Monday, March 26, 2007

More Spring Break: One Family's Saga

Sorry for the delay in posting. I’m back in New Hampshire now and classes start tomorrow, but I will make a couple more posts about Spring Break. I’ll pictures up this week, too, I promise. I need to show them to the folks who were on the trip first to find out which I can share, but then they’re all yours.

We spent our last day over Spring Break gutting a two-story house in St. Bernard Parish. (Remember, in Louisiana, parishes are like counties.) St. Bernard Parish is just to the east of Orleans Parish, and was completely inundated – all but two or three houses were underwater for several weeks. I’d like to tell you about the family we were helping. The “Bordreauxs” have had a rough year, battling the government while living in a cramped trailer outside their rotting home. To this day, 18 months after the storm, they have not received a dime from FEMA, the Road Home Program, State Farm Insurance, or any other official entity.

Before the storm, “Larry” and “Reba” lived with their three sons. A daughter lived nearby, and gave birth to a little girl shortly after Katrina. The youngest son still lives with Larry and Reba. They evacuated to Baton Rouge when the hurricane came.

A FEMA inspector initially told the Bordreauxs that their house was structurally unsound and needed to be demolished. As a result, the couple spent nine months trying to get FEMA to come destroy their house, but it was like pulling teeth from a wooly mammoth. Things changed a month ago, when as part of a lawsuit with State Farm Insurance, a structural engineer came out, took a look at the place, and asked them why they wanted to tear it down – he said there was nothing structurally wrong with the place. It turns out that the FEMA inspector who made the mistake was not a professional structural engineer, but a retired postal worker. This was typical: the neighbor’s FEMA inspector was a dentist. So after nine months of trying to destroy their house, Larry and Reba are now in the process of gutting it so that they may rebuild.

The Bordreaux’s battle with their insurance company has been no better: long and drawn out. They had homeowner’s insurance, but not flood insurance. When they originally bought insurance, the salesman told them they didn’t need flood insurance – because of the levee system, the government did not consider St. Bernard Parish a flood zone. It’s easy to criticize people for not purchasing flood insurance when they live below sea level, but can you really criticize them for taking the advice of the federal government and their insurance company, the so-called “experts”? The family is now suing State Farm, because for all intents and purposes, in not paying them anything, the insurance company is penalizing the family for taking their advice.

The Bordreauxs do what they can to make life tolerable - they've put their trailer next to their son's and their neighbor's, built a porch and series of ramps between them all, and decorated the area with Easter signs, welcome home messages, and flowers. It's about as homey as you can make such living conditions, even with the two-story mess behind them.

Another crew gutted a house for a woman who is struggling to get money from Road Home, suing her insurance company (All State), facing a gut-or-demolish deadline, caring for a sick relative, and trying to hold down a job. The intern who led that crew said her story, like the Bordreauxs, is typical: “Throw a rock in this town and you’ll hit six more homeowners who’ll tell you the exact same story.”

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Quick Word About Pictures

The wireless connection at St. Andrew's is not the fastest connection in the work, so uploading pictures to the Internet can be a pain. I will, however, upload many pictures of gutting houses and of current New Orleans next week when I am back in Hanover. Maybe over the weekend.

Yesterday we walked around the French Quarter and ate at an uptown sports bar, and today we gutted a house. I've heard some interesting observations and quotes, and I may share, but I'm just not in a creative typing mood tonight. Sorry. :(

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Spring Break in New Orleans, Day 1

I’m now back in New Orleans with four other students from Dartmouth’s Edgerton Episcopal Campus Ministry. We spent our first day planting trees and driving around the city, and I’ve posted some thoughts on city beautification, gratitude, and positive news from around the city below. We’re working with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Office of Disaster Response, where I interned last year. At least nine other Dartmouth groups are in the region right now, one of which is also working with the Diocese of Louisiana. The five of us are staying at St. Andrew’s in the Carrollton neighborhood, where I lived before.

Today was a relatively slow day. We were going to gut a house, but they had plenty of gutters already and needed people to plant trees along Canal Blvd in the Lakeview neighborhood with some West Point cadets, so we did that for a few hours. Two observations. First, city beautification is very important here. 250,000 citizens have moved away, and why should they be expected to come back to block after block of rotting, ungutted houses, a broken education system, escalating crime, and a corrupt police force? City beautification may not improve corruption, crime, or education, but it does make this a more attractive place to live, and that’s a start. The second point is that many, many people driving by honked, gave us a thumbs up, or even yelled “Thank you!!!” out the window. This immense appreciation shows the difference little things, like planting trees, can make on a scale even as immense as Katrina recovery.

