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ZZZ-RETIRED UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Funds Support New Orleanians Working to Restore the City of Jazz

The UUA's Deb Weiner recently traveled to the Gulf Coast to witness the work of the UUA/UUSC's Gulf Coast Relief Fund.

(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 investors.

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.

The UUA-UUSC 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 meaningful lives.

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 was.

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."

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.