Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strong Civil Society as a Double-Edged Sword: Siting Trailers in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strong Civil Society as a Double-Edged Sword: Siting Trailers in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Article excerpt

To meet the dire need for housing following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials created lists of potential sites for trailer parks. We analyze approved sites to track which factors were linked with larger (or smaller) numbers of trailers and trailer sites per zip code block. Areas which displayed greater levels of social capital, as evidenced by voluntaristic activities such as voting, were slated for fewer trailers, controlling for race, income, education, flood damage, and other relevant factors. Civil society worked simultaneously to bring citizens together while mobilizing them against the threat of trailer parks in their backyards.

Keywords: New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina; civil society; temporary trailers; facility siting

New Orleans politicians, city officials, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) repeatedly stressed housing as their number one priority following Hurricane Katrina, which by some estimates damaged 434,000 homes in the New Orleans area and destroyed nearly 140,000 of them. While everyone in New Orleans publicly agreed that housing remained the most critical obstacle to rapid recovery after Hurricane Katrina, local controversy stalled the siting of temporary housing after the storm. Most citizens recognized the need for facilities like trailer parks and modular homes, but many sought that these facilities be placed elsewhere. Which communities would be selected to host these trailers and their occupants was a critical but unanswered question.

This article, set against a backdrop of local opposition, investigates which communities and areas in and around New Orleans were selected as hosts for FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes. We find that, controlling for a large number of factors, the strength of locallevel civil society best predicts which zip codes will be chosen as hosts for more trailers and trailer parks. Those localities with more politically active and involved citizens who voted in past elections-a proxy we interpret as defining an area with stronger ties and a more vibrant civil society-were the ones which received the fewest trailers. Conversely, authorities selected those zip codes which demonstrated weaker political activism for larger numbers of trailers.

This is an important finding because it calls into question nascent literature which uncritically links stronger civil society with more rapid recovery from disaster. While initial research on postdisaster rebuilding focused on the physical amount of damage or aid received by an area (Dacy and Kunreuther 1969), or whether the area had learned to upgrade mitigation systems from previous disaster experiences (Eoh 2005), newer research seeks to link levels of social capital to the pace of rebuilding. An enormous canon of literature in sociology and political science connects higher levels of civil society, defined as networks of trust and reciprocity among citizens, to better economic and government performance, at local (Coffe and Geys 2005), regional (Knack 2002), and national (Putnam 1993) levels. It is a logical extension to test to see if stronger ties among citizens create an environment where rebuilding takes place rapidly and efficiently.

Research on postdisaster situations has demonstrated that in the aftermath of crisis situations, individuals embedded in stronger networks have more resources, both emotional and material, with which to rebuild their lives (Hurlbert, Haines, and Beggs 2000). Scholars have also illuminated the critical role played by active social capital in recovery following Turkish, Indian, and Japanese earthquakes (Özerdem and Jacoby 2006). Others sought to connect state responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to vibrant civil societies at the local level (Tata Institute of Social Sciences 2005). Shaw and Goda (2004) showed how the 1995 Kobe earthquake enhanced Japanese civil society and allowed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to play a more prominent role alongside the government in the rebuilding process. …

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