On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, survivors and advocates praise work of humanitarian agencies
Reprinted from Church World ServiceNEW YORK and NEW ORLEANS -- Five years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, survivors and those working on their behalf say work is far from finished in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But they are emphatic that what progress has been made is in great part due to the support, funding and labor of the U.S. faith community and of humanitarian agencies like Church World Service. "If it weren't for the volunteers and agencies who assisted me, I don't know where I would be," said Gloria Mouton, 62, a retired government employee, whose home in New Orleans East was among those repaired by volunteers from across the U.S. during the 2009 CWS Neighborhood New Orleans ecumenical project.
While saying that the city "is nowhere where it should be five years later," with many areas still dotted by empty or overgrown lots, Mouton praised the efforts that allowed her to return to her home after two years of living in Georgia with family as she waited to return to New Orleans. "This is home, where I want to be," she said, adding that the work of volunteers "came out real nice."
In restoring Mouton’s and other homes, CWS worked in partnership with the local New Orleans long-term recovery organization the Crescent Alliance Recovery Effort, and with volunteer teams coordinated by 10 of CWS U.S. member denominations providing the labor. "I never realized there were that many people such big hearts," she said.
Another survivor, Christopher Weaver, 48, a self-employed cook, agreed, and praised the efforts that allowed him to return to his home in New Orleans East.
"There are people who showed me a new way of life," he said of the work of volunteers and CWS-supported agencies that repaired his residence. "It was powerful to see these things happening.""The faith community was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable in every way they could be," said Ellenor Simmons, who helps oversee long-term recovery projects for the United Way of the Greater New Orleans Area.
From individual churches who opened their doors to shelter survivors to faith-based humanitarian agencies and regional long-term recovery organizations, the faith response saved lives, say those who have worked tirelessly in the five years since Katrina and Rita hit the region."Absolutely," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana-based state director for Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response. "It saved families. If it hadn't have been for that response, I don't know what would have happened."
Church World Service’s multi-tiered response has continued over the long haul. Initial emergency relief included shipments of CWS Blankets, Hygiene and School Kits; organizing for long-term recovery work; and focusing on spiritual and emotional care.
Thousands of people received CWS kits in the days following the disaster. Later, thanks to a collaborative effort between CWS and Habitat for Humanity International, nearly 700 families were able to return to their repaired or rebuilt homes – an accomplishment that won Church World Service and HFHI the Award for Excellence in Long-Term Recovery Partnership from the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Since the 2005 disaster, Church World service has administered three major international grants, helped schools and youth programs in Louisiana and Mississippi recover, and helped establish and train dozens of long-term recovery groups in readiness for the next disaster.
Not all the hurricane recovery work is done. There are still people in the region living in temporary housing. While there is still a sense of remarkable rebuilding overall, life is not what it was. "There is a 'new normal,'" Simmons said.
Still, enough are back in homes for Simmons' United Way colleague, Benita Corley, to praise the combined efforts of local, regional and national organizations.
"We could not have done it without y'all," she said. "Church World Service was a real blessing for us. The clients didn't know who gave us the money to do our work, but we do."
Bonnie Vollmering, CWS associate director for domestic response, returned the compliment.
"Five years later, long-term recovery groups continue to assist people with unmet needs," she said. "If it was not for the collaboration of those local, regional and national long-term recovery organizations, many individuals would not be living in safe, sanitary and secure housing. It’s been our pleasure to work with local partners in helping people return to their homes.”
Other highlights of the CWS response:
- CWS partnered with Terrebone Readiness Assistance Coalition to help build five of the first-ever Louisiana Lift Houses, a sustainable housing solution for living on coastal land. Built for economy, ecology and to withstand hurricane-force winds, the Lift Houses handily survived the real-world test of Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
- The agency supported more than 30 new community recovery organizations to manage cases and coordinate volunteer and skilled labor for home rebuilding.
- CWS sponsored Interfaith Trauma Response Trainings workshops to assist clergy and other caregivers who responded to the disaster.
Contributions to support the life-saving work of Church World Service may be made online or by phone (800.297.1516), or may be sent to your denomination or to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515, Attention: Pakistan floods.