Katrina/Rita: Relief and Recovery Lessons Learned

In May of 2006, I made my first visit to the Gulf Coast to evaluate where and how I could help.  This was 9 months after Katrina had hit in early September 2005.  The first night, I stayed in a motel in New Orleans near downtown.  There were iron gates locking us in at sunset.  Next door was a Wendy’s hamburger place, but only the drive through was open.  These measures were due to crime, not due to hurricane damage.

Not wanting to spend any more nights in “lockdown”, I found a motel open in far southern New Orleans.  It was newly remodeled from the storm.  It was acceptable but was very expensive.  Next door was a Denny’s restaurant with no obvious damage, but it was closed.  Next to the restaurant was a service station/convenience mart; it was closed.  Across from the motel was a huge mall.  I walked around the outside of this mall both mornings I stayed at the motel.  There were no obvious signs of damage, but there was nothing open except a Sears store that had just re-opened the previous week.

The reason businesses were not open was because there was no one to work at them.  There were signs all over town begging people to apply for jobs that paid minimum wage everywhere else in the country but were paying $12 per hour and up in New Orleans.  At one convenience mart there was a huge sign attracting manager applicants.  The compensation was a very nice salary, plus rent paid plus a signing bonus.  This was quite an attractive package for a job that usually pays next to nothing. 

What few people realize is that after a major disaster, not only is the housing situation in ruins, the job situation is also.  When half of the population of a city ups and leaves, there is going to be a huge hole in the available employee base.  When a large percentage of the people who are left can’t or won’t work; a situation such as New Orleans evolves.

While in New Orleans, I tracked down an old friend who was there with a crew from his church doing repairs on a home.   I volunteered to help and my “job” was to go get various building supplies for the many projects they were doing.  Ordinarily this would be an easy job but in New Orleans, 9 months after Katrina, it was torture.  There was ONE Home Depot open and it was 30 minutes away.  Every trip there ended up taking hours because of the crowds waiting to check out.  One time it took me 90 minutes just to wait in line to pay for $30 of materials.

As I traveled around town there were pockets of heavy damage, but there were also vast areas with minimal damage.  Nowhere were there even half the people that should have been in a city that size.   I kept asking myself two haunting questions.  Where did all the people go, and why hadn’t they come back? 

I will never forget driving through huge sections of the “9th ward” and Chalmette.  These were the areas that had suffered major flood damage.  What I cannot shake from my mind was the absence of life.  Block after block of deserted gutted out houses was all that remained of neighborhoods that a year earlier were filled with people of all ages and nationalities. 

One of the most eerie sights I saw was a huge area of town that had previously been a thriving middle class suburb.  Sitting vacant were massive apartment complexes.  Each brick building just sat there without any human activity going on.  No one was working on these buildings, and no one lived in them either.  They just sat there, as eerie reminders of the power of nature.  Nearby was a vacant hospital.  Again, there was no life to be found anywhere near a facility whose very purpose was to save lives.

Down the road was a large school.  Once again, there was no one around.  Not one child was near a facility whose very reason for being built was to teach children.  There were empty businesses of every type along both sides of the main street.  There were empty insurance agencies, banks, grocery stores, drug stores and department stores.  These were all places that 9 months earlier provided employment for the thousands of people living nearby.  Now, all that remained was the skeleton of a once thriving community.  It was unnaturally still.  There were no sounds of hammers, saws or even bulldozers.  Time had passed this neighborhood by, and kept on going.  It was if someone had literally sucked the life out of the city.   

I don’t think people understand how deeply a catastrophic disaster impacts a community.  It is not just the immediate damage that causes the hardship.  It is not just damaged buildings that cause dismay; it is the endless parade of problems that arise weeks and months afterward that generate the real heartaches.  The repercussions from a major disaster are like ripples going through the water after a stone is dropped.  They seemingly keep going forever.  What good does it do to rebuild a house if there is no employment, schools, hospitals or emergency services?  A community is much more than the houses people live in.  That is the first lesson I learned in my personal “disaster training” course.

A few weeks after Katrina hit, Hurricane Rita slammed into western Louisiana south of Lake Charles.  Sitting on the coast was the small fishing town of Cameron.  The combination of 115 mph winds, innumerable tornadoes and a strong storm surge basically wiped Cameron and the surrounding parish off the map. When I went there in June of 2006, I saw again what happens when time stands still.  In the 8 months since the hurricane struck, the only things accomplished were the cleanup of debris and gutting of buildings. 

As of June of 2006 there was no relief agency working anywhere near Cameron.  Most of the major charities never went there and the Red Cross had come and gone in record time.  In between getting devoured by mosquitoes, I talked to some of the poor people living in FEMA travel trailers trying to figure out what to do.  How do you rebuild a town or a parish which has lost its entire tax base?  Where do the funds and the workers come from to ever get started with the job of “getting back to normal”?  What do you do when all the national media attention is diverted to the New Orleans quagmire?  These were the questions posed by residents trapped in the Cameron, Louisiana nightmare.

Natural disasters are equal opportunity destroyers.  They demolish huge cities and small towns; they rip apart people’s lives in wretchedly poor areas and absurdly affluent ones with no discrimination.  Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms and blizzards take their toll on individuals, families, emergency personnel, governments and charities.  The cost of cleanup is staggering and the cost to rebuild is beyond most people’s comprehension.  Disasters come with a high price tag and the cost must be borne by us all; not just the government, insurance companies and the victims.

I learned a lot in my trips to Louisiana during May and June of 2006.  I learned even more as I attempted to find resources for the forgotten victims of southern Alabama and central Mississippi.  What I learned more than anything is that most people want to help after a disaster.  But, most people once they have helped quickly move on and don’t help a second time.  This is understandable, but grossly unfair to the displaced, unemployed and sick victims, as well as those trying to help in long-term recovery efforts.

As Americans, we take pride in our rapid response to disasters.  We also take pride in our compassionate giving after a disaster.  What we need to understand is that there are still many needs long after all the first responders and disaster assistance groups’ move on.  Considering what New Orleans and Cameron, Louisiana looked like 9 months after a major disaster; we must put as much thought and devote as many resources to long-term recovery as we do to short-term relief.   It takes months, and in Katrina and Rita’s cases, years, to win back what nature took away in a day.  We need to help people until the job is done; not pass out vouchers, food and clothing and then disappear in the night.

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