(May 2006) It's more than eight months since Hurricane Katrina
ravaged the Gulf Coast, and there are still signs of that disaster lingering
nearly everywhere. While visitors to New Orleans' downtown would find a booming
business at Harrah's casino and many restaurants in the French Quarter, some of
the city's oldest family-occupied neighborhoods are nearly empty. There are
parts of the city that are still without electricity, gas, water, and trash
pickup. Many stores and businesses—not to mention restaurants and entertainment
venues—are closed. Out of more than one hundred-forty schools, less than twenty
have reopened. With the lack of services, it's hard to see how people could come
back to their neighborhoods. In this environment, newly re-elected mayor Ray
Nagin has the daunting challenge of forging a coalition between various
government agencies, displaced and angry residents, developers, and foreign
New Orleans is a city that has nearly been destroyed. But it is not a city
without hope. People—who have lost nearly all they have, who have been
displaced, who are deeply angry over the lack of response from their city
officials and the federal government—are working, tirelessly, on street corners,
out of cars, from neighborhood restaurants where they have endless rounds of
meetings, and from the stoops of damaged homes to bring their neighborhoods and
the Jazz City back from the brink. It requires herculean effort: for the working
class and poor communities to return given the lack of services in their
neighborhoods, the skyrocketing rental market, and the uncertainty around
whether large areas (including New Orleans East or the Lower 9th Ward) will be
rebuilt requires an enormous leap of faith on their part. And given the
intersection of class and race in New Orleans, these factors have a
disproportionate impact on the ability of communities of color trying to return
to the city.
Gulf Coast Relief Fund (GCRF), which to date has raised more than $3.5
million from generous donors, is playing a significant role in the rebirth of
New Orleans. The GCRF provided financial assistance to the three New
Orleans-area UU congregations (First Church, Community Church, and North Shore)
so they could assess their current vitality and plan for the future of Unitarian
Universalism in the area. Funds were allocated to specific programs aimed at
helping the people of New Orleans who are most in need. And the GCRF is
assisting Unitarian Universalists and community organizations along the
Mississippi Gulf Coast that was also devastated by the storm.
Aided by mapping of the community, its groups and social structures being
carried out by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, Jainey
Bavishi and Rachel Wilch, who received early support from the GCRF through
Neighborhood Housing Services, the UUA and UUSC were able to connect to the
community groups who were working to bring pressure on the city government to
restore services and help people return to New Orleans. Restoration occurs in
many ways, and the variety of grants made by the GCRF reflects both the
diversity city and the recognition of the many aspects of dignified and
Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a GCRF grantee that received two grants
totaling $93,000, and its employees Lauren Henderson and Shauna Sassoon, are
working with residents of some of the most heavily damaged neighborhoods in the
city to restore gathering places for residents and cultural life for the
neighborhood. In the Ferret Street neighborhood, NHS is cleaning and restoring a
building to be a community center so that residents can access housing info
rmation and services to plan the future of their neighborhood. In the heavily
damaged 7th Ward, where there are no grocery stores, few services, and "rats as
big as dogs" according to one resident, NHS assists residents who are working to
gut and restore their homes. Recognizing the richness of culture in the city and
its importance to their lives (culture is what binds people together and many
people see it as the 'glue' that will bring people back to the neighborhoods),
7th Ward residents are developing a program called "The Porch" that will bring
second-line parades through the
neighborhood, operate a summer cultural and educational program for children,
and organize social gatherings for residents.
The Jeremiah Group , a well-known interfaith community change organization,
is another beneficiary of the GCRF, having received $55,000 from the UUA-UUSC
fund. Led by the dynamic Jackie Jones, this organization is working to restore
the New Orleans public school system, a key step in helping families return to
the city. The Jeremiah Group was also involved in efforts to ensure that all New
Orleanians—including those still residing in other cities—had the right to vote
in the city's recent run-off election for Mayor.
The Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a community
aid and empowerment group, has received $65,000 from the GCRF. ACORN's work has
been essential in identifying the areas where federal and city governments have
failed to provide essential services for residents to allow them to return to
their homes. With ACORN's help, these residents have organized and advocated for
the return of electricity and water utilities, for trash collection, and for
occupancy permits. ACORN has also played a leading role in organizing the work
of volunteers—including UUs who have come to the Gulf Coast from across the
country—in gutting, cleaning, and repairing homes.
One such home belongs to Henry Butler, one of the Jazz
City's most famous residents. Butler plays piano music that moves the soul, and
his long recording
and performing career speaks to his magic.
When Katrina struck, Butler 's home was flooded with more than six feet of
water. On May 4, a UUA-UUSC-funded and ACORN-organized group labored through the
sweltering hot day to gut and clean Butler's home so that the restoration work
can begin. Even with the home gutted and a destroyed grand piano in the center
of the marble-floored living room, it's easy to see how beautiful a home this
Journalist Dorothy Thompson once wrote, "Courage… is nothing less than the
power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to
affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is
meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always
Tomorrow is what the residents of New Orleans look toward. They have braved
the winds and waters of Katrina and now are facing the results of government
misplanning and inattention (no comprehensive plan for reconstruction; no
comprehensive plan to help residents return—particularly working class people).
At the same time that the city withholds occupancy permits from residents, it
info rms residents that if their homes are not cleaned and gutted by the end of
August (the first anniversary of the storm), the city will claim the property by
right of eminent domain.
The people of New Orleans need our support and assistance as they pursue the
right to return to their homes and face the almost overwhelming tasks of
rebuilding lives and communities. This is the mission of the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast
Relief Fund and the organizations it funds. Unitarian Universalists have good
reason to be proud of the work of the GCRF and its grant recipients. We are
making a difference.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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