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When Katrina evacuees moved to new places, people's attitudes changed — for the worse

- August 30, 2015

Victims of Hurricane Katrina stayed at the Astrodome stadium where 16,000 evacuees received food and shelter in Houston, Texas. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, much is being written — and rightly so — about the impact of the hurricane on the people of New Orleans, and particularly those displaced to other communities. But the flip side is also interesting: How did the people displaced by Katrina impact the communities to which they fled and, often, continued to live?
That is the subject of this article by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dan Hopkins (also one of our occasional contributors on this blog). Hopkins notes that Katrina provides a tragic experiment of sorts: We can examine what happens to people’s political attitudes when their communities suddenly take in a substantial population of demographically different people — many of whom were lower-income African Americans.
This answer isn’t obvious. There is a substantial literature suggesting that actual contact with members of a different group can make you feel more favorably toward that group. But not always. If you perceive that these people you’re meeting are of lesser status, then having contact with them might not change your mind at all.
Hopkins analyzed a big national survey that was conducted in January-August 2006 — only a few months after Katrina.  The survey included deliberately large samples of people from two communities that took in many Katrina evacuees: Houston, Tex., and Baton Rouge, La.
Hopkins compared people in those communities who reported contact with evacuees to people in other communities that took in very few, if any, Katrina evacuees. He also compared people who reported contact with evacuees to people in the same communities that didn’t report any contact.  After accounting for other characteristics that might make these groups different from each other, he found few differences in attitudes, with one potentially important exception: People in Houston and Baton Rouge had less positive views of African Americans than people living in other communities.
Then Hopkins separated Houston and Baton Rouge, and compared people in each city to similar people in cities that received few Katrina evacuees.  There was a key difference between people in Houston and in Baton Rouge: Compared to people in other cities, people in Houston were more concerned about crime and more supportive of spending to combat crime. Hopkins also shows that this represented an increase in Houston residents’ concern about crime relative to earlier years.
But people in Baton Rouge were not affected in this way. Instead, they were less supportive of spending on the poor and spending on African-Americas.
Why were there such divergent reactions? Hopkins shows that it was due to the news coverage in each city.  Houston news stories about the evacuees devoted much more attention to crime, while Baton Rouge news stories devoted more attention to the evacuees’ need for government benefits.
Two important conclusions emerge from this analysis. First, when contact with evacuees had any impact, it was typically negative.
Second, the specific nature of that impact depended on the media too. The ways that the media framed the “problems” that evacuees brought to their new communities — and these involved largely racialized issues like crime and social welfare — helped shape opinions too.
Hopkins sums it up thus: “Those who worked with the evacuees had many kind things to say about them, but as the survey data show, those charitable thoughts did not influence their political views.”