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Getting things done

A home rests on top of a car in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Although this picture was taken in March, similar damage can still be seen across the city.
 (Craig Parker / The Spokesman-Review)
A home rests on top of a car in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Although this picture was taken in March, similar damage can still be seen across the city. (Craig Parker / The Spokesman-Review)
Nathan Empsall Correspondent

Editor’s note: Second of two parts.

Think about life in Coeur d’Alene – if your house burned down, you might turn to your neighbors for help. But what if your entire block caught fire, and all your neighbors had to focus on their own problems? Coeur d’Alene would need to turn to the next city for help – unless Post Falls and Rathdrum were also out of commission.

Such is the case in Louisiana, where I recently finished a three-month internship helping victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Office of Disaster Response in New Orleans. Rebuilding an entire house, and life, is too big a job for one person to handle alone, particularly when he has to deal with work, children, bills and a crumbling city. None of the neighbors can help, for they face the same problems. The people of New Orleans have no choice but to ask us for help.

That’s not to say they are not doing what they can for themselves. I once saw a homeowner grab a shovel and join the volunteers gutting his house – not easy to do when it’s your memories being shoveled away.

I spent most of my time helping a distribution center in the Lower Ninth Ward, the city’s hardest-hit neighborhood. One young man came to us fairly regularly, and always wore the same pair of paint-splattered overalls. Each day, they were a little more covered in paint than the day before. Over the course of several weeks, I watched these overalls slowly go from solid green to almost solid white.

A big example of people doing what they can is City Park. That nation’s sixth-largest park was destroyed, but little has been officially done by the city to clean it up. Unofficially, residents pull out their own lawn mowers each Saturday to clean up a few fields so their children can play.

Clearly, the people of New Orleans are doing everything they can – it just isn’t enough. They are very grateful for the help they get. Out-of-town volunteers are astounded at the welcome – strangers will stop you on the street to shake your hand and thank you for your help.

Unfortunately, the government isn’t doing much to add to that help. I can’t count the number of times I was told, “Thank God you’re here! If it wasn’t for you faith-based programs and churches, nothing would ever get done!”

Both faith-based and secular, it is indeed the nonprofits that are getting things done. The government – state, local, and federal – seems to be as slow and as incompetent now as it was during the storm’s immediate aftermath. I did not meet one resident with anything good to say about official efforts. This is not a partisan statement: FEMA and other mismanaged federal initiatives are under Republican control, but state and local officials are overwhelmingly Democratic.

Nonprofit groups have picked up much of the slack. Faith-based groups, like the Evangelical Free Church of America, and secular groups, such as Habitat for Humanity, have done amazing work in giving residents both hope and actual, physical progress in the form of construction work and other donations. The groups I am most familiar with are the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana (where I worked) and the secular Common Ground Collective.

The Episcopal Church has a number of ministries, thanks to a steady stream of 2,000 volunteers. Several programs have distributed goods and food to well over 150,000 people. The “Jericho Road” initiative builds homes in the Central City neighborhood for families that can’t afford to move home to New Orleans from wherever they evacuated, and a case management program was greatly expanded shortly before my departure. The diocese has also gutted approximately 600 houses.

Another group, Common Ground Collective, was founded immediately after the storm. It began under some controversy – one co-founder is a former Black Panther, and the volunteers tend to be young, free-spirited hippie types. But while the group’s founders might be controversial, its work is anything but. Common Ground sponsored street medics (EMTS on bikes) in the storm’s immediate aftermath, and now operates free clinics, a service desperately needed in a city where 125,000 people have no health insurance. Common Ground has gutted hundreds of homes in the Ninth Ward, offers free Internet access to poor residents, gives away food and clothing, and runs a tool library, where residents working on rebuilding their home can check out any tool imaginable, just like a library book.

Unfortunately, the government cannot claim such success. Visitors are always shocked at the lack of progress, and ask why more hasn’t been done. One reason, perhaps, is that the city took more thatn a year to establish a central recovery office.

I met numerous people who have yet to receive their FEMA trailers, even though FEMA keeps thousands of them in Arkansas and Mississippi at “staging areas” for the next disaster. One man still without a trailer told me he lost all his ID in the storm, and immediately applied for and received a new license in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, when he applied for his FEMA trailer, he was denied, because the issue date on his license “proved” that he moved to Louisiana after the storm. He later found old documents at a previous employer’s office, and at last update, FEMA was still reviewing his case.

Many people who do receive their trailers wait weeks before they’re actually given the key.

The biggest government nightmare is the federally financed, state administered “Road Home” program. Any Louisiana resident whose home was completely destroyed is eligible for $150,000 in aid. However, any money the homeowner received from insurance or FEMA is deducted from their grant. If they didn’t have insurance, they’re further penalized. In the end, most applicants receive between $30,000 and $40,000; enough to pay the mortgage but not to rebuild. The real problem: 90,000 homeowners have applied for their grants, but only 97 have actually received a check – 0.001 percent of the applicants.

It’s hard to tell where the city is headed next. New Orleans will recover, although it will likely take 10- to 15 years – but what will the new city look like? The city is founded on its many neighborhoods – it has the feel of 73 small towns, not one big city. Will this feeling of community be lost?

Some neighborhoods will have to close – if half the population remains gone, the tax base for maintaining so much infrastructure just won’t exist. It would make sense to close the hardest hit and most imperiled neighborhoods, but these are often the most traditional.

In New Orleans, it’s no surprise to see a family living with grandparents next door and in-laws across the street. In the Lower Ninth Ward, not only are the residents so close-knit, many families have owned their homes since they were built in the 1930s.

These neighborhoods won’t close without a fight.

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