Copyright ColorsNW Magazine
The Long Road Home
a year after Katrina, people of color still struggling
By: Naomi Ishisaka
It would be comforting to believe that in the year since the devastation of the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – when the nation’s attention was on important topics like the supposed killer of JonBenet Ramsey and pictures of TomKat’s baby – the federal government was working to use some of the $110 billion earmarked for relief to rebuild the shattered lives of the most vulnerable.
When we visited the region in the month after Katrina hit Aug. 29 of last year, our focus was on emergency relief and temporary shelter for the tens of thousands displaced due to a faulty levee system and a flawed disaster response. Our assessment: dismal.
A year later, we went to chronicle how the lives of people of color, in the largest migration since the Dust Bowl, had changed or improved in one of the most significant events in modern U.S. history. Our assessment: still dismal.
There were a thousand and one stories waiting to be told and each one was haunting and heartbreaking.
While huge swaths of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast look much the same as last year, ravaged and forlorn, one striking difference is the ubiquitous FEMA trailer parks dotting the landscape. These parks, with their bright white trailers and guarded entryways, are another reminder that the Gulf Coast is unlike nearly every other place in the United States, where getting into a trailer park is seen as a desirable accomplishment.
Rev. Lance Eden of New Orleans, whose house was severely damaged by the storm, says there is too little progress to report. He is the youthful and visionary pastor whom ColorsNW profiled when we first visited the region in September 2005 to look at the impact of the hurricanes on people of color. After shuttling back and forth between relatives and his church office, he finally received a donated RV from two women in Minnesota to live in while his gutted house waits to be rebuilt.
“The conversation is still the same as it was when you came (last year),” Eden says. “The government hasn’t done right, they still haven’t done right, they’re still waiting, they’re still looking, people are still waiting to receive funds.
“If the funds were there, my home would be back already. And I would have been in the process of purchasing it in its repaired state. This is not right. I haven’t received anything from FEMA yet besides the $2,000 (in emergency relief). I haven’t received any type of renter’s compensation for my assets or anything.”
Eden is not alone in this state of limbo. While the period of emergency relief distribution is largely over, the mystifyingly complex process of figuring out how to rebuild amid a tangle of regulations old and new, insurance barriers and lack of resources has dragged on. And that is for those lucky enough to be homeowners. For flooded renters, the past year has brought nothing but the loss of all material possessions, displacement and a quadrupling of rents.
As the fifth-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks passed a few days after the first-year anniversary of Katrina, the irony was lost on no one in the Gulf Coast – amid all the political pomp and prattle to remind the country of the need for the “War on Terror” – that some victims of tragedy are more deserving than others.
After 9/11, a fund was set up to compensate the families of the dead, with the average award being $2 million per loss, but no such fund was set up for the victims of Katrina, who had little political or economic clout. After 9/11, the federal government took every opportunity to show its interest and concern for the victims, but everyone we spoke to in the Gulf Coast feels like the government cannot get away from their issue fast enough. Only one person we spoke to had received rebuilding aid from Federal Emergency Management Agency. All others were still in limbo.
According to the Los Angeles Times, in late August 2006, only $44 billion of the $110 billion allocated for Katrina relief had been spent. For Louisiana, grant money dubbed “The Road Home” just began arriving this year in early September. Only 42 families have so far received the $150,000 to fill in the gap between need and resources to rebuild. Already, 100,000 families in Louisiana have applied.
Yet, amid the despair and a scattered diaspora, there are small glimmers of hope.
Throughout the region, like during our trip last year, we saw groups of individuals doing the work that the government is not.
In East Biloxi, Seattle activist Truc Nguyen volunteered for two weeks to help the shattered Vietnamese community. Seattle’s all-volunteer Social Change Caravan coalition took 25 Katrina evacuees living in the Puget Sound area back to the Gulf Coast free of charge to visit their homes and remaining families and commemorate the anniversary of the disaster. At Eden’s church, Hands-On New Orleans has established a well-organized headquarters for relief operations with more than 1,000 volunteers coming through since March. Common Ground Collective in Algiers, La., has gutted hundreds of homes, fed thousands of people and created a media and technology center for displaced residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to access the Internet, use the phone and consult with a pro-bono attorney.
Compared to the scope of the disaster, these efforts only chip away at people’s needs, but they demonstrate how a small number of determined people with very few resources still can improve the lives of those in desperate need.
