Winter is Coming: Sexual Violence in the Sandy Aftermath

A Staten Island, New York man was arrested this week for allegedly sexually assaulting a female FEMA contractor who came to his Hurricane Sandy-devastated home to assess damages wrought by the storm. Robert Langshultz, 53, was charged with sexual abuse and forcible touching.

When the woman, an employee of PB Disaster Services, a contractor for FEMA and other government agencies, knocked on his door, Langschultz “allegedly threw her against a wall, tried to kiss her and grabbed her breasts and buttocks.” She managed to escape and contacted the police.

It has been three weeks since Sandy hit the eastern seaboard. New York City, for one, is slowly regaining order, though thousands of the city’s most vulnerable remain without power, heat, or support from the government. Many more have lost their homes entirely. But we can expect that another storm is one its way: the one in which the city’s affected women face heightened risk of sexual assault, domestic violence, and loss of health and maternal services, particularly in shelter or relief camp situations.

The reasons? The collapse of socially acceptable behaviors, which we know don’t favor women, anyways; the poor design of relief shelters, leaving women and children vulnerable to violence; and the psychological toll on displaced men, which can lead to increased aggression. Indeed, in their defense of Robert Langshultz, family neighbors and friends insisted he was a “terrific” man and a “hard worker” who “lost everything. He didn’t have nothing left.”

Because losing everything excuses violently attacking a woman who has come to help you.

But rape and gender-based violence is only one horror that women suffer in disaster scenarios. It is well documented that women suffer disproportionately in numerous ways in the aftermath of natural catastrophes. In this 2005 report by the Global Fund for Women, the authors note:

 In the chaos and social breakdown that accompany natural disaster, women become uniquely vulnerable to sexual abuse, including rape and gang rape. Domestic violence also increases, with local authorities often failing to intervene in what may be perceived as a “personal matter.” Pregnant women lack obstetrical care, and may miscarry or deliver under extremely unsanitary conditions. Displaced women frequently lack access to contraception and even undergarments and sanitary supplies, which in some cases have been doled out by men.

Some 40 rapes were reported in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, though all experts agree that many more were probably committed and never reported, a common enough issue even when a natural disaster hasn’t wiped out nearly every social structure and safety net available in a community. Today, as city and state officials crow over their successes in triumphing over the storm, we can only expect — and dread — the dark stories to emerge in the coming weeks.

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