Gender notes about Hurricane Harvey

By Thais Bessa

Living through hurricane Harvey in Houston was a difficult experience in many levels. But during the week we were trapped home during the flooding and in the days that followed, I could not help but make some random notes about gendered aspects of the experience.

Indeed, this is my experience and what I observed. Of course it is by no means “scientific” (and definitely not from a positivist standpoint). The “sample” is small, my analysis inherently biased as I was part of it and deeply emotionally involved. Even though they are only my perceptions that cannot hold any scientific claim or be generalised, they raise important reflections about gender.

During the days leading to the hurricane’s landfall, virtually everyone in Houston made preparations for the event. Supermarkets were like a scene from a movie, with people literally cleaning up the shelves of supplies like non-perishable food, water, flashlights and fuel. I noticed that as usual, most people buying provisions at the supermarkets were women. For almost all families I spoke with, in the days before the hurricane’s landfall and even in the first few hours of the disaster, men were quite nonchalant about it, relying on women to make preparations like getting provisions. In many cases, men made comments about how women were being “hysteric” or “overly dramatic”, a discourse that changed once the situation evolved and the hurricane turned out to be one of the worst natural disasters and the worst flooding event in the US history.

During the flooding, thousands of people were displaced and those who were luckier like us were trapped in their houses for days. How men and women reacted to being trapped home is permeated by traditional gender roles. Being more accustomed to occupying the private space of the household, women found it easier to adapt to the situation, whilst men, who usually inhabit public spaces, suffered a bad case of cabin fever. Even when leaving the house by car (Houston is an extremely car-bound city) was not possible, men were seen pacing in front of houses, often in knee-deep or waist-deep water, making remarks on their need “to leave the house” even if just for a moment.

A friend who is a well-educated professional had to evacuate to a relative’s house, where other friends and family members also sought refuge for a few days. Upon returning to her home she confided about how tired she was as on top of all the stress and the demands of keeping the children entertained and somewhat oblivious of the seriousness of the situation, she had to cook for and clean after the 15-20 people staying in the house. According to her, the men in the house were like “headless chicken”, pacing around the house all day and still relying on women to take care of the daily maintenance of life.

Once looting began around town and a state of panic spread, men found a new purpose in the chaos: to guard neighbourhoods. A few of my neighbours were pacing around flooded streets carrying one, two and in some cases three guns (Texas thing for guns never ceases to amaze me) and brandishing “masculine” mottos like “come loot and I will shoot”.

The disaster also gave space to misogynist and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks. Conservative author Ann Coutler tweeted that Hurricane Harvey was more likely God punishing Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor than a result of climate change. A photograph of a rescuer carrying a woman and her child through floodwaters was used as a symbol of traditional gender roles.

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Conservative columnist Matt Walsh tweeted “Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.” Another conservative author, Ben Shapiro, wrote that the picture evokes the right vision of humanity: “men as protectors, women as guardians, children as innocents”. Besides the reproachable use of an act of human solidarity to fit a certain narrative, these writings ignore the thousands of women who worked in rescue and relief during and after the floods, as well as the thousands of men who had to be rescued and equally carried out of flooded houses.

Academics and practitioners have discussed how natural disasters are gendered, particularly how people have specific vulnerabilities and are impacted differently by natural disasters due to gender roles and how sexual violence against women increases in the aftermath of disasters. However, how everyday practices during all stages of disasters are deeply gendered remains under analysed. In addition, most debates have focused on developing countries, including analyses related to gender aspects of natural disasters. As largely criticised by postcolonial feminist theory, this assumes that Western/developed societies are somehow unaffected by gender inequality.


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