What is our bulwark against disasters? Women.
By Rachel Kimbro | March 14, 2022
Rachel Kimbro is Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University.
The weekend before Hurricane Harvey, in an affluent neighborhood in Houston, Texas, Julia was crafting Princess Leia headbands for her daughter’s upcoming birthday party. A “Star Wars Field Day” party, it would feature Jedi robes and Star Wars-themed games in the back yard. Then, Julia started hearing news reports about Harvey. With the party planned for the next Saturday, the day the storm was projected to hit, she knew she had a problem. But Julia wasn’t just worried about the storm’s impact on the party—she knew her home was going to flood. Her neighborhood, Bayou Oaks, had flooded twice in the prior two years, and flooding was becoming a fact of life.
Some Bayou Oaks mothers would have explained the situation to their daughter, dried some tears, postponed the party, and prepared for the flood. But Julia knew how much her daughter was looking forward to this party—and that if they postponed it, it would never happen given the chaos and disruption the flooding would bring. So, Julia moved the party up to that Thursday afternoon, determined to give her youngest daughter the party they had planned for months—complete with handmade party favors—in the face of impending disaster. But this was not just about avoiding disappointing Meg. Julia was determined to proceed because of what she knew loomed for her family. She wanted them to have this specific memory in their home before what would be a chaotic year. She was focused on what her family – and she herself – needed emotionally and logistically. Aside from fewer guests than usual, the moved-up party went off without a hitch, and that night Meg proclaimed it “the best party ever.”
Julia was thinking three steps ahead—as usual. In addition to the flood preparations and party hosting that were in front of her immediately, she made plans for the inevitable recovery.
Julia was thinking three steps ahead—as usual. In addition to the flood preparations and party hosting that were in front of her immediately, she made plans for the inevitable recovery. She did not want her family to be left behind, scrambling to find a contractor along with the rest of the neighborhood. Where was her husband, Jeremy, in all of this? Mostly, he was at work – but he also didn’t believe that Harvey would flood their home, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. As a result, Julia was left to do the preparatory disaster labor on her own. Julia’s was a typical story of the unequal gendered division of labor in disaster preparedness and recovery in this affluent community.
Just after Harvey hit Houston, I began interviewing mothers of young children in Bayou Oaks (a pseudonym for the neighborhood) about their flood experiences, which turned into the book In Too Deep: Class and Mothering in a Flooded Community. I spoke with 36 flooded mothers, some of whom had just flooded for the third time in three years, and I followed up with them again a year later. What struck me most was just how much of the preparations, and recovery work after the flood, the women were doing themselves, even though all were married or partnered.
The prior two floods in the neighborhood meant there was awareness of practical preparations one could take to mitigate damage to the home and belongings, even among mothers who had not personally flooded before. Mothers who expected their homes to flood were not passive recipients of disaster—they proactively mitigated damage to their homes and families. This intensive preparation for the flood was enabled by the resources of these affluent families. One mother called a storage company to come and take her piano away, to safety, before the storm. Other mothers preemptively rented nearby houses so they would have a dry place to live. Families with lesser means would not have been able to prepare their homes as completely, or recover as quickly, as the Bayou Oaks mothers.
With only a few exceptions, the mothers reported that most of these preparations—logistical, emotional, social—were undertaken alone.
With only a few exceptions, the mothers reported that most of these preparations—logistical, emotional, social—were undertaken alone. Primarily, this was because mothers were falling into their usual roles as household logistics managers—albeit under unusual circumstances. But it was also because many of the husbands did not believe their homes were going to flood. Just as they benefited from the gendered division of labor in normal times, and from their wives’ cognitive labor – the labor involved in researching options, making decisions, and implementing plans –the husbands were (largely) outsourcing worry about the storm and attendant preparations to their wives, perhaps because they considered the home their wives’ domain. In the book, I argue that this gendered labor before, during, and after a disaster is largely hidden from public view. While support and information from local, state, and federal organizations could help with disaster preparedness, what would have changed these women’s experiences most would have been a more equitable distribution of labor within the household.
When I interviewed Julia again a year after Harvey, we sat in the living room of her renovated home—a stylish mid-century modern with a capacious great room which included the dining room, an open kitchen, and the living room under a vaulted ceiling. A well-outfitted wet bar hugged the wall near the sliding doors out to the backyard. Julia and Jeremy were back in their home within four months—moving back in on Christmas Day 2017. When we sat down, I expressed my amazement that they were back in just four months. Julia replied:
“It is, but not if you think about why. I mean, I—because I prepared for four days. It was as streamlined as humanly possible. I mean, I, I, I had it all planned out before it even happened.”
While many of the mothers’ specific preparations for the storm were overwhelmed by the volume of water that ultimately came, their actions did save some items. More importantly, the preparations gave mothers a sense of control and agency during a time they otherwise could have felt helpless. Just as they curated their family’s daily life, they sought to curate their storm experience.
This intense responsibility, with its attendant mental and emotional load, however, would have long-lasting consequences for these mothers.
This intense responsibility, with its attendant mental and emotional load, however, would have long-lasting consequences for these mothers. Over the course of the year following the flood, mothers reported mental and physical health problems, fretting about the impacts of the trauma on their children, significant marital strain, and intense financial pressures. Even in this well-off community, with access to significant social and financial resources, the flood waters infiltrated cracks in the family to exacerbate tension and stress. Disasters are often quantified only by the financial toll they take on communities. Yet, the true cost of a disaster – one that takes its toll not just for a day or two but for a year or more – cannot be assessed without considering the multifaceted ways women carry the burden of disasters.
Rachel Kimbro is Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, professor of sociology and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University. She is the author of In too Deep: Class and Mothering in a Flooded Community.
Photo: istock.com/Eric Overton