Hell and High Water
Sandra Burton exemplifies the experience of many evacuees. A mother of seven, Burton stayed during the hurricane in her Lower Ninth Ward house, a block and a half from the levee that gave way to the storm. To visit the Lower Ninth Ward today is a surreal experience. The neighborhood – deserted and desolate – seems as if in a state of suspended animation. Houses are still crumbled. There are no signs of life.
Burton and her children, ages 9 to 21, were relocated to Washington and returned as part of Seattle’s Social Change Caravan.
“Yeah, I stayed, I didn’t have no transportation, no money, nowhere to go. So where else could I go?” she says of her decision to remain during the storm.
After the hurricane passed, Burton thought the worst was over. Her rental house had withstood the hurricane’s wind and rain. Then she heard the levee break and the water began to rise. In only a few minutes, the water was chest-high in the house. Burton and her family had to swim from the back of the house to the middle, from where they got into the attic. In a few minutes, the water was in the attic and still rising. Burton’s teenage son tore a hole in the roof so the trapped family could escape. Once they were on the roof, the water continued to rise over the rooftop. Luckily, within 20 minutes, a neighbor named Good Time Shorty heard their cries from a block away and came in a boat and took them to the nearby St. Claude Bridge.
Burton says she and her family would have died without her neighbor’s help. Like many Louisianans of color, Burton believes that race and class played a huge part in the ensuing government inaction.
“Don’t you think we should be treated like Americans? We should be treated equal. … I truly disagree with my government because I feel all the people that died, all the people that I see floating in the waters, face-down, that could have been avoided. All the mothers and grandmothers, the sickly the elderly, that wasn’t escorted out of the city should still be living. They should think that God has his hands, he knows who he want to take and who he don’t want to take. It wasn’t … the nurses the doctors (right), to inject the elderly, old people, on life support, a lot of people died needlessly and I find the government at fault for that,” Burton says.
“Since I’ve been here, I have been in neighborhoods and districts that don’t even look like they’ve been touched (by damage) and they are up and running … you hear me? Is that because there’s a large percentage of whites that stay there? Homeowners? It hurts me to my heart that my government just didn’t give a damn, you know?”
Burton and her family were evacuated to the bridge, which was flooded on both ends – the Lower Ninth on one side and the Ninth Ward on the other. For about 12 hours, Burton and her family were trapped with other families in the blazing sun, with no shelter, food or water.
After their excruciating wait, Burton and her kids were taken by boat to Frederick Douglass High School several blocks away, which became a refuge for more than 100 people. Frustrated with being stuck at the school without food, water or dry clothes, Burton waded through the chest-high water carrying her kids to a bus barn a few blocks away.
With very few options, Burton “appropriated” a metro bus and headed to the Cajundome in Lafayette, La. On the way, Burton picked up five other families with children and took them with her.
“I’m not talking about a lady with one or two kids,” Burton says. “I’m talking about women with five or six kids and siblings that you literally had to pick up so that they could get out of the water because the water was waist high on ’em. … Mothers that the Lord sent you because we didn’t know what to do, we were walking in the water for so long until we were wrinkled … and I just picked the lady’s little girl up. The children were trembling because they were so cold and wet and I said, ‘It’s going to be alright, we are going to take you where you can get something to eat, a change of clothes and a roof over your head’ and that’s what we done.”
The Cajundome would be home for Burton and her family for nearly five weeks. They slept on cots and according to Burton, were treated well. Then, Burton received news that a family in Newcastle, Wash., near Bellevue, would sponsor them to come to the state and offer them a place to stay. Burton was apprehensive – she worried about not knowing anyone, the quality of education for her kids, the cultural differences.
Newcastle proved much better than Burton had expected. The quality of the education was very good, the community welcoming. Yet, Burton is filled with fears for the future. She moved into a rental apartment with the help of emergency housing aid; the benefits expire in January.
“It’s been troubling me, I’ve been very worried, I can’t sleep at night as it is, I stay up and cry and wonder where will we go from there? I don’t want to say I’ll never come back to New Orleans, this is my birthplace, my family is here, my family is buried here, but I want it to be better than it is now,” Burton says. “I do plan on staying in Washington for quite some time if possible and if there is any way that I can get a home where I don’t have to move from C port to D port every year, every six months, you know I’m going to be hysterical, so I can take care of my own and I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to live with my family.” The higher cost of living also worries Burton, with her income coming from Social Security, because there’s not enough left to save.
Burton’s children are also slowly adjusting to life in Washington.
“When we left Louisiana, they would have trouble sleeping, wouldn’t go to bed until daylight came. They weren’t afraid of the dark, it was the things that they seen, friends that they realized they would never see again unless we all returned to the South,” she says.
