General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Class, Caste, Race, and Gender in Disasters from Katrina to Aceh

General Assembly 2006 Event 3019

Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC)


  • Martha Thompson, Program Manager, Human Rights in Emergencies and Disasters, UUSC
  • Kala Peiris, Director, Siyath Foundation, Sri Lanka
  • Mary Fontenot, Director, All Congregations Together (ACT)
  • Kathy Sreedhar, Executive Director, Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program

Hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes devastate everyone regardless of race, class, caste, or gender; but the relief efforts reveal a system of injustice that is often biased against those who need help the most. This has been true in the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, and in Kashmir after the earthquake. The effects of race, class, and gender can be even greater than the effects of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

Martha Thompson explained how the UUSC works with local organizations to ensure that relief aid is administered and distributed equitably. This is not easy because the aid organizations often do not understand the local culture and traditions.

Karla Peiris is the Director of the Siyath Foundation in Sri Lanka . She described a culture in which the men take small boats out to sea to fish, while the women make yarn from coconut husks. The tsunami devastated both of these industries, and relief aid further disrupted the social order. Fishermen who had lost their boats competed for relatively high paying jobs in reconstruction work. In some cases, they could earn as much as US $8 per day, which then left the men with time on their hands and extra money for drink so domestic violence increased.

Women who lost their husbands and tried to survive on their own might be praised as determined survivors, or they might be criticized: "This woman should be mourning."

The women of New Orleans may be more independent than those in Sri Lanka , but nevertheless the aid was not administered or distributed equitably. For example, at first, the Red Cross set up distribution centers in the more affluent areas, and were slow to appreciate that not everyone had access to transportation that allowed them to get to the distribution centers.

After hurricane Katrina, race and class played a part in who would be evacuated, when they would be evacuated, and to where. Mary Fontenot, Director of All Congregations Together (ACT), described how affluent white tourists were pulled out of the places of refuge, the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome, and these privileged few were evacuated while the majority was left behind.

Within days of the disaster, those in power began planning the new New Orleans , "But their plan was not our plan," Fontenot told us. Before Katrina, New Orleans was predominantly black; now it is predominantly white. The black majority has been displaced to Baton Rouge , and further.

Will the new New Orleans include better schools? In the old school system, only 20 out of 160 schools were performing at the appropriate level. What about housing for low-income people? At present, rents have doubled, there is no temporary housing, and there are no schools. Fontenot reported she received a trailer only 2 weeks ago, more than 9 months after the hurricane.

"Our strategy is first to rebuild the churches and the community," Fontenot declared. "I have no confidence in the elected officials. My faith is in the people!"

Kathy Sreedhar, Executive Director of the UU Holdeen India Program, had similar stories of unequal distribution of aid after the Kashmir earthquake. Because of the war in Kashmir, everything is controlled by the Indian military, which is predominantly Hindu, whereas Kashmir is predominantly Moslem. Furthermore, the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) is based in Gujarat , a province with a Hindu majority that has recently been the scene of horrific Hindu-Moslem riots.

For all these reasons, it is important for the UUSC to continue to coordinate with local organizations and consult with local people to ensure equitable distribution of aid.

More about these organizations:

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.