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Hurricane Katrina Victimization as a State Crime of Omission

Abstract

Several popular narratives assign responsibility to a host of political officials on the local, state, and federal levels for the excess human suffering stemming from Hurricane Katrina. The three main goals of this article are to (1) summarize these claims and situate them within the burgeoning literature on state crime in criminology, (2) discern what victims of the hurricane subjectively identify as the source(s) of their victimization, and (3) compare the latter and the former in order to demonstrate the appropriateness of conceptualizing the excess suffering of Hurricane Katrina victims as a state crime of omission. We explore these three subjects through documentary analysis and interviews with thirteen victims of Hurricane Katrina. Major findings are that all of the interviewees express profound dissatisfaction with various state actions and inactions before, during, and after Katrina in ways consistent with the documentary and polling data. This constellation of similar claims and evidence along with the obvious social injury caused by multiple state failures provide the basis for conceptualizing governmental negligence in the context of Katrina as a state crime of omission.

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Notes

  1. There is no singular source of information that provides a comprehensive list of injuries and deaths experienced by those in the Gulf region. We consulted the following sources for this article: Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2008); Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory group (2006); Kessler et al. (2006); Lindsay (2008); Mutter (2008); Stephens (2007); Sullivent et al. (2006); Weisler et al. (2006).

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Appendix

Appendix

Interview Methodology

Thirteen survivors of Hurricane Katrina were interviewed to discern whether they see themselves as primarily victims of the storm, the state, or some combination of both. Thirteen semi-structured interviews with victims of the disaster were conducted in the spring of 2006. Ten of the interviews were face-to-face, one was conducted over the telephone, and two are the result of email interviews. Various social service organizations were initially contacted with the intent of obtaining subjects through volunteers. However, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, the social service organizations declined to participate. Therefore, those interviewed in this study were found through snowball and convenience sampling. All interviewees were asked the same questions with various prompts used to facilitate data collection. Demographic information including age, race, and marital status, number of children, occupation, and class was collected at the beginning of each interview. The interviewees were asked to begin by describing their experiences before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Although we are primarily interested in victims’ attribution of blame for their suffering, these questions are also important to ask because responses might provide a richer understanding their immediate and interpersonal situations. Various prompts were used depending on how detailed of a response was given. Interviewees were then asked to analyze their individual response to Hurricane Katrina and whether in retrospect they would have done things differently. Next, they were queried about the governmental responses to the hurricane and what, if anything, the government should have done differently. Finally, the interviewees were asked if they felt victimized by the hurricane, the government, or some combination of both.

It is important to keep in mind that these interviews represent only a snapshot in time and that victims may, overtime, redefine their own victimization. For this reason reliability is a problem inherent in this and similar studies. Had the interviews been conducted closer to the time of Hurricane Katrina the responses may have been quite different. A further problem with reliability is that when conducting and reporting on interviews, the researcher may unknowingly interject their insight or opinion (Seidman 1998). For this reason, efforts were made not to lead the interviews or reinforce what one might see as a ‘correct’ answer, e.g., blaming government for their victimization. The issue of validity is quite different when conducting interviews. The concern here becomes, how does one know that the interviewees are indeed telling the truth? Researchers are often left to discern this issue for themselves based on the perceived credibility of the subject (Seidman 1998). To address this concern, most interviews were conducted in face-to face meetings and interviewees were asked multiple related questions. We also corroborated interview data with documentary evidence.

Due to the sampling methods used and the issues with reliability, responses from the interviews can only be used for descriptive purposes, as they do not constitute a representative sample of the affected population. However, our goal here is not to conduct widely generalizable research, but rather to examine ways in which some victims of Katrina conceptualize their victimization and to a lesser extent how this relates to the extant literature on state crime victimization.

The interviewees in this study range in age from 20 to 52 with an average age of 39. Nine of the 13 interviewees are White, four African American. Twelve of the respondents are female and one male. Five of the respondents were married and seven reported having children. Five of the 13 respondents worked in service industry jobs, two as academic professionals, two as staff members at an institution of higher learning, one as a student at a major university, one as a medical professional, one in accounting, and one as a fulltime homemaker. When asked to self-report their economic class status, five respondents reported being in the lower class while another five reported being in the upper-middle class. Three indicated membership in the middle class. Of the 13 respondents, 10 have returned to New Orleans or the surrounding areas.

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Faust, K.L., Kauzlarich, D. Hurricane Katrina Victimization as a State Crime of Omission. Crit Crim 16, 85–103 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-008-9052-x

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Keywords

  • State Crime
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Governmental Failure
  • Emergency Medical Service Team
  • Orleans Area