“It took a lot out of them, would we ever get back? This place that we’ve known, this period of life, is taken from us, it’s a whole new thing we’ve got to learn. It’s more like a challenge, where life has challenged us to either be or don’t be. And they put themselves in a position of where they want to be. They are getting an education that I feel New Orleans children should get. It’s sad you have to go so far, tearing them away from a state you were born and raised in.”
Like many from New Orleans, Burton is frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding and the apparent disregard of lower-income people and people of color. “I am tired of the way the government is running the world. When they can run over there and take care of Third World countries, get them up and going, got New York up and going, why can’t they get New Orleans up and going? Why can’t they get the black people what they need? It’s not what they want, it’s what they need. With such a large percentage of blacks in the Lower Ninth Ward and the developers want to come through and want to buy up all the land.”
Burton is grateful that the Social Change Caravan provided an opportunity to go back and collect some of her treasured family mementoes. “The only reason I am back is because of the Social Change Caravan.” Like many other evacuees, she is not likely to return to the Lower Ninth Ward, raising the question: What is to become of lower-income communities and people of color in New Orleans?
Sticking it Out
At Common Ground’s Community Media Center in the Ninth Ward, Tony Peterson is using the Internet. A regular at the former daycare-turned-media center, Peterson appreciates the free access to technology the center offers the community. “It’s a blessing (the media center),” Peterson says. “To have a place to come and use the Internet and use a landline phone. We’re so technology driven and we take it for granted. I used to have high-speed (Internet) on my desktop and it was no big deal. I talk to people from out of state and they ask, ‘Don’t you have a landline?’ and I laugh and say, ‘You aren’t from here.’ There are businesses that don’t have landlines, it’s not just the hoi polloi. You have to break it down to your basics of survival. You need food, a roof; it would be nice to have electricity. Certain things become luxuries.”
But even the media center is not immune to the challenges facing the city — the day before we visited, the Internet was down, and there have been periodic landline outages.
Peterson is from Chicago and has lived in New Orleans since 1992. A musician, Peterson says New Orleans is one of the few places an artist can “blue-collar” his way into the music industry. Peterson also stayed through the storm and has been fighting a David vs. Goliath battle against FEMA ever since.
“I filed Sept. 4 (2005) for FEMA,” Peterson says. “I haven’t received a dime. I’m on my 10th review with FEMA. And the last time they told me that ‘your place is still inhabitable.’ Why do I have to explain to FEMA that when you have 8 feet of water in a wood-frame house that sat for two weeks, you have replace all the copper, etc. … I am not a structural engineer, why should I have to explain that to FEMA?
“My rent has tripled. My rent was $415 and now it is $1,200. My work hasn’t tripled. I have sent them my 1099s, my insurance paperwork. They’ve been out-and-out belligerent. … I had to hock my drums last month to pay my rent, my work tools, you put me in a virtual no-win situation here. So what do I do?”
Peterson sees a bleak future for his city. “All of our political people say it’s not a racial thing, but they’re pricing the poor people out of New Orleans. And most of the poor people are people of color. … There’s no way the city will be back in five years, maybe 10. And maybe 10 is being generous. There are houses that have not been touched.”
For renters such as Peterson, there is little aid coming from the government. “You hear all these promises and help and relief is on the way, when is that going to trickle down to the guy on the street? I got $50 from the Salvation Army and $300 from Goodwill. That is the sum total of the relief I have received and it has been a year. I really have nothing good to say about the federal government at this time. I am a veteran and consider myself a patriot, but someone dropped the ball.”
The stress is wearing on Peterson. “I am nuts. I am aggravated, I am as pissed off as everyone else is here. I had to control myself to keep myself from driving my 30-year car into the window of the library for the FEMA people. I think everybody here is in need of some serious counseling.”
Joan and Bernadette Berniard are not ready to come back to New Orleans.
Evacuated to Washington state, the sisters returned to the city they grew up in thanks to the Social Change Caravan. Their basement apartment in the Gentilly area was completely flooded and they were taken to the Cajundome Convention Center in Lafayette, La., for eight days before entering emergency housing in Seattle. Now living in Skyway, the sisters are skeptical about coming back.
“I don’t feel like people are taking time, people are still in shock. People still need counseling and need to come to grips with what has happened. And it’s hurricane season again,” Joan Berniard says. “I am not convinced that it is safe. I still believe the air is not safe to breathe on a continuous basis. I am sure the soil is damaged. All the fumes in the homes, the water sat for days with the sun beaming with the trash in it, with dead bodies. I just don’t believe it’s fit for anyone to actually be there. I understand people want to come home, to familiar surroundings to people that they love and that they know, but I am just not convinced it is safe.”
