Despite a hefty $71 million price tag for damages to more than 1,100 homes and businesses, North Carolina was fortunately spared from the brunt of Hurricane Irene’s destruction. In comparison to other natural disasters, Irene was less harmful, although there were a reported 42 tragically related deaths in affected areas.
Advance warning may have contributed to the relatively low level of destruction from Irene. Americans all along the East Coast prepared for the storm, taping windows, stacking sandbags and boarding up storefronts. But strongly recognized precautionary measures, like filling a bathtub with water before a hurricane, aren’t the only concern for government agencies and community service providers in planning for disaster relief. Evidence has suggested that the prevalence of intimate partner violence, child abuse and sexual assault increases in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
The State Department reported that after the earthquake in Haiti, “Women’s rights groups and human rights organizations reported that domestic violence against women remained commonplace and under-reported. Police rarely arrested the perpetrators or investigated the incidents, and the victims sometimes suffered further harassment and reprisals from perpetrators, sometimes prompting secondary displacement of victims within IDP camps.”
In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault were widely observed by disaster relief staff, although reporting rates were dramatically low because of survivors’ physical displacement from their jurisdictions.
Several aspects of the circumstances of the aftermath of a natural disaster contribute to increased risk for domestic violence and sexual assault. First, the collapse of a community’s infrastructure leaves some individuals, most often women and children, more vulnerable to assault. Separation from friends, family members and familiar resources increases this vulnerability, especially as most facilities require refugees to sleep among strangers, often in close quarters. Finally, the lack of organization and limited presence of law enforcement in some disaster relief shelters can create a sense of lawlessness among inhabitants.
While the United States was spared from massive destruction this week, preparation efforts for Hurricane Irene brought unique concerns to the forefront of public discussion. The provision of adequate resources for women and other vulnerable populations at risk for domestic violence and sexual assault must be prioritized by government relief agencies and local service providers. We can learn an important lesson from the unforgivable crimes observed during relief efforts for the natural disasters mentioned above – and we can use it to better develop our emergency response plans in the face of future storms.
Safety planning is important, whether for a natural disaster or leaving an abusive relationship. Do you have your essentials ready if you needed to leave home suddenly? What would you bring? Leave us your thoughts.