Lessons from the Dust Bowl for Hurricane Survivors

Millions of people have been forced to evacuate their homes in Louisiana, Texas and other Gulf Coast communities because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But after this storm has cleared, there will be tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of people who either won't be able to or won't want to return home.

James Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington, says Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will have a profound impact on American society.

"These are going to be very long-lasting changes in America," said Gregory. "The people who are leaving their homes, will take years to resettle. The Gulf states are going to take years and years to rebuild. They won't be rebuilt in the same way. This is a permanent effect on American society."

A massive displacement of people has occurred before in American history. In the early 1930s, the Dust Bowl prompted an enormous migration of Americans west to the promised land of California.

There are differences between that migration and this one: Americans were uprooted slowly, over years, during the Dust Bowl era; they were rural and mainly white. Katrina has created a sudden displacement of people, mostly urban and black. But what we learned from the Dust Bowl migration may offer lessons on what will happen to the people who are displaced today.

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

It's a lasting images from the Dust Bowl years -- the cars full of people that author John Steinbeck described as "lonely and perplexed because they had come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were going to a new, mysterious place."

In the 1930s, ferocious winds carried dust that wiped out farms and family incomes for many people in the Great Plains states. The dust storms took away their livelihoods, and in many cases, their pride.

Pauline Hodges was a young girl during the Dust Bowl years and said she saw many men begin drinking to cope. "My father, I don't know that he became an alcoholic, but he, like other men who lost everything, began to drink," Hodges said. "I thought about that a lot, at the number of men who drank who later quit, who told me they weren't really alcoholics but it was a way to escape the humiliation of losing everything."

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the region, but once they were on the road or moving into California or Arizona, there was very little help for people, said University of Washington historian James Gregory.

"The federal government made some serious mistakes in the '30s," said Gregory, who has written a book about the Dust Bowl migration. "And we have to hope that they don't repeat that mistake, set of mistakes, this time around. The biggest mistake was to expect that California and other communities could handle hundreds of thousands of poor people entering their communities, without significant help from the federal government."

That's one of the reasons why so many resentments built up against people from the Southwest who collectively were disparaged as "Okies" when they arrived in California.

"Communities there just didn't have the jobs, they didn't have the housing, they didn't have the funds to provide schooling and health services," Gregory said. "They were overwhelmed by the introduction of hundreds of thousands of poor people into their communities. And that led to not only real problems for the migrants, and for the communities who couldn't fund this, but also it set up a pattern of long-standing hostility between the newcomers and the older residents."

Though it's hard to grasp that kind of massive possible population shift now, Ted Shaw, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says the government must start planning on how to deal with an influx of hurricane evacuees to various communities across the country.

"Government is going to have to figure out how to respond to this relocation, of jobs, of questions of whether these people are gonna get housing, the question of what their rights are with respect to relocation, whether they come back home, whether they have the right to vote, all of these questions are up for grabs. We're seeing something like we haven't seen in the last 70 years in this country," said Shaw.

Withdrawing the Welcome Mat

Jeff Farrell, a sociologist at the Texas Christian University who has studied urban displacement, says the signs of potential strain aren't hard to find, even this early.

"I think part of it is that we're seeing, for example, here in Texas schools that are barely funded if they're funded at all ... social service networks and criminal justice agencies that are already overburdened," Farrell said. "So obviously when you flush into those systems hundreds of thousands or millions of new people that's going to create even greater strain on those systems."

Gregory adds that communities that have initially welcomed hurricane evacuees may soon change their minds when they realize the financial burden. "And if that happens, we are gonna see the 'welcome mat' withdrawn, and the 'go away' signs go up," he said.

Among the major changes that communities can expect, especially if they absorb large numbers of evacuees, are cultural changes. For example, many of the Okies settled in California's San Joaquin Valley, bringing with them country music and the Protestant evangelical movement rooted in the Bible belt.

"California was transformed by the Dust Bowl migration," said Gregory.

Shining a Light on Poverty

Before analyzing the cultural impact of a mass relocation of evacuees, Ted Shaw of the NAACP says the question is: Do these people want to go home and how can we help them rebuild?

"I'm not willing to talk about a cultural impact on other cities because that sounds like these individuals will not go home," said Shaw. "And I think in the first instance we ought to be trying to get these people back home. And we ought to be talking about rebuilding New Orleans and addressing the questions of poverty."

Farrell agrees, saying that if nothing else, the hurricane has brought to light the often overlooked inequities in American society.

"Not only has this created problems, it perhaps has shown us some problems that we were ignoring," he said. "I think we have to look at liveable wages and viable jobs and rebuilding communities in ways that provide social supports for all of their members. And that's not an overnight process."

Those who do relocate will have to learn to adapt to their new homes. We can look back at how history played out for the Okies in California.

"Well, people made new lives for themselves," Gregory said. "Some went back. But most stayed in their new homes, and became Californians, and learned to love California and, and fit in, and build new lives, and livelihoods.

"So in a certain, very long-term sense, most Dust Bowl migrants felt that they had lived through a successful experience. And hopefully, the Katrina people will feel the same, in time. But it's gonna take time. This isn't a short-term process, at all."

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