Berniard feels like the rebuilding efforts are misprioritized. “They seem to be concentrating more on the business side of the city instead of the residential side of the city. It’s kind of hard to see that they worry more about the businesses getting back and the taxes being paid then getting people back home.”
Rev. Bruce Davenport heads the St. John No. 5 Baptist Church in the Seventh Ward, which sits across from the St. Bernard Housing Project in New Orleans. He and his wife, Deborah, stayed during the storm to look after the church and help their elderly parishioners. Their own house was flooded, but today, they are functioning as not just a source for spiritual healing but as a social-service agency as well.
The reverend says the needs are still great. “Parishioners are constantly calling us. We are constantly trying to find resources. There are resources they are being denied. We are constantly trying to find resources and the resources they need are from A to Z. The social ministry has had to step up because there have been more suicides, more people are having substance abuse problems because that’s their outlet. Some can’t cope with this, some are up in age, insurance companies aren’t doing right by them. You can see people are depressed,” Davenport says.
“You can see the city is still in an uproar. It looks like the city was hit last week, not a year ago. People see their house is moved, they are displaced. And we are working in adverse conditions. Meaning that the facilities are not up to par. We don’t have telephone lines, we have been waiting for telephone lines, recently Cox Cable has been giving lines but the waiting list is from here to next year. Just getting some electricity and some hot water. It’s just a matter of adapting to the situation, just as during the time of the evacuation, it’s all about whatever means necessary it takes to survive.”
His wife agrees. “Of course everybody knows that in order to get resources, there is not a sense of emergency to the federal government, it’s business as usual,” Deborah Davenport says. “Business as usual means you have to go through the bureaucratic red tape to get things done. … So it’s not a sense of emergency to them, because remember, anything that any government – be it state, city or federal – it’s all about the dollars and cents, it’s all about profit. It isn’t about profit here, they can’t see gain here. So it’s not an emergency. … We’re dealing with fragile people here, walking time bombs.”
Biloxi or Bust
If the current state of New Orleans is largely a manmade catastrophe of mismanaged levees and government ineptitude, the ravaged condition of the Mississippi Gulf Coast can be blamed on the staggering power of nature.
To visit Gulfport, Waveland and East Biloxi today is to travel back in time. The time before boardwalks, multistory apartments, vendors and a bustling tourist economy. The time before enterprising people turned this vulnerable stretch into a popular summer playground.
For miles and miles, where there once were buildings, there are now only oak trees and the foundations of houses. Every once in a while, an anachronistic reminder of what recently had been jars the senses: a 60-foot-tall Waffle House sign where no Waffle House exists; a park bench where there is no park.
The extent of damage is mindboggling.
When we visited East Biloxi last year, amid the wreckage of Point Cadet – a community that appeared to have been bulldozed – was Holley Street, a collection of modest houses that largely escaped serious damage. Residents of Holley Street were low-income African Americans who paid rents of about $75 a month.
Even amid the devastation, the residents were living at their homes – either in tents or inside. There was a remarkably upbeat atmosphere, with music, a barbecue and volunteers delivering supplies. All this in the face of eviction notices from their landlords – the Holley Street residents feared they were being displaced for economic reasons, under the guise of public safety.
Their fears have borne out. You would not know you were even in the same city if it were not for the foam street signs erected by Hands-On Gulf Coast for orientation purposes. There is no trace of the houses and people that once made up Holley Street. All that exist now are old foundations, trees and a new view to the water. For community activists and developers alike, the leveled areas represent a blank slate, with some eyeing the land as a opportunity for profit and others seeing it as a chance to create better opportunities for low-income people and people of color.
Under previous land-use regulations in Mississippi, the powerful East Biloxi offshore casinos could not operate on land. Many were heavily damaged or completely destroyed in the storm. After the hurricane, the state Legislature changed the law to allow casinos up to 800 feet inland, turning what was less-valuable property into a gold mine for developers. With the Gulf Zone Opportunity Act providing incentives for developers to rebuild quickly, there are at least seven casinos rebuilt already near Biloxi with many more casino and resort projects slated over the next few years.
While it is too late for the residents of Holley Street, two activists are trying to make sure it is not too late for East Biloxi’s sizable Vietnamese-American community. Uyen Le, 22, of Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle’s Truc Nguyen, both Vietnamese American, are working with the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA) to advocate for the needs of the largely voiceless community.
