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Study: Disasters put women at increased risk of violence

A post-1997 Red River flood study by a "disaster sociologist" found that women were at significantly greater risk of violence after the flood, which also "exacerbated racial divisions among women in the Red River Valley."...

A post-1997 Red River flood study by a "disaster sociologist" found that women were at significantly greater risk of violence after the flood, which also "exacerbated racial divisions among women in the Red River Valley."

Also, despite women being primary users of emergency assistance, shelters and temporary housing, the study found that the particular needs and abilities of women were not always taken into account by planners.

Another key finding: Providing adequate child care and other family services during and after a disaster is essential to business recovery.

The study report included recommendations for planners preparing for future such emergencies.

Elaine Enarson, now living in Denver, said she has continued to work on questions of gender and disaster resilience.


While progress may have been made on local levels where planners took to heart lessons learned from their disasters, "I don't see any evidence of substantively more attention (being paid) to the issues raised in the wake of the 1997 flood," she said.

"It's a cinch we didn't see much movement in this area in the wake of (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita."

In Grand Forks, protection orders obtained by women jumped by two-thirds in the first quarter of 1998 over the same period in 1997, according to Enarson, citing local agencies' figures. Calls for counseling were up 59 percent in July 1997 over July 1996.

Kristi Hall-Jiran, director of the Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC) in Grand Forks, was director in 1997, when the flood wiped out the center's offices on South Third Street, scattered staff and made bad domestic situations worse.

"It was absolutely crazy" in the months following the flood, she said. "We never could have predicted it." But with so much housing lost, "people let abusers back in, or they had lost their home and had nowhere else to go."

Hall-Jiran said she met with Enarson, "and she gave us some good ideas" for responding to a disaster.

"We had our crisis line up within 24 hours, but trying to find all our staff and contact all our clients was hard," she said. In any future disaster, "We want to make sure our clients know how to reach us.

"I've just completed a new 60-page disaster plan, and I feel good about it."


Three stages of post-flood surveys

Enarson has taught and conducted research in Australia and Canada as well as throughout the United States on social vulnerability and gender relations in disaster settings.

She is a past director of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, the University of Nevada at Reno's Women's Center and the UNR women's studies program.

In the Grand Forks area, she interviewed scores of women from diverse backgrounds at three intervals - six, 12 and 18 months after the 1997 flood. In addition to warnings about increased domestic abuse and sexual violence, she came up with lessons for people in disaster preparedness, management and recovery.

  • Women reported taking flood warnings more seriously than men and making earlier and more extensive preparations - for example, considering the purchase of flood insurance. When their voices were not heeded in family discussions and flood losses occurred that could have been avoided, family tensions increased, they reported.

  • Flood recovery "was more difficult for women who struggled before the flood, whether to escape violence, remain independent or support their families," Enarson wrote after 1997. Those women were less likely to have lake cabins as evacuation alternatives, she said, or professional connections for good post-flood relief jobs.
  • Women were overrepresented in relief systems, partly because they sought help for other family members. "The reluctance of husbands, sons and fathers to seek needed help - from standing in line for clothing to applying for SBA loans - expanded women's recovery work and often increased family tensions and conflict."
  • Women with family responsibilities evacuated earlier, took responsibility for settling children into new surroundings and remained away longer than men, delaying their return to jobs and school.
  • The 1997 flood "highlighted the unacknowledged role of child care in community life" as well as the vulnerability of foster parenting and home health care. "Disruptions in these informal family support systems were not anticipated by emergency planners or employers," Enarson wrote.

  • The flood revealed and aggravated some racial divisions among women, she found, citing mostly anecdotal reports. Reflecting misconceptions that people of color were not "from" here, volunteers in some disaster relief projects turned away Hispanic residents. Relief agencies need monitoring "to guard against racial discrimination," Enarson wrote.

  • While income increased for some women after the flood, especially college-educated women able to find work in recovery projects, the flood was hard on women in such home-based businesses as day care, hairdressing and bookkeeping. Nor were such businesses specifically included in business recovery initiatives.
  • Women's networks of friends as well as service and professional organizations could provide emotional and material support, but "these resources were not identified as community assets during the recovery period."
  • While women across the valley demonstrated leadership in their homes, workplaces and communities, responding to the flood and dealing with its aftermath, "the media more often depicted women as victims," Enarson said. Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned

    by Forum Communications Co.

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