Tuesday, February 21, 2006

New Orleans - a half a year after Katrina

By Larry Deckel
Director of Programs
L.A. Works

On February 16th – 18th I traveled to Louisiana as a representative of Hands on Network to consult with Volunteer Baton Rouge on starting up their hands-on programming as "Hands on Baton Rouge." The folks in Baton Rouge were wonderful in every way, and treated me to the Southern hospitality I've missed since leaving Louisiana in the late 70s. They are very enthusiastic in carrying on the work of the network, and appreciated my sharing with them the remarkable work our Project Leaders and volunteers have been doing here at L.A. Works.

I took advantage of the trip to trek over to New Orleans, to get a first-hand look at how the city is doing, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina.

What I saw in New Orleans left me emotionally exhausted, and broke my heart. Vast sections of the city have been rendered uninhabitable. The once vibrant crescent city now has an uneasy silence, as entire districts have taken on characteristics of a ghost town. While I was initially struck by the site of individual houses, roofs blown off, shuttered windows and doors, trees toppled upon them, refuse and trash littering their yards — the full enormity of the situation sank in as I saw entire blocks, streets, and neighborhoods destroyed. While many structures still stand, a faint yellow line representing the high water mark tells the story of a city held captive underwater. Everything in these homes was destroyed. Furniture, appliances, clothing, decor, paintings, photos — even the walls themselves, were ravaged by the floodwaters that rushed in as the levees broke. As I drove through these devastated neighborhoods, I was amazed to find that even six months later, electricity was still unavailable; traffic lights weren't in operation, and few residents had returned — there was so little to return to. You couldn't go "home" — as your home was now something you couldn't live in. A few industrious folks have set up RVs and trailers in the front yards, but most simply don't know where or how to start. Many will never return.

The city faces enormous challenges in reviving itself. It's unclear whether neighborhoods will be mowed down and deserted, or how or when neighborhoods that choose to revive themselves will do so. The pictures shown on this page cannot convey the overall impact of damage this catastrophic.

I visited a few tent cities that are currently housing workers and volunteers who are engaged in the Herculean task of clearing the damaged homes. Ben Brubaker, a Volunteer Coordinator for Emergency Communities has set up the "Made with Love Cafe" a volunteer operation feeding anyone who is hungry each day, and providing an outlet for clothing, first-aid and other necessities in the nearly leveled St. Bernard Parish adjacent to New Orleans. They are looking for volunteers who can bring their own tents and assist with their delivery of services. It was bone-chilling cold the day I visited, but these great volunteers were delivery nutritious hot meals to anyone with a need. If you'd like to donate, or volunteer, please visit their website at www.emergencycommunities.org/

As many of you know, the difficulty in volunteering in New Orleans has been a lack of housing for volunteers. Living in a tent city is not easy! Now that it's clear that volunteers will be needed in the Gulf Region for many, many months to come, the Hands on Network is facilitating the start-up of "Hands on New Orleans." I visited with the small, devoted staff there who are currently engaged in building bunk beds at the First Street United Method Church to house volunteers each week who will assist with rebuilding efforts. If you're interested in going to New Orleans to lend your support, they will be ready to begin housing and feeding volunteers (who will have to arrange their own travel expenses) in April.

The majority of the work that volunteers will be doing in New Orleans is mucking and mold abatement of houses. This is grueling, rigorous work, and not for the faint of heart. Volunteers will be gutting the damaged interiors of houses, emptying them of possessions and knocking out plaster or drywall to take the house back down to the frame. Once the house is down to its frame, volunteers will treat the remaining wood to remove and prevent regrowth of the mold that has formed. While this is hard physical work, it is immensely satisfying and a good way to gain a sense of instant results. Talk about "Hands On." Once a house has been 'gutted' in this manner, residents can begin the rebuilding process. It's a start! In addition to this, HONO will be setting up projects to benefit the community including tutoring and mentoring in local schools, working at distribution centers, cooking free meals for community members, etc.

If you are interested in getting scheduled for a week's service in New Orleans, please contact Sara Schnitzer, Volunteer Coordinator, Hands On New Orleans — 1-800-977-5589 or email
volunteerinquiry-neworleans@handsonnetwork.org . Let her know you are part of L.A. Works and would like more information, and to schedule yourself for a week in April or beyond. They are open to the participation of groups and/or individuals.

What happened in New Orleans is a tragedy that will affect that city for many years to come. Tourism is making a slow recovery in the French Quarter, and Mardi Gras' persistent spirit is creating the strange spectacle of public partying and parades in the higher elevations, while the surrounding lowlands near the Lake and in the lower ninth ward echo in grim stillness. What can I say — it's New Orleans.

While it's no longer in the news here in Los Angeles – the generosity of volunteers will play a major part in the city's recovery efforts. For those of you with the resources and time to travel to New Orleans, they will heartily welcome your support. If you're unable to go, but would like to send funds to assist with our volunteer mobilization efforts, please go to: www.handsonnetwork.org/donate/form and click on the donation link for the Hurricane Volunteer Mobilization Fund.

1 comment:

Kent Lee (rtpasadena@yahoo.com) said...

Rebuilding Together, the nation's largest volunteer home remodeling organization, is organizing weeklong rebuilding projects in the Gulf Coast as part of the Rebuild 1000! initiative to rebuild 1,000 hurricane-damaged homes in the Gulf.

2006 work weeks are May 21, June 18, July 16, August 20, September 17, October 22, November 12, and December 10. Volunteers are asked to arrive on Sunday and leave on Saturday, and are responsible for their own transportation.

Additionally, donations to Rebuilding Together for hurricane relief will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Countrywide Financial Corp. up to $500,000. For more info, contact sarah_shogren@rebuildingtogether.org. Website is www.rebuildingtogether.org.