Le, a community development staffer with NAVASA, has worked since September 2005 to help coordinate relief and rebuilding efforts for the threatened East Biloxi community. While her initial efforts centered on direct relief, her job has shifted into a long-term planning role and making sure the Vietnamese community is not left out of the rebuilding process. Le and other advocates for low-income and people of color fear that the colossal devastation of nature will morph into a slow-moving catastrophe of misallocation of resources, lack of cultural competency and the deprivation of aid for the neediest people.
Aid group Oxfam America expressed its own concerns in a scathing one-year anniversary report: “… what these families are facing is not merely a return to pre-hurricane status quo, but, in fact, the prospect of falling deeper into poverty, losing their homes, their jobs – everything for which they’ve worked. Despite the billions of dollars pouring into the region, their communities could be wiped off the map – not by wind and storm surge, but by their government’s bureaucratic incompetence, persistent neglect, and, in some cases, a willful intention to fix the poverty situation by forcing it to move elsewhere.”
FEMA has tried to defend its failures. “Hurricane Katrina’s sheer force overwhelmed local, state and federal agencies,” said Director David Paulison in a late August news release. “We saw our capabilities stretched further than at any time in FEMA’s 30-year history. Along with our state and local partners, we worked tirelessly to support the immediate and long-term needs of disaster victims.”
Le first visited the Gulf Coast region for a documentary project on the hurricanes’ effects on the Vietnamese community in September 2005. “The work has been hard in that I think there is a great community of people, but (it’s hard) working under this system of poor resource allocation and distribution generally of public funds and just having people see the issues of language access and needing to be more culturally competent is just a lot of talk. They’ll send out something in Vietnamese but then won’t have translators there so when people show up they are even more discouraged.”
Another discouraging incident was the absence of even a mention of the community’s precarious situation in a huge planning process called Living Cities – a collaboration between foundations and national financial institutions – which developed an action plan to rebuild Biloxi and revitalize its historic neighborhoods. And this despite the fact that the Vietnamese Americans make up 20 percent of the local population, not to mention the fact that they experienced disproportionate damage.
Le believes that the level of destruction in Mississippi dwarfs that of Louisiana’s in many ways.
“I think aside from the areas (in New Orleans) that got surged like the Lower Ninth and the things that look like they got hit by a bomb: the Lower Ninth, St. Bernard Parish … the level of destruction is different. New Orleans experienced this flooding that made everything mold up and erode everything that stayed, but (in Mississippi) you are talking about structures that don’t exist for miles and miles,” the Berkeley resident says.
“So talking about different types of destruction and the cost of rebuilding is (different) when you are trying to just do electricity and sheetrock again for a house for a lot of New Orleans and roofing (compared to) here you are talking about raising a new construction and resources needed for rebuilding. Then you have the issue of New Orleans is media central, really, other parts of Louisiana that’s further south, more damaged, are not talked about and I think that’s how people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast feel too is that New Orleans is suddenly this center of media coverage and sort of when politicians even talk about Katrina, they talk about New Orleans.”
For many in the Vietnamese community, informal homeownership arrangements, difficulty with English and the greater likelihood that their homes were in a lower-value flood-prone area have compounded to make their situation more dire than most others in Biloxi. Add to this the everchanging and dizzyingly complex FEMA rebuilding codes and you have a recipe for disaster. According to the one-year report Le and Nguyen produced for NAVASA, a recent mapping this year of the Vietnamese-owned properties in East Biloxi showed that 70 percent of the Vietnamese lived inside the 100-year flood zone and 67 percent of residents in East Biloxi who lived inside flood plain did not have flood insurance. These factors make them ineligible for rebuilding grants.
For Seattle’s Nguyen, the call to volunteer in the Gulf Coast was nagging at her since the storm, but she did not know what to do about it. The answer came a couple months before the one-year anniversary. She bought a ticket, but had no idea what she would be doing or where she would be staying. To help pay for the trip, Nguyen held a fundraising concert titled “Biloxi or Bust” at Seattle’s Mirabeau Room featuring DJ Daps1 and DJ Sabzi. She later learned of NAVASA and connected with Le.
“This is clearly my whole philosophy…you go where the need is most, not necessarily where you want to be all the time in terms of volunteer work,” Nguyen says. “Of course it’s important to do work with Common Ground but in terms of being able to support your own people. I felt I really needed to push myself to work with my community.”
With her two-week stint, Nguyen is NAVASA’s longest-serving volunteer in Biloxi. She was able to utilize her skills from her work at the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition to help Le research, prepare reports and prep for the anniversary commemorations and events.
