The tragedy of Katrina and the reflections of a one-time war refugee

Victor Oguejiofor Okafor, professor of African American Studies
Department of African American Studies
620 Pray Harrold
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197

The hurricane Katrina that swept the Gulf coast of the United States this past week killed a huge number of people estimated to be in the thousands and displaced many thousands more. Exact figures are not yet known. The worst hit states are Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, containing a combined population of 9.7 million residents. Although Mississippi contains the largest land mass affected by Katrina, the epicenter of this natural tragedy, characterized as unprecedented in US recorded history of natural disasters, is the city of New Orleans-a city that exists or existed below sea level-which, for the most part, has been submerged by overflowing sea water from Lake Pontchartrain. This is a sad day, and television, radio and print reports have been showing heart-wrenching images of the untold suffering that the consequences of this natural tragedy have wrought on its hapless victims, including infants.

There has been an outcry about what appeared like a slow pace by which help was and is being provided to the victims. The rather long time that it took federal officials to extend needed help to the predominantly black refugees inside and outside of the super dome in New Orleans has attracted race and class-based charges from commentators and political leaders, charges that must have reincarnated seemingly old memories of race relations in America. As some commentators have argued, it would appear that both race and class were at play in the Superdome debacle, considering that majority of the stranded victims are both black and predominantly poor. New Orleans is among the poorest cities of the United States. The Census Bureau reports that one in four residents of New Orleans (amounting to 23. 2%) live in poverty. Indeed, the three affected states manifest poverty levels that are higher than both the national poverty rate of 12.7% and the southern regional poverty rate of 14.1%. Alabama has a poverty rate of 16%; Louisiana, a poverty rate of 19.36%, and Mississippi, a poverty level of 21.61%. However, it also seems reasonable to me that irrespective of the merits or demerits of the race or class-based charges, the unprecedented magnitude of the destruction wrought by Katrina must have, no doubt, stretched local, state and federal rescue resources to their very limits. Real life never approximates Rambo-type television images of instant rescue and recovery missions from which the rescuers always emerge unscathed.

As someone who was once a refugee of a different kind-a refugee from a human-made tragedy, otherwise called a civil war-I empathize from the very depths of my heart with the victims of Katrina. Having fled from the death and destruction of war on foot and having lived in a refugee camp myself, I can personally relate to the pain, hunger, discomfort and all other deprivations of Katrina victims. I, along with my parents, brothers and sisters and millions of other Nigerians were refugees for about a long period of three years during the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970. I was a little boy then, needing merely the rudimentary necessities of life-a fact that perhaps mitigated the degree of suffering that adults go though during a refugee situation. I was being fended for by my parents, and only God knows what amount of discomfort, suffering and deprivations that my parents endured as they struggled for both their lives and the lives of us, their children, in the midst of seemingly never-ending death and destruction, acute food shortages, monster inflationary spirals that reduced the value of earned income to peanuts, the total absence of tap water (which was replaced with unpurified water from streams or bore holes), the total absence of electricity, the near total absence of means of communication such as the telephone, and a severe shortage of public transportation that characterized the war situation. But above and beyond all these material shortages and deprivations, was the worst aspect of life during a war-living in fear minute by minute. Except for a life-threatening illness, if you say or believe that life has been unfair to you, you really have not experienced unfairness at its worst until you live though the seemingly never-ending fear, death and destruction that is called a war. Think of a life in which on a 24-hour basis, for about three years, your community was pounded by roaring jet bombers and fighters. Think of a life that forced your family to be on a continuous move as your community fled from advancing enemy troops who, all the while, had been ravaging your community with deadly missiles. In a war situation, such as the one that I experienced, being a refugee meant that you did not hope for, expect or obtain help from any government-federal, state or local-as you and your family fled, on bare foot, sometimes for 20 some miles at a stretch, as you tried to ran away from the rapidly advancing enemy forces. The roads that you traveled-and "traveled" in this case might be a misnomer, for the appropriate term should be trekked-were littered with the dead bodies of less fortunate souls. God forbid that you took ill during such a time period of disorder, for usually, there was no mobile hospital or medical help of any sort.

In the wake of the destruction, deaths and displacements caused by Katrina, commentators and some officials have reminded us that the residents of the affected cities were fore-warned and advised to evacuate. It would appear that a sizeable number of residents did evacuate-as shown by media electronic and print reports. However, we have since realized that huge numbers of people did not or could not evacuate. Reasons offered for not evacuating include a false hope that the hurricane would not turn out as destructive as predicted, a lack of the economic capacity to evacuate and not having a sense of where to go.

My experience as a refugee shows and convinces me that poverty is enough reason for a person not to be able to evacuate from an impending disaster. For instance, as federal troops advanced and swooped in on what remained of what used to be known as Biafra (in which we were all trapped) during the dying days of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, fear pervaded about what federal troops might do to anyone found alive on the Biafran side of the war. Rumor had it that all males found alive would be massacred, and the women would be seized and raped or killed if they resisted. As a result of this widespread fear, high ranking officials of the rebel Biafran government, hundreds of families, who could afford it, or who were well-connected, eventually fled by air to African countries that offered refuge to fleeing Biafrans, including Gabon and Ivory Coast. The rest of us who stayed behind did not do so because we wanted to die or we wanted to be raped. We stayed put because we had no means of fleeing to Gabon or Ivory Coast. But as God would have it, eventually we were not slaughtered by the conquering federal troops. In fact, it was a federal military truck that picked me and our family off the highway as we were trekking to God-knows-where, and eventually dropped us off in our hometown of Onitsha in what is now the Anambra state of Nigeria.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the current global number of refugees stands at 9.2 million, while the total number of Internally Displaced Persons is 5.6 million. Going by the United Nations definitions, victims of Katrina would qualify as internally displaced persons rather than refugees as segments of the US media have sometimes dubbed them. The UN defines refugees as "persons who are outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group."


Basic Facts. (2005, September 3). UNHCR, United Nations Refugee Agency. (

Buckner, Stephen. (2005, September 2). Census Bureau Estimates Nearly 10 Million Residents Along Gulf Coast Hit by Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Census Bureau News. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.