Natural disasters, sexual violence create terrifying storm with double victims

September 22, 2022 6:00 am
This photo, taken Dec. 31, 2005, shows the devastation in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina

This photo, taken Dec. 31, 2005, shows the devastation in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina. Researchers flocked to Louisiana to label the effects of the natural disaster, including an increase in sexual violence. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

For those of us residing in Louisiana, and all along the Gulf and Atlantic coastal areas, we are well aware that hurricane season began almost three months ago. From June 1 till November, people in this region are on high alert even during a relatively quiet season like we are having in 2022 (still, though, we are calculated to have “above-average hurricane activity”, making it the “seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season”).

In South Louisiana, August 29, 2022, is an especially significant date. This year, it was an easy, sunny and humid day. But last year and in 2005, August 29th marked a day of disaster.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina received international media attention and one result of that media focus (or frenzy) was the extensive collection of disaster-aftermath research and data. Researchers flocked to Louisiana to label each of the ripple effects of the Category 5 Hurricane. One of the issues that came to the forefront was the increase in sexual violence during a disaster.

Researchers found that 95% of sexual assault victims in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were also disaster victims

Similar reports have been collected on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and in each of these reports, it was found that these events resulted in an increase in sexual violence of up to, in some cases, 300%.

Even with these reports, though, experts will share that these numbers should always be considered to be much higher. As it is, sexual violence is one of the least reported crimes. On top of the existing barriers to reporting sexual violence (i.e fear of retaliation, victim-blaming, culture of not believing survivors), victims of sexual violence during or in the aftermath of a disaster have many additional barriers to overcome to file reports or seek medical care. Some of these additional barriers include, for example, power outages, flooded roads, housing loss, and inundated hospitals.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) cites five primary reasons sexual violence increases during natural disasters:

  1. Vulnerable persons are left behind: disabled, houseless, and those with mental illness or substance use are often unable to seek safety; these individuals are already at higher risk for sexual violence, being forced to stay behind increases their risk
  2. Overcrowding: going back to the example of Katrina, the Superdome in New Orleans was filled with evacuees and reports of sexual assault began within hours of people arriving; women and children are exposed to an increased risk of sexual violence in these crowded shelters; there is no separation between registered sex offenders and families or others
  3. Tension and stress: sexual violence is motivated by power and control — two things that a person may not feel during a time of stress and fear, which may lead to an increase in sexual assaults
  4. Chaotic atmosphere: law enforcement and other first responders are busy addressing the damage caused by the disaster, which means sexual violence is often neglected; perpetrators are able to use the chaos to their advantage as a way to distract from their crime(s); the chaos may make it difficult for the victim to seek medical care, report the crime, and even process what happened to them
  5. Depleted resources: the individuals and centers that provide resources and assistance to victims of sexual violence may find themselves displaced and unable to provide care (i.e., their building may have damage, workers may have had to evacuate, etc.); victims may be unable to seek medical or mental health care

Basic infrastructural barriers that arise for victims during disasters can, in some cases, last for months or even years. In fact, people who are permanently displaced by a hurricane can potentially experience housing vulnerability for a lifetime. Louisiana, like many other endangered regions throughout the world, remains in a near-constant state of crisis due to poor infrastructure.

Cultural barriers also play a key role in a survivor’s choice to report their disaster-associated assault. For instance, social denial — after Hurricane Katrina, after individuals reached out to the media regarding their assault(s), the media then reported that the stories of sexual violence were ‘just rumors or exaggerations’.

A lack of response protocols can also be a barrier for survivors. Relief and aid organizations have limited or no training on how to handle sexual assaults. They often tell victims to call 911 or offer to call for them, if phone service is even available. There is often little to no consideration for those who don’t want law enforcement involvement. Mental health care and even physical care (i.e. a forensic exam, medical care) are not given priority.

Distrust in law enforcement is another barrier for victims of sexual assault, especially during a natural disaster. In addition to law enforcement and other first responders being busy addressing the damage caused by the disaster, there is also the fact that marginalized persons (i.e., houseless, substance abusers, people belonging to racial/ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ persons) do not feel safe with law enforcement or turning to law enforcement to manage a crisis or a crime. This ongoing problem already puts marginalized persons at high risk for sexual violence, which is just compounded by the chaos of a natural disaster.

Who is a “Double Victim”?

An individual having to survive the aftermath of a natural disaster and survive the aftermath of sexual violence can be termed a “double victim”. These victims have a high likelihood of experiencing depression, extreme fear, hopelessness, and even suicidal thoughts. Beth Vann, a consultant with the Gender-Based Violence Initiatives Program of John Snow, Inc., stated in a 2006 interview that, “preventing sexual violence in disasters…is about keeping people alive.” Vann’s statement highlights the dire importance of preventing sexual violence.

Natural disasters can be especially traumatizing, or re-traumatizing, for those who are repeatedly victimized. According to the NSVRC, “[c]ommunities such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Native Americans have experienced deep and systemic injustice, as well as sexual and other kinds of victimization.” Cultural awareness and sensitivity are important in both the prevention of sexual violence and the aftercare for sexual assault victims during natural disasters. The NSVRC lists five ways to implement strategies that are meaningful and culturally respectful:

  • Know the community you are working with; understand the cultural views of healing, harmony, and well-being within the community and adapt the prevention and response program as necessary
  • Engage all communities in the planning and implementation; solicit ongoing input and feedback
  • Provide training so diverse community members can implement and guide the process
  • Ensure that potential linguistic barriers are overcome through the use of trained interpreters and written materials in the appropriate languages
  • When appropriate, work with faith establishments, cultural centers, and other existing community resources to create education, prevention, and response systems that are relevant for the particular cultural or ethnic group

Organization before a disaster, multidisciplinary teams who develop preparedness plans, and having regulations and safety measures in place for evacuation shelters are some ways that we can work together to prevent sexual violence from occurring during natural disasters.

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Michalene Perry
Michalene Perry

Michalene is prevention director for Sexual Trauma and Response. She earned her bachelor's degree and a master's in counseling from Northwestern State University. After her internship as a counselor with STAR, Michalene was hired as community educator and promoted to prevention director in 2021. In her spare time, Michalene enjoys spending time with her family – her husband, James, and her two daughters, Olivia and Sophie. She also enjoys actively participating in the music program at her church, where she sings and plays the piano.