“I think we can conceptually understand that things are messed up, but to come down here and see it’s such a ghost town in some parts, houses are either dilapidated, not livable, people don’t have money to fix it up, nothing is there, right? Gone, gone. I don’t know what it looked like before, but I would be like whoa, this is one year later, you know?” Nguyen says.
Le thinks it is important for volunteers of color to utilize their strengths in helping where they are most needed. Language skills, community organizing skills, these are all talents that should not be wasted.
“Most of these (volunteers) aren’t necessarily coming from urban centers, they’re coming from Minnesota, Illinois, random, random, random places. So I think that the really important thing is to encourage more people of color to come down here and say we have meaningful work for them to do and they do serve special roles. If you are tearing out a house and doing sheetrock, you are doing sheetrock, you can be whatever doing sheetrock. But if you have from personal experience or community work this understanding of how to work with low income communities where you can fill that technical capacity gap instead of physical labor, you need to be strategic about when people of color do come down, where do you place them?,” the Berkeley resident asks.
“For example, some volunteers from Minnesota State University, they are all Vietnamese, or half of them were and I just drove past them, and they were mowing a lawn or something and I was like, “NO, stop mowing the lawn!” I’m trying to administer these surveys of the Vietnamese community, I’m kind of all by myself down here, please go talk to these families and help administer these surveys. When you do have people like that, they should be used in a way where their special skill sets are utilized. It’s like when volunteer organizations have a special call out for unique skilled labor, we need a plumber, an electrician, not the other sort of less physical skills…we need someone who speaks Vietnamese, who speaks Spanish, we need someone who knows how to do community organizing, someone who knows how to put together an economic plan.”
Alicia Lee, an advertising sales executive from Chicago, was also moved to help.
“Hurricane Katrina hits, and of course the devastation occurred and I remember sitting in front of the television, crying and pissed, mad, wondering, why isn’t someone doing anything? What is going on? Why can the media get in there but the government cannot? Just sitting there, wondering why, why, why, nothing is getting done for days. Later I was thinking about the tsunami, and about how people had water the very next day. It was upsetting. You’re sitting there wondering, what can I do?”
She and two others came to volunteer at Hands-On New Orleans that is located at Eden’s church. For Lee, the experience has been rewarding.
“Before we walked in the door, we were greeted outside. They were all bubbly, wonderful, excited for us to be here. They showed us around, they feed us breakfast lunch and dinner, they feed us. They provide the transportation. We’ve been doing the Kaboom builds (of playgrounds). Usually they have mold, gutting, (special projects like) Mother in Law’s Lounge. It’s been a fantastic experience. We have a community meeting during dinner. The food is fabulous. … I’ve heard people say they come back to rejuvenate. They are stressed with their jobs and they come here to rejuvenate.”
Lee’s friend, Denise Chiles, also of Chicago, echoes her feelings.
“(Volunteering) is a spiritual thing for me. People are just wonderful. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I never expected to be doing something like this, but because of the spirit of the people here and the entire atmosphere, it’s been really positive.” For Chiles, the response to Katrina was a wake-up call.
“All of this has really changed the way I think and live. Nothing is guaranteed. I told my boss, I just had to do this (volunteer). There were people who didn’t make it out of here, and people who lost everything. The people here are magnificent. I thought this was the biggest slap in the face ever. Not in this country, where we can go overseas it seems in a matter of minutes but cannot get to New Orleans. Nobody can get in except the reporters. How did they get in but the government couldn’t? I don’t feel as secure as I did before. If we don’t do this, no one will.”
Social Change Caravan
The organizers of Seattle’s Social Change Caravan share that do-it-yourself sentiment. Starting as a student project at Shoreline Community College in the spring, a group of students and activists took a trip to volunteer in the rebuilding. When they returned, they wanted to find a way to help the evacuees who were in Washington state. After consulting with Malik Rahim, founder of Common Ground, on Memorial Day, the idea of bringing a caravan of evacuees back to New Orleans was born.
Led by Crystal Jordan and Claudette Thomas, the caravan brought 25 evacuees and a number of volunteers on a bus for a two-week trip to New Orleans. Their aim was to reunite the evacuees with their families and communities and help to heal some of the emotional scars of the ordeal. Through rigorous fundraising, the group got $19,000 to pay for the journey – and they still have a shortfall of $20,000 to make up.
Jordan, owner of Crystal Cares personal-care company, says that despite the hard work, the effort was worth it.
