Features

Bottom up

Katrina | The need for volunteers in the Gulf Coast shows no signs of abating

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

NEW ORLEANS- On the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the Gulf Coast, the White House trumpeted how much money the federal government has poured into the devastated region in just two years: $114 billion.

Factor tax relief into the equation and the number jumps to $127 billion. That enormous sum comes close to matching the gross domestic product for the entire state of Louisiana. (Louisiana's GDP is $141 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.)

White House officials say that 84 percent of those funds have been disbursed or are available for Gulf Coast states to use. But billions of dollars later, the housing shortage in the Gulf Coast remains acute. The shortage is particularly severe in Louisiana, where thousands of homeowners wait for housing grants behind reams of red tape.

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Louisiana's state government set up the "Road Home" program to distribute grants of up to $150,000 to help homeowners rebuild. But disputes over how to assess damage to homes and calculate grant amounts have bottlenecked the process. Fewer than 40,000 families have received grants so far, and as many as 60,000 are still waiting. Whole communities remain in ruins, and nearly 43,000 families remain in FEMA trailers or mobile homes across the state.

In New Orleans' low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood, Jerry Kramer isn't waiting on the government. Kramer is pastor of the Free Church of the Annunciation, an 80-year-old Episcopal congregation in the working-class neighborhood that sustained major flood damage during Katrina.

About half of Broadmoor's residents have returned, and Kramer returned to his own home near the church in April. After the hurricane, the church became a relief station for the area, serving hundreds of people a week with essential supplies. Community members began digging out, but Kramer says most also eagerly waited for local officials to provide much-needed help.

The help never materialized. "We kept waiting for the cavalry to come," Kramer told WORLD, standing on a broken sidewalk near the church. "But we're finding out that there is no cavalry."

The government has provided some assistance to local homeowners, but Kramer says church members and volunteers have undertaken the bulk of the recovery work. To that end, the church has become a major hub for volunteer groups coming to the area: Rows of bunk beds have replaced office furniture and Sunday school supplies in rooms above the sanctuary, where volunteers live while working on construction projects.

Construction projects abound, and Broadmoor is still a hodgepodge of recovery: On one corner near the church, a bright blue house stands fully renovated with a neatly manicured lawn and colorful flower beds. Across the street, a gutted duplex reveals dangling electric wires near a lawn piled high with rotting wood.

Kramer says his church plans to help facilitate recovery in Broadmoor and around the city long-term: The church plans to host volunteers weekly for as long as the next 10 years. He's learned that local efforts are most effective: "Anything from top down doesn't work."

The entire Gulf Coast will likely need that kind of long-term help. In mid-August, a local Habitat for Humanity executive estimated that the Gulf Coast would need volunteers flowing in at the current level for at least eight more years.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal organization that serves as an umbrella organization for several volunteer groups, estimated that 1.1 million volunteers have contributed services worth $263 million since Katrina struck two years ago.

But it's hard to put a price tag on some of the services Kramer's church provides: Church members and volunteers have canvassed the neighborhood several times, especially noting the addresses of residents who are elderly or disabled. The church plans to evacuate those vulnerable residents during a hurricane if they need help.

Kramer also spends plenty of time counseling local residents still traumatized from the hurricane's devastation, and the church started a discipleship program for inner-city youth displaced from the neighborhoods nearby.

As the church helps rebuild the community, Kramer says its primary goal is "shining forth the reality of the gospel. . . . We're going back to the idea of the church as the heart of the community."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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