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.
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.
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.
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
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