“It was important to me because what I saw was the government wasn’t doing anything. With all the money to rebuild, when you get to the Gulf Coast you can see that nothing is getting done. I believe community and people help people, you can’t wait for government to assist, you have to do it yourselves,” she says.
“It was worth it for them to go home and just letting them know we still care. The regular, everyday people of Washington still care. People don’t realize that those millions of dollars have not been spent the way they say they have been spent.
People are still waiting for FEMA trailers, there are still bodies missing and unaccounted for. People are still broken apart. We need to hold our government and state officials more accountable then what we are holding them for.”
Shoreline student Sintayehu Tekle took his second trip to the Gulf Coast with the caravan. The Ethiopian-American says it is unfortunate that it falls on individual people of color to do the work of the U.S. government.
“We are trying to bring people back. People do not have the money to come back. People do not have the chance to come out here and see what has happened. When the people really came out and seen what has happened, it really touched me,” Tekle says. “I don’t think citizens themselves should be responsible for bringing people back, the government should do it. I have no problem doing it, but it really shouldn’t be us doing it. The people with the money are the ones that should be doing something, not just us.”
Doing it Themselves
Like many in Southeastern Louisiana, the Pierre family of the United Houma Nation believes in self-sufficiency. When we visited them last year in the tiny shrimping village of Dulac, Ivey Pierre’s home – which was raised four feet off the ground – had been inundated with four feet of water and mud from Hurricane Rita. Nearly all the family’s possessions had been destroyed as well as the shrimp boat he used to make his livelihood. The family has lived in the house for 56 years. Dulac, home to about 2,000 people, has a per-capita income of $8,700.
When we visited a year later, things had improved dramatically for the Pierres. The family received a modest settlement from insurance and 78-year-old Ivey Pierre used his own hands to rebuild the home. He gutted the house, put up new sheetrock, painted, even rebuilt furniture, such as a china cabinet and the kitchen cabinets. And the typical Houma hospitality was ever present: When we showed up at the door, his wife immediately welcomed us inside and offered to serve us lunch, which was a pot of chicken and okra gumbo bubbling on the stove.
Pierre’s large family are ubiquitous in Dulac. Two of his sons live next door and drop over for dinner all the time.
Mrs. Pierre, speaking in an accent rich with French, Houma and English, reflects the many cultural influences for the Houma tribe. Mrs. Pierre, who never received a formal education, learned English in the 1960s from watching TV. She was married at 15 and recently celebrated her 59th wedding anniversary. The Iveys have 20 great-grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Pierre says, “They had brought us a FEMA trailer, but the little FEMA trailer is not that good. So as soon as we fixed the house we called them and had them take it back. Because I didn’t want the water to come back and take that trailer. And you know what made me hurry up and gave it back? They had a man who said he slept three nights in his car, he didn’t have no place to go. Why not take that little trailer and bring it to him? But I don’t know if they did that. Because they don’t always do what you want them to do. Because FEMA has got a lot, a lot of trailers on a lot but nobody lives there because people don’t have a car to go anywhere and there’s no stores around.”
Mrs. Pierre credits her husband for the near-perfect condition of the house. “He did all of this, nobody helped us inside the house, he did this all by himself. That’s how we repaired our house.”
She says the family did receive a lot of help for the boat and the roof of the house. “Catholic Services helped pay for the motor, the fiberglass (on the boat). United Houma Tribe helped paint the top (of the house), gave us a mattress. You know what it is? When you come home and everything is upside down. We had raised things on top of the dressers and they all dumped out. It was very, very bad.” But as bad as it was, nothing prepared her for what she saw in Mississippi. “Mississippi, miles and miles that don’t have nothing. I went to Mississippi and I couldn’t talk for three days. It was bad. Real bad.
“I had friends who lost everything (in Mississippi). They only have a concrete foundation. They were going to stay here after Katrina and then came Rita and that destroyed us,” she says.
“We never went back trawling, we are just living on Social Security now. It’s been hard. (The boat) sunk three times since the hurricane. It’s coming along, but it takes time.”
Ivey Pierre agrees. “It’s going to take a while,” he says. With the winters too cold and the summers too hot, the time is limited for Pierre to fix the boat. As we talk, he mixes powdered Fiberglass with water to make a paint to waterproof the boat. It will take many, many coats of the paint to do the job, and he will not be able to shrimp until he is done. The insurance on the boat now is too much for Pierre to pay, so he will not able to insure it.
