Katrina evacuees who moved to Houston have experienced problems accessing physical and mental health care, according to a study published by three Rice University researchers.
They examined data from three separate waves of surveys administered at different times to different groups of the most disadvantaged Katrina evacuees in the Houston area, specifically, those who did not have resources to evacuate in advance of the hurricane.
Their findings will appear in the article “Physical and Mental Health Status of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees in Houston in 2005 and 2006” in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.
The authors are Karoline Mortensen, assistant professor in the practice of political science; Rick K. Wilson, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science and professor of statistics and of psychology; and Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
An estimated 200,000 people left New Orleans for Houston when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in August 2005, and more than 150,000 remained in Houston almost one year later. The authors utilized the survey data collected in the Houston area between September 2005 and July 2006 “to get an overview of how evacuees’ socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, health insurance coverage and access to care differ from those of the general U.S. population.”
To reach a fuller understanding of the evacuees’ circumstances, Mortensen and her colleagues compared them not just to the nation as a whole, but to poor Southerners as well. In some ways, the Katrina evacuees fit between the national average and poor Southerners. For instance, 30 percent of evacuees said they did not have private health insurance before the storm, higher than the national proportion (22.5 percent), but lower than the proportion of poor respondents of the South who are uninsured (56 percent).
People who left New Orleans after Katrina reported changes in health, income and employment status. For example, more than a quarter of respondents in the July 2006 survey said their current health status was worse than the day before the hurricane hit, 55 percent felt their health status remained the same and 12 percent felt their health had improved.
“Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness are strong indications of mental health status, particularly depression,” the authors wrote, “and evacuees are far more likely than the Southern poor or general U.S. population to report frequently experiencing these emotions.”
Nevertheless, despite these challenges, a solid majority of evacuees said a year after Katrina they expected they would remain in the Houston area. This may be due in part, the paper suggested, because many have little to return to in New Orleans.
“The picture for the evacuees remaining in the Houston area is bleak,” the researchers concluded. “Not only did Katrina evacuees to Houston endure a natural disaster, they endured an inadequate government response to it and its aftermath. The chaos that ensued immediately after Katrina and the slow emergency response could have exacted a higher mental health toll on some individuals. It is clear that many evacuees remaining in the Houston area are poor and in need of health care services, with the uninsured bearing the brunt of lack of access to care.”