Friday, March 02, 2007

A Good ENS Profile of the Diocese of Louisiana

Great article that quotes people I know and talks about places I've been. :) Accompanying pictures are from Episcopal News Service, taken by Jerry Hames.

Remembering Katrina: Louisiana diocese recovers along with Gulf Coast
By Jerry Hames
Thursday, March 01, 2007


[Episcopal News Service] On a vacant corner lot in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, the low-income district where Hurricane Katrina delivered its greatest force, a small band of young teenagers from York, Maine, greeted local residents and helped them pack bags with food and clothing.

(Picture: Teens from St. George's Episcopal Church in York, Maine, greet and help New Orleans' Ninth Ward residents at a food and clothing distribution center.) "I feel like I'm out here, really helping people," said 15-year-old Lauren Segalla, who with her church friends volunteered last week in the Diocese of Louisiana's relief program, serving those in greatest need.

People seemed to appear from nowhere to accept offerings of soup, oatmeal, canned fruit, sausage and paper goods. "People know us and look forward to seeing us," said a relief coordinator, who brings volunteers with supplies to that site about once a week.

(Picture: Dan Krall, a Long Island, New York, Episcopalian who serves a diocesan intern and coordinator, led this team of volunteers in cleaning and gutting the interior of a house in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.) A few miles away in the Gentilly neighborhood, older teens and adults from St. George's Episcopal Church in York, Maine, worked with sledgehammers, crowbars, shovels and wheelbarrows, tearing away at the damaged interior of a house. Bands of Episcopal volunteers like these from St. George's are led by college student interns, who give up one semester or more of their studies to coordinate and direct the work of entering abandoned houses, sweeping up personal belongings destroyed by water and removing the rotting drywall so the homes can be restored.

It's all part of the diocese's Office of Disaster Response program that works with displaced survivors to bring them home. Once survivors return to New Orleans, often to live beside their still-uninhabitable home in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), they frequently need to call on the diocese's team of case-management workers to help guide them through the maze of bureaucratic red tape to get a grant or loan to enable them to rebuild.

Many find difficulty, even proving that they have title to their property. "Many people in the Ninth Ward have lived there for four or five generations. They've been here since slavery and their homes have been passed from one family member to another," said James Leeman, in whose garage a satellite Episcopal congregation, Church of All Souls', began as a result of the Episcopal relief work after Hurricane Katrina. Now, 18 months after the hurricane, the congregation of about 50 or 60 has plans to move to a larger place nearby.

Post traumatic stress affects many

Fear and fatigue are two of the greatest enemies in New Orleans.

"My biggest fear is that we will be forgotten," said Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins in a candid interview in his office on February 22.

He was not referring to the thousands of volunteers from churches and universities that continue to help the city rebound from the catastrophe, but the politicians who could well turn attention to other issues on their agenda. Many in the city point to fact that President George W. Bush's State of the Union address made had no mention of the plight of New Orleans as proof of that fact.

Visitors to the city aren't here long before they hear a statement mirroring what has become a popular sentiment: "If New Orleans is to be rebuilt, it will be by the churches and college students."

The emotional toll under such circumstances has been heavy. "I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and I know many more people here who do too," admitted Jenkins, himself a fifth generation Louisiana native, who praised Episcopal Relief and Development for providing two chaplains from the Society of St. John the Evangelist for offering free retreats for clergy and staff workers, the Presiding Bishop's Office of Chaplaincy for its assistance, and countless other individuals and dioceses who have offered what he described as "Christian hospitality."

Like the hurricane that ripped through and flooded neighborhoods from the poorest to the upper middle class, traumatic stress knows no bounds. North from the Central City diocesan office, in the Lakeview neighborhood that borders Lake Pontchartrain, well-maintained, single-family homes, many of them inhabited by the city's older citizens, were engulfed in five to six feet of water when two levees there collapsed. Now only one in four or five appears to be occupied.

In St. Paul's Homecoming Center in Lakeview, one of the diocese's five facilities where case workers give moral support and advice to survivors frustrated by that state's bureaucratic requirements, Ann Ball greeted a client who has spent all of her retirement money in a yet-unsuccessful attempt to restore her parents' home before they return next month.

"It is a stress and a strain to live here," said Patricia Rhem. "It gradually wears you down. Everything you do is a problem."

She was a victim of unscrupulous contractors who took her money and failed to fulfill their promises. She spent $6,000 for a new roof (they completed just the front half before leaving town); $4,800 for uncompleted rewiring (the electrician failed to produce certification papers) and another $3,800 to finish the work.

"She has clout in my book," Rhem said, referring to her case worker, Ann Ball. "She gets response from people because they see her as someone with authority."

(Picture: St. Paul's Welcoming Center, one of five Diocese of Louisiana facilities, where case workers like Ann Ball help survivors with immediate and long term needs, while offering counseling to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and rip-off contractors.)Case workers, who work closely with clients, often provide assistance beyond helping apply for grants or loans. For Rhem, who was sleeping on the floor of the unfinished house, Ball provided a bed; for another client, David Huye, a retired railroad engineer and five-year cancer survivor, she found financial support to enable his meditation group to continue meetings with a therapist for another three months.

Huye has been living next to his house in a FEMA trailer for a year. "It has its own special ambience," he said, describing the 20-by-10-foot trailer whose roof has leaked for six months.

"Everything seems to work against you," he said, describing his frustration. "Case managers can give you a boost."

Ball is now working closely with Huye, who has been approved for a loan for only $16,750 to restore his home. "I found out from Ann how I can ask for a larger amount," he said.

'Tell the story back home'

Back at Gentily, the volunteer team has nearly finished gutting the house. A few personal belongings sit to one side on the lawn, while the bulk of debris is piled at the curb, awaiting removal by a contractor from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Standing with his record book beside a diocesan van, Dan Krall, a college-aged intern and an Episcopalian from Long Island, New York, talks in single breath about the thousands of homeowners who still need help and the great spirit he sees in volunteers.

"Dozens and dozens of churches have come to work with us," Krall said. "Some have come back two, three, or four times. Instead of going to Florida for a vacation, many come here to help us."
Krall says that six 15-person crews like his have been responsible for removing debris and rotting walls from 600 to 700 homes. He estimates that he has personally supervised wrecking crews that have cleaned 200 to 250 houses. "We can have 150 volunteers a day working on this," he said.

But the physical labor expended is only one part of the diocese's program, Krall said.

"We work by triage. We talk [by phone] with everyone whose home we will work on. We consider their mental state, we will ask them what they want to have saved, we will get a sense of what their lives were about, maybe do a bit of pastoral care."

The interns also attend to the volunteers. "Before they go in we tell them about the people who lived there, we tell them what to expect. We try to make it as fulfilling and as educational as possible.

"And we tell them when they go home to tell others about their experience, to talk to family and friends. People need an understanding of the nature of the disaster in this city. They need to know about what's going on down here. And they need to come."

-- Jerry Hames is editor of Episcopal Life.

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