Effort to Help Evacuees Faces Many Obstacles

Betty Hearn Morrow, a disaster sociologist who studies the best ways to help displaced people cope, tells Linda Wertheimer about the challenges such a disaster presents to social workers.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, helping schools cope with an unexpected influx of new students. But first, dealing with the hundreds of thousands of people who've been forced to leave their homes, or what used to be their homes. Many, if not most of them, have found shelter with friends or relatives, but many thousands of others have gone to large shelters being set up in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere.

Betty Hearn Morrow is a sociologist who studies disasters. She stopped by member station WLRN in Miami and I asked her what kinds of things the people managing those shelters need to be thinking about.

Ms. BETTY HEARN MORROW (Sociologist): One thing, of course, is these people are very disoriented. You know, the home and family is sort of our shield against the outside world, sort of our security. That has absolutely been wrenched away from these people. I suspect a lot of them don't even know where their family members are. So all those things that are important to our security, in addition to our physical needs, these people right now don't have.

WERTHEIMER: Is there something that one can know about how people will behave when all of these moorings that you described are gone?

Ms. MORROW: Well, people are going to be very frustrated, and they're going to be angry. One of the things that will help, I think, is if, as much as possible, they can be located with people they know or at least people from their own ethnic or cultural group, even within the shelters. I mean, that--people--it gives comfort to be around people like yourself, so I'm hoping that there will be some thought of that as people are placed even within the shelters, that they have something that seems familiar to them to the extent possible.

WERTHEIMER: I don't think I understand why that would work. I mean, it sounds as though you would put all the black people on one side of the room and all the white people on one side of the room or all the middle class people on one side, poor people on another side.

Ms. MORROW: But the issue is, we all choose--if we walk into a room, we choose to be with people like ourselves. That's human nature. I'll give you an example. After Hurricane Andrew, you know, we had thousands of people in 10 cities and then later in FEMA trailers in parks, that were put in parks. They were assigned--just as a family needed to be assigned, and as a vacancy occurred, they just put them there. So what happened, we had terrific tensions in a couple of those trailer parks over the next year and a half because you had Guatemalans next to Nicaraguans next to Mexicans, and then got into these rivalries and all kinds of problems that perhaps could have been avoided if there'd been more careful placement of people according to their backgrounds.

WERTHEIMER: Is there some sort of predictable thing that people who are organizing shelters ought to be on the lookout for, try to be heading off?

Ms. MORROW: I would hope that there are several things they'd think about. One is that women have different needs than, and often in addition to, those of men; particularly, I'm thinking about reproductive needs and health needs, needs for privacy. I mean, I think that's one of the first things I would say to people is, we need people and we need, you know, on site, preferably women who can really see that women's needs are taken care of, their immediate needs.

WERTHEIMER: That would be things like sanitary napkins...

Ms. MORROW: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: ...and privacy and...

Ms. MORROW: Privacy, mm-hmm. I'm sure there are women who are pregnant. There are women who have probably just delivered in recent, you know, times. In all those, I can just imagine the kinds of needs those people have as well.

WERTHEIMER: What about children? Do children--is there a sort of special consideration for children, do you think?

Ms. MORROW: Absolutely. I cannot imagine the trauma these children have gone through. I mean, I think about the trauma children went through after Hurricane Andrew, and that only lasted a few hours. And yet, we had children who months and even, you know, years later still report, you know, being traumatized by that event.

WERTHEIMER: What do you do then? What do you do for these little kids?

Ms. MORROW: One of the things that has been found that helps is, if they are old enough, to help a little bit and to feel like they're part of the solution. I know that FEMA, for example, has a Web site called FEMA for Kids in which they talk about using the children as much as possible to help the other siblings, to go fetch--you know, just whatever--what thing they can do that makes it feel like they're contributing. And that seems to help a little bit.

WERTHEIMER: To give them some sense that they have a little bit of control over the situation.

Ms. MORROW: You've got it.

WERTHEIMER: What happens in a refugee population in the United States of America that's out of its homes for months, maybe many months?

Ms. MORROW: Well, what happened after Hurricane Andrew, you know, we had a massive relocation of people to Broward County, which is the county north of Miami-Dade. And most of those people went up there with the idea that it would be temporary. But the truth of the matter is, large numbers never came back. We had massive relocation that became permanent. You know, people settle in their new places. When you've been there months, maybe even a year, year and a half, you know, you have new ties, and you maybe like this home better than the other home. Although for these people right now, I'm sure that does not seem possible, but certainly, over time, there's no question many will not come back, particularly if they don't have jobs.

WERTHEIMER: Betty Hearn Morrow is a sociologist who studies disasters. She is professor emeritus at Florida International University and she joined us from member station WLRN in Miami.

Ms. Morrow, thank you so much.

Ms. MORROW: Thank you for having me.

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