We were done planting by lunch, and the gutters said they didn’t need us, so we spent the afternoon driving around the city. The other four wanted to get a sense of the damage, as they’d only so far seen major roads and decent neighborhoods. We drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, Chalmette, New Orleans East, and City Park, and skirted the Upper Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Broadmoore. Several positive signs stood out to me: 1) The Lower Ninth Ward has traffic lights now! When I left in December, most (though not all) of the major intersections in the Ninth Ward were still broken lights and four-way stops, but now there are actual red-yellow-green lights. It’s so exciting, and improves the traffic flow! 2) Many more homes in the Lower Ninth have been demolished, including a few I used to point out each time I gave volunteers tours. There were also more FEMA trailers then before, so you know folks are slowly returning. It’s a sad but positive step to see Lower Ninth lots finally being cleared. It’s tough to lose a life like that, but it’s got to happen in order to move forward. I doubt all the owning families wanted to have their property cleared, but if you don’t get yourself on a gutting waiting list in time, the city swoops on in, and there’s plenty of warning. 3) Several new neighborhoods are springing up in St. Bernard Parish, and more houses in New Orleans East had been cleaned up than I realized, which is great.

This is not to say the city has taken huge strides forward – so much damage remains. The four folks in my group, who have not been here before, were all shocked. Parts of the Lower Ninth are still deathly quiet. You’ve read my tirades about FEMA, local government, and the Road Home program. The city is currently suing the Army Corps of Engineers over past failures and future accountability. It’s just nice to know that it’s not all bad news. :)

I took a few pictures, and freshman Adrian took many. I’ll post some when I get them uploaded.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back to New Orleans

Whew. Finals are over. I wrote 14 pages in 10 hours today... and that's on top of the 45 pages I wrote in 25 hours yesterday. I do think those 45 pages were quality, too! The 14 pages, on the other hand, not so much.

Anyways, in about 5 1/2 hours I'm meeting for Morning Prayer with four other Dartmouth students, mostly folks who go to St. Thomas Episcopal Church, before driving to New Orleans with them for Spring Break. We'll be staying at St. Andrews and gutting houses. I hope to see some of my friends from the fall, and I hope to get everyone in my group to write an update or two from New Orleans and post it here. I'll ask other friends who are going for updates and perspectives, too - remember, there are at least nine other Dartmouth groups headed down for Spring Break, too.

This blog should be up and running again before too long. The fresh student perspectives, my Katrina-related political opinions, recovery progress analysis, recovery news highlights, and the occasional Episcopalian tidbit will be flying at you left and right before you know it!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Finals

It's finals time for the quarter here, and I'm swamped with work - a project today, three papers over the weekend (all short), and now a final and four papers, one which will push 20 pages after lots of research. So sadly, this blog takes a backseat. I'll try to make a post or two, such as some analysis of the upcoming Louisiana gubernatorial election and another headline round up, but it might just be regurgitating info. That's a shame, 'cause there's lots going on right now - for instance, the city of New Orleans is now suing the Army Corps of Engineers. Anyway, after finals week I'm going back to New Orleans for a week. I'll try to post about that from there.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Trinity Church, Pass Christian, MS

The following is a summary of a recent conference call members of my church, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene, ID, had concerning Katrina recovery efforts at Trinity Church in Pass Christian, MS and Camp Coast Care, the Episcopal relief operation in Mississippi. Read for an update on Pass Christian and information on getting involved with the recovery yourself. I have some photos of Trinity Church from when I visited it that I'll post later (I'd put them up now, but I'm not on my own computer and don't have access to them at the moment). I was not on this call, but this message was forwarded to me:

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"Today's robust conversation on the conference call with other Trinity advocates identified several alternatives for future volunteers.

Chris Colby told of the wonderful progress in developing plans for the existing damaged church structure. It is to be refurbished to become the parish hall. A raised plaza is to be in front. And, a new worship space is to be built on the west side. That new facility is to be 6-8 feet above the ground to provide shaded parking under. Later, maybe next year, a third building is to be built for class rooms. Across the street to the east the city is planning to build both an elementary and a middle school. There will be a day care center and a full size gym. This concentration of children is encouraging to Jeremy, Trinity's youth director who is already developing plans for an expanded youth program. The outreach arm of the Billy Graham organization has donated funds and contractors to build a complete play ground in front of the Trinity church where about five acres of open space are available. One statistic observed by Chris Colby: If 50 houses per day were to be built it would take 10 years to replace the houses along the gulf coast that were taken away by Katrina. An interesting fact: Chris is looking for church pews that do not float to fill the rebuilt church. A chronic problem along the coast is a lack of contractors and that is the reason that volunteers are needed for homes. To donate, one can adopt a family through the Camp Coast Care operation. Pam, the Trinity secretary, is to move into her newly built home with donated furniture in March.

Places that really need volunteers:

Trinity youth program with Jeremy beginning in mid-June and lasting 6 weeks. He can be reached at 724-333-5966.

Join a work team to build houses through the existing Episcopal Camp Coast Care operation. See their web site which is very descriptive regarding volunteer requirements and other information.
Go to www.campcoastcare.com.

Join a work team with the Mennonites who are hard at work daily building homes along the coast.
Their number is, 228-452-1114."

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.