Cover Story: After the Storm – Hurricane Katrina and people of color

November 2005

Naomi Ishisaka
ColorsNW Magazine

SLIDELL, La. – The Rev. Lance Eden is at a crossroads. Just 26 years old, Eden is dressed age-appropriately in baggy jeans, baseball cap and a sports jersey donated by a local youth group. Yet Eden’s youthful appearance masks the responsibility he carries with him and the solemn decisions that weigh heavily on him today. Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Eden has a decision to make: Should he stay or should he go?

Lead pastor for just three months of the First United Methodist Church in uptown New Orleans, the thoughtful and serious Eden is a shepherd without a flock. His enthusiasm, vision and hopes for his congregation of 580 were cut short by Katrina, which left the church building relatively unscathed but the people scattered. Baton Rouge, La., Houston, San Antonio – Eden’s church members are everywhere but in New Orleans. On top of his worry for his church, Eden occasionally remembers with a start that he lost everything he had in the hurricane and that every day he has to find another place to stay. Recognizing all this and the epic diaspora of his congregation, the Methodist leadership is offering Eden a chance to get away from it all and start afresh in Ruston, La., five hours north near Shreveport, with a position at a Methodist children’s home. But Eden is conflicted. Would accepting the Ruston assignment – which was not presented to Eden as negotiable – mean taking the easy way out? Would it mean turning his back on his congregation and forsaking the chance to lead and make a difference in New Orleans?

Eden’s dilemma is one of the millions of life-changing decisions faced by survivors of Katrina and Rita since the storms delivered a deadly and devastating one-two punch to the Gulf Coast region. Beyond immediate needs such as food and shelter, the survivors face uncertain futures, without the stability of their work and homes for the foreseeable future. The hurricanes hit communities of color hard, and we watched with the rest of the world as our people were left to die of neglect and dehydration on American streets by the delay and ineptitude of the government response. Despite the pictures on television, African Americans were not the only people of color to be affected. Thousands of Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom were war refugees just 30 years ago, became refugees again. Latinos also became displaced and those without documentation suffered the added indignity of denial of services. Some of the hardest-hit communities were the Houma and other Native tribes of southeastern Louisiana, who through colonization and discrimination had been pushed to settle on the tips of the bayous.

Immediately after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, the images of pain and outrage over the survivors languishing at the Superdome and the Convention Center in New Orleans quickly galvanized people around the nation into action and activism. People of color came together to organize, fill a need and demonstrate that we can and will take care of one another when the government does not. In the Northwest, communities of color organized hundreds of benefits; volunteered time locally and in the Gulf Coast; donated food, money and clothing; sponsored individual families and worked to make evacuees feel at home. Yet, the reality on the ground leaves no doubt that there is so much more to be done. The generosity of ordinary people who scrounge in their wallets to help touch survivors to the core. But the indignities of life as an evacuee, as a case number and an object of charity are wearing thin.

As national attention and concern dissipate, the challenges remain. There are still tens of thousands of survivors without permanent or temporary housing even as thousands of RV trailers ordered by the government sit unused. The attention brought by the public and shocking images of people languishing in New Orleans streets has been replaced with the private and quiet frustration of navigating the conflicting, confusing and bureaucratic maze that is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). ColorsNW spent a week in the Gulf Coast to document these continuing challenges firsthand as they are experienced by the family of local people of color. We went to see the ongoing needs of our brothers and sisters and find out how our governments and designated aid agencies have succeeded or failed in meeting the needs of people of color.

Going Home
Slidell, La., is a medium-size city separated from its better-known neighbor to the south, New Orleans, by Lake Pontchartrain. Slidell residents like their distance from the urban metropolis of New Orleans and enjoy the more low-key, country pace of life. At the grocery store or just driving down the street, neighbors offer a friendly wave or hello. Yet while New Orleans got the bulk of ink after Hurricane Katrina, it was Slidell that was in the eye of the storm, facing not only massive flooding like New Orleans but wind and tornado damage that left the city in tatters.

In the part of town known as Indian Village, Lance Eden offers a history lesson about the area his family calls home. Serious and thoughtful, all who speak of Eden see a great leader in the making. Someone who is wise enough to be able to say he doesn’t know and confident enough to take the lead when the need arises. Eden sees the preservation of his family history as part of his responsibility not just to his kin but to the history of Slidell. The history of his family stretches back centuries, and as a history buff, he has taken to compiling and keeping those stories for future generations. The Porters, Eden’s family on his father’s side, are seemingly everywhere, with a cemetery, post office, gas station all once bearing their name. Much of the land in the Village was once owned by the Porters, and their family home, now damaged by flood, dates back to the 1850s.

Yet Eden is not in the Village for a trip down memory lane. Eden and his mother, Antoinette McClain of Tumwater, Wash., want to visit the family cemetery, where all the Porters are buried. As the cemetery gets closer, a macabre sight – played out over and over in southeastern Louisiana – comes into view. On the sides of the roads near the cemetery, the crypts Louisianans use in their above-ground cemeteries to protect coffins from water are scattered about like children’s toys. Some are wedged between trees, others askew in ditches. In the family cemetery, the air is stiflingly hot, humid and still. Thousand-pound crypts are tossed around by wind and water, and the coffin of Eden’s half-Indian great-grandmother, Zeta Porter, is missing from its crypt. As we drive through the area, Eden stops the car to see if the loose coffins are that of his family.

