John Steinbeck’s Hurricane Katrina Lesson

John Steinbeck’s Hurricane Katrina Lesson

Seventy years ago this October, before he was famous as a novelist, John Steinbeck published a seven-part series in the San Francisco News on the Dust Bowl families pouring into California to start new lives. Today, the 1936 series is read primarily by scholars tracing its influence on Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. But with a fresh hurricane season upon us and the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina constituting a diaspora comparable to the estimated 250,000 “Okies” who fled drought-ridden Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Colorado during the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s reportage has new relevance.

At the core of the articles, which Steinbeck called “The Harvest Gypsies,” is the vulnerability of the migrants he met as he traveled the back roads of California in an old bakery truck. “They arrive bewildered and beaten,” Steinbeck wrote, “with only one necessity to face immediately, and that is to find work at any wage in order that the family may eat.” They are homeless people who cannot get loans or credit because “their resources have been exhausted,” and “since most of their dealings with authority are painful to them,” they are not, Steinbeck added, good at getting help from the government or, if they are sick, from clinics and doctors. For the children of the migrants, the situation was even worse. Poorly dressed and often behind their grade level in basic reading and writing skills, they experienced school as an ordeal rather than a refuge.

Most frustrating of all to Steinbeck was the treatment accorded the Okies by the people in whose midst they now found themselves. They were, he quickly discovered, feared. Looked upon as “ignorant and dirty people” and “carriers of disease,” they were seen as increasing the necessity for police and raising the tax bill for schools in the communities where they settled.

Today’s parallel with Steinbeck’s reportage is the recent study of 650 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the Children’s Health Fund. The study lacks Steinbeck’s moving prose, but the results it shows for families who have moved on average 3.5 times since Hurricane Katrina mirror Steinbeck’s findings. Nearly a quarter of the children from these families were not enrolled in school at the time of the survey or had missed at least ten days of school in the previous month; 34 percent of the children suffered from asthma, anxiety, or behavioral problems, and of their parents, 44 percent of whom had no health insurance, nearly half were dealing with a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, while 37 percent described their health as poor or fair, compared with only 10 percent who did so before the hurricane.

As if these problems were not enough, for all too many of the Katrina diaspora the passage of time has not been a benefit. Natural disaster has...

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