life is always hard for poor people - living on the edge is insecure and full of risk. Natural disasters make it worse. Yet even in normal times, poverty is hidden and not reported by the media. In times of disaster, there continues to be little coverage of the excessive impact on the poor. Devastated luxury homes and hotels, drifting yachts and battered casinos make far more compelling photographs.
The final irony of New Orleans is that the people who normally fill the Louisiana Superdome are those who can afford the high cost of tickets, parking, and concessions. Now its inhabitants are the poor, especially children, the elderly and the sick - those with nowhere else to go. Those with money are nowhere to be seen.
As the Gulf Coast now faces the long and difficult task of recovery, what can we do?
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared Wednesday a day of prayer: "As we face the devastation wrought by Katrina, as we search for those in need, as we comfort those in pain and as we begin the long task of rebuilding, we turn to God for strength, hope and comfort." She urged residents in her state to ask "that God give us all the physical and spiritual strength to work through this crisis and rebuild."