For the United Houma Nation relief center, hours are now limited to three days a week and Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichaux has her yard back. No longer housing volunteers, Dardar-Robichaux was celebrating her granddaughter’s birthday the day we visited.
Answering the Call
When we visited Rev. Eden last fall, he was at a crossroads. He could stay in New Orleans against the will of his church leadership and turn his building into a relief center or he could take a cushy job in Ruston, La., and regroup after the pain of losing his home and everything he owned to flooding.
He took the hard road, choosing to stay and give half the church over to Hands-On USA, an offshoot of Hands-On Worldwide, which was one of the few organizations on the ground working to deliver direct aid to hard-hit communities. The group established Hands-On New Orleans, or HONO, to assist with rebuilding.
Not all in Eden’s congregation approve of the stream of more than a thousand largely young, white volunteers taking over their church. Was it worth it?
“We have had 1,060 and they’ve only been operational since March. And so that’s been phenomenal. The capacity that we can house 100 volunteers a day and we’ve had weeks that we’ve had 98 to 96 so that’s been positive,” Eden explains.
“I was reading the (Nov. 2005) ColorsNW article to my Bible study, the last little part about opening up the place as a resource center for volunteers and looking back at that is, I don’t know, I just almost can’t believe that it’s happened and it’s there. The mayor said in a meeting with me and a few other clergy, he specifically pointed out our church, he said First Street and Hands-On is vital to New Orleans coming back and we’re pivotal to that happening and you wouldn’t think but they’ve gutted five churches and two Boys and Girls clubs and a host of schools to help schools come back and many homes, they’ve gutted and repaired 150 homes, that means that they have put them back on the market.
“I’ve slowed down from the pace I was going in November and October but that’s only because it was a marathon now, and back then you had to sprint. It’s been amazing, it’s been a rollercoaster, it’s been very positive.”
Hands-On no longer does direct food and water relief, but is focused on rebuilding homes. Each day, volunteers can choose from tasks such as house gutting (taking the house down to the studs), demolding, light building and construction of playgrounds and other special projects.
While they still get a steady stream of volunteers in the summer months, while we were visiting, Hands-On New Orleans was only about 55 percent of capacity, with many bunks going unfilled.
Eden worries that the country is losing interest, that the outrage is missing outside the Gulf Coast area.
“We need more volunteers. That’s plain and simple. We need more volunteers because in the fall we are going to have a real slide. October and November we are going to have a real slack off and we don’t need to, they are going back to their lives and they have forgotten about New Orleans. The anniversary is fresh in people’s minds, but not everyone. So you know, it’s kinda disheartening because we have a long ways to go. If you look at New York, New York has a four-block radius and it’s five years later and they are still working on it. We have a whole city. We need persons to come and put their hands on the earth and really get involved,” Eden appeals.
“At first, we needed supplies and resources and that happened and I think that the magazine was a great part of that, but now we need volunteers and financial resources if now things are up and running but you need financial resources to keep it going because it takes a lot. The church puts in a lot to feed the volunteers and all of that, so I try to get as many fundraising speaking events as possible. That’s why I end up in Minnesota so much. It’s going to be a neighborhood at a time that’s going to come back. I think that’s what’s going to happen. ”
While Eden’s commitment to community work is paying off, his personal situation is not much better than those of the people he is helping.
After spending several months sleeping in different houses each day, Eden finally got an RV – not from FEMA – but from two women in Minnesota. He stayed in the trailer with his grandmother and father before they moved to a house in Gonzalez, La.
While the RV is better than a cot in his office, Eden is anxious to move back into his family home in Slidell. “I don’t want to stay in this trailer any longer than I have to.”
Yet like many others, Eden remains in limbo, a testament to the odyssey of the displaced and the dispossessed. Between FEMA, his insurance company and the greater Slidell area, there is ambiguity about whether the house will need to be raised. Raising it could cost up to $80,000, to not do so could make future insurance impossible. Insurance only paid Eden’s family $60,000 for the damage to their house and all their property.
While Eden waits for resolution and some comfort, his house sits empty. A Hands-On team gutted the house; it needs to be de-molded and rebuilt. But he doesn’t give up hope, and exhorts people to shed their comfort and come help those still in need.
“I challenge people, take your vacation and time off and come and volunteer. Have some good food, do some great work and really be in touch and fulfilled.”
The reward for volunteers will be the satisfaction of a job well done and knowing that they can help rebuild not just a devastated community but a just society.
“A lot of people leave feeling that they have accomplished something,” Eden says.
For additional photos and links, visit www.colorsnw.com
ColorsNW staff Sierra Smith contributed to this report.