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New Orleans
and Social Welfare

Natalia J. Garland

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Social welfare in America had part of its beginnings in New Orleans, Louisiana. The first childcare institution was started there in 1727 by an Ursuline Convent.

Now, 278 years later, Hurricane Katrina has destroyed New Orleans with a raging power of water and wind. That means all social service agencies were also obliterated: counselling offices, foster care, homeless shelters, halfway houses, protective services, nursing homes, training programs, and probation and parole tracking. What happened to the people in need of these services?

In addition to suffering the direct effects of the pounding hurricane, we can assume that some of these people deteriorated mentally and physically due to disruption of services. Some psychiatric patients were without psychotropic medication. Some alcoholics and drug addicts underwent an unplanned and dangerous detoxification. Some children got lost. Some elderly were rendered even more helpless. Some died.

What about criminals? Real criminals are not going to stop committing crimes just because a natural disaster has struck. The news reports of the looting of non-survival items showed that even everyday people can become criminals in the absence of law and order. Then there were reports of beatings and rape, although the accuracy of these reports has not been confirmed. Apparently no victims have come forward to tell their stories. There were also reports of roaming gangs and groups of people abusing their looted alcohol.

The situation in New Orleans was further complicated by three facts. (1) The first-responders (police officers, firefighters, paramedics) were also victimized by the hurricane. (2) The police and city government officials had a reputation of corruption. (3) Government failed to take seriously the scientists and engineers who had warned that the levee system needed upgrading.

What can social workers learn from the New Orleans catastrophe? It would seem that the dispensation of social services depends on the establishment of law and order. Some people internalize laws, rules, standards, morals. Some do not. For some people, laws must be externally imposed with consequences for violation. Some will obey laws in order to avoid these consequences. Some people will break laws despite the consequences. The rampant looting in New Orleans shows that seemingly average people are capable of breaking laws when the possibility of consequences is unlikely or when lawlessness suddenly becomes a norm.

Let's contrast New Orleans to New York City. When the terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001, law and order was not incapacitated. On the contrary, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics went into action immediately and became heroes in the rescue effort. A portion of lower Manhattan was destroyed, but most of the city continued to function, including counselling services to victims.

In New Orleans, society as we know it was suspended for four days. The law-abiding citizens of New Orleans who helped and comforted one another, tended to the children and the elderly, did so out of moral conviction that it is the right thing to do. The police officers who tried to enforce the law did so out of commitment to duty and honor.

What can we learn about human behavior? It would seem that maturity and character, including a personal belief system and an internalized morality, have much to do with the functioning of society. Those with internalized values do not need law enforcement to guide their behavior, but they do need police protection from criminals who, like Hurricane Katrina, would devastate their wellbeing. It would also seem that society must have accountability measures regarding corrupt government officials and police officers. These measures must be applied by citizens who vote and depend on certain social and civil services.

Another thing that social workers can learn is in the practical area of agency evacuation plans. We are living in an era of terrorism and natural disasters. What will you do if your place of employment is struck? You must have an emergency evacuation plan and you must have practice drills. Periodic drills should not be regarded as an annoyance. Take it seriously. You must also understand what the employment and legal liability issues are if you should fail in your evacuation responsibilities.

It would also be wise for social service agencies and private practitioners to spend the extra money on fireproof and waterproof filing cabinets to protect patient charts and other documents. Try to make back-up copies of computer work and keep the storage devices in a secure place.

We all must learn and adjust in order to continue providing essential services in these difficult times. The problems incurred in New Orleans call for further new beginnings in social welfare. (Written 11/07/05: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2005 Natalia J. Garland