Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Orleans, Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

Destroyed homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.

August 29 is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, three years after the disaster, I was part of a Mennonite Disaster Service work team from River East MB Church in Winnipeg that went to New Orleans to help repair homes in that city. I wrote the following article about that experience for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Bourbon Street was rocking, the bars and clubs filled with people enjoying one of New Orleans' most popular tourist spots. A cacaphony of jazz, blues, rock and country filled the narrow balcony-lined avenue, giving the area a bright and festive air.

Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is back in business--as far as tourism is concerned.

Marks on the house indicate it has been
searched, and if bodies were found inside.

But down in the city's lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighbourhood, where Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is rebuilding houses damaged or destroyed by the devastating storm, it was a different story.

The only sounds there were that of hammers and saws as volunteers from Winnipeg's River East Mennonite Brethren church toiled in the heat to frame, drywall, tile and finish houses for residents anxious to return to their homes.

"I know that tourism is the lifeblood of this city," says Robert Green, 53, an accountant who lost his home, mother and a granddaughter to the flood that followed the storm.

"People see places like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter and they think the city is healed. But there's still a lot to do in this city to help the residents."

Inside an abandoned home.

Almost three years after the storm, there's still lots to do in New Orleans.

Green's once-vibrant Ninth Ward community is mostly a collection of empty lots and a few abandoned housesthe whole neighbourhood was swept away by the wall of water that broke through the Industrial Canal levee a few hundred yards behind his house. 

In other sections, house after house is boarded up, the owners still trying to decide whether to move back and rebuild. It's the same for businesses; a drive through the hardest-hit areas reveals empty and abandoned banks, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, strip malls, department stores and gas stations.

It is hard to comprehend the scope of the disaster. Eighty percent of the city was submerged and destroyed and 9,368 businesses were closed or moved. Over 700,000 people were acutely impacted, with many forced to evacuate for safety to cities across the U.S.

"It wasn't a disaster
it was a catastrophe," says Steve Zimmer, Vice President for Community Mobilization for the United Way of New Orleans.

According to Zimmer, who supervises the hurricane recovery efforts for that agency, no city in the U.S. has ever experienced destruction this severe.

"There is no modern model for what has happened to New Orleans," he says, noting that in a normal disaster, it usually takes two to three years for a community to recover.

"This one will take 11 to 15 years. We've got to blow up the old models and start thinking in new and different ways."

Houses gone, almost as far as you can see.

In a normal disaster, the goal is to get people back to "where they were" before it happened, Zimmer says.

"But that's not possible here, where a whole neighbourhood was destroyed," he says.

"People didn't just lose their homes, they lost their community--the grocery store, their church, the library, the school, bank and the usual services." 

Adding to the challenge of the recovery has been the at-times ineffectual and uncoordinated response from various levels of government. 

"Our government failed us," says Zimmer. "There was colossal failure at the core."

Despite the problems, things are slowly improving. 

Figures vary, with reports indicating that between 67 percent and 87 percent of residents have returned, and people in the city are beginning to move out of trailers and back into houses. School enrolment is increasing, and 6,368 businesses have started back up. 

But down in the parts of the city hardest-hit by the storm, attention is focused on much the smaller details of repair and reconstruction. For residents, the sounds of rebuilding is the sound of hope.

"After I saw what the storm had done to my house, I cried a lot," says Catalina Blosseau, who lives with her disabled husband and daughter in a small trailer.

"I wondered if there was anyone who could help me. I was losing hope."

Blosseau sought help from Helping Hands, the disaster recovery arm of Catholic Charities. After reviewing her case, the agency asked MDS to supply volunteers to rebuild her home. On August 7 she'll move in.

"Now I am so happy," she says of the work of the MDS volunteers. "I got my life back again."

When it comes to helping New Orleans get back on its feet, volunteers are a huge part of the story.

"Without volunteers, we wouldn't be as far along as we are," says Paul Cook, Senior Project Manager for Helping Hands. "We really have been blessed."

"If it weren't for the volunteers, sometimes I think nothing would be getting done at all," adds Zimmer.
MDS volunteers from Winnipeg building a new house.

Nobody knows how many volunteers have come to New Orleans to help; one estimate puts the number at about one million. Of that total, about 16,000 have volunteered with Helping Hands, while 1,160 have done reconstruction work with MDS. 

But progress is frustratingly slow.

"It's a slow and tedious process," says Cook, who spent 25 years in the construction business.

"Even in the best of times it can take four to six months to gut and repair a house. Add in the lack of services and the large demand on trades, and you see why this takes so much longer."

It doesn't help that getting funds and loans from the state is an arduous experience for many.

"There's a lot of red tape," Cook says, adding that it can also take time to process insurance claims, and that the amount provided by insurers often is insufficient to cover the damage.

"We don't have a lot of money to donate to make up the shortfall, but we do what we can," he says.

Adding to the problem is what he calls the "second wave" of people needing help because contractors they hired to repair their homes did shoddy work, failed to complete the work, failed to comply with local building codes--or simply ripped them off. 

"Unfortunately, this kind of thing was not uncommon," he says, noting that his agency recently assigned MDS volunteers to re-gut and re-build a home that had been repaired incorrectly.

But those issues aren't the main concern for the volunteers from Winnipeg
they just wanted to do as much as they could in the week they were in New Orleans to help a few families. And their work is appreciated.

"We like working with MDS," says Cook. "They're very good at everything." 

"MDS has been a wonderful partner," adds Zimmer. "I'm really impressed by the people they bring down here."

For Robert Green, the presence of so many volunteers in his neighbourhood has a more personal effect. 

"So many people from around the world have responded to our need," he says. "It helps me get over the anguish I feel over the loss of my mother and granddaughter. It’s made it possible for me to move on.” 

A hope still being realized.

Today New Orleans is well on its way back from the hurricane, but there’s still a ways to go, especially in the poorer areas of the city. MDS finished its work in the Gulf Coast in 2012; over 17,000 volunteers worked 126,400 days at 194 cleanup sites, rebuilding 122 homes.

Click here to read a thank-you editorial from the New Orleans Times-Picayune to all those who came to the city to volunteer with the recovery effort.

Click here to read a summary about the MDS experience in New Orleans.

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