Next on the grim tour is Eden’s own house, which for 20 years he has shared with his father’s mother, Phyllis Eden, who evacuated to Villarica, Ga. The solid brick house, not too far from Indian Village, has been home to Phyllis Eden for 56 years, and from the outside it almost looks normal – except for the dried, caked mud that could be mistaken for tile in the front yard. “I’m not worried about material thing,” Lance Eden says. “We are worried about the pictures. We have pictures from the 1800s and I want to make sure they are OK.”

The smell hits you as you enter the house. A mixture of putrid mold and decay, the odor reflects the total chaos within. Chairs atop tables and everything in between, the state of Eden’s house is emblematic of the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes to the hurricane’s indiscriminate floods. Like most hurricane victims do, Eden first tries to save family mementos. Eden manages to salvage some soggy and irreplaceable pieces of his family’s proud heritage – photos and portraits of the very people he spoke about. Yet much is lost. President of his high school class, Eden laments that he will have a harder time finding his classmates with his yearbook destroyed. Service awards, church awards, all are waterlogged and moldy. When Eden evacuated on the Sunday before Katrina hit – like nearly every evacuee we encountered – he left with clothes for three days and the money in his pocket. After a lifetime in a hurricane zone, he thought he had plenty of experience and calculated that three days would be all that was needed before he could get back to his life.

“We thought it was a storm like all the other storms,” Eden says. “We would have storms that would come our way, and people would pray them away. People would say ‘it’s all right, the storm would pass.’ But the worst thing we thought was that a tree would come flying through the house and it might be dangerous. In Slidell, no one thought the storm would come as a tidal wave and flood everyone.”

Of the things Eden misses about his life before, it’s the small things that matter most. “My grandmother’s house was the gathering place for everybody. I miss the simple things. To sit in my grandmother’s house on the couch, watch TV and smell my grandmother’s cooking. The ability to relax.” It’s still hard for him to realize that he has no home to go back to. “In my mind, my natural instinct is like ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to my house’ and you keep forgetting that you can’t go back to the house. It’s hard to live with people, especially in this condition here because everyone is strapped and are just doing the best they can to let others stay.”

Surviving the Storms
There is a new greeting for folks in the Gulf Coast now. After the warm Southern “How’re you doing?” and the smiles and hugs comes the inevitable question: So how’d your house do? Then the stories pour out: “We got five feet of water; we never got water before.” “Our house was fine but my sister had to be rescued from the roof of her house.” “A tree split our house in two!” “We had no damage, I feel terrible saying this with everything everyone else is going through, but I sure wish we had our cable back!” and on and on.

There are as many movie-of-the-week-worthy stories of survival and heroism as there are storm survivors. Here are a few of those tales.

The Rev. Michael Manaway is a relative newcomer to Biloxi, Miss. A native of Hattiesburg, Miss., the reverend is the brother of Seattle Rev. Robert Manaway of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Michael Manaway lived for six years in a Biloxi suburb called D’Iberville, which is a few miles from Point Cadet, an area known for its casinos as well as its modest homes. Like many others, Manaway had decided to ride out the storm in his home. As the waters began to rise, he kicked out the front window of his home, tied a rope around his wife, his mother-in-law and himself, and walked several blocks through four feet of rushing water to a neighbor’s home on higher ground. They left with just the clothes on their back.

“It’s been extremely stressful for everybody,” Manaway says. “The stress of losing everything. (We didn’t have the time to grab anything) at the rate that the water was rising which was extremely quick…. I didn’t have flood insurance. They wouldn’t even sell us flood insurance because the area’s not zoned as a flood zone. Pretty much like most of the areas here. Most of them didn’t flood or get water from Camille (in 1969), which was the worst storm on record to hit Mississippi. … Nobody would have ever thought that the water (would get so high).”

Driving through Point Cadet, it is hard to conceive of people living among the wreckage of a community that looks like a giant bulldozer ran over it. But nestled between rows of houses that were hit by the flood but spared the devastating wind damage that crushed the rest of the Point, a group of survivors sits on their porches in Holley Street, listening to Sly and the Family Stone booming from a stereo near a smoking barbecue grill and a tent. Across the street, a car is suspended in midair after the houses on either side came off their foundations and squeezed it between them. Volunteers from Hands on America are hanging out too, distributing medical care, tents and other necessities. The residents’ rental houses, while not inhabitable due to flood damage, are at least not demolished by wind like most other housing in the area. After the storm, many came back to clean their houses and sleep outdoors at night. But now, the owner of their homes has sent each of them a letter saying that they would have to leave their homes by the end of September because of concerns for their safety.

The residents aren’t buying it. “They want our houses for the land,” is what they and many others believe. The highly valuable land in this peninsula of Biloxi is in the shadow of the booming floating-casino industry, which was only allowed to operate in water. After the storm, the industry got the government go-ahead to build casinos on land, making the Holley Street land, where homes rent for $75-$200 a month, more lucrative for developers. A Biloxi city councilman is fighting the evictions, but is unlikely to win. As of a Oct. 13 Associated Press story, the residents were staying put, although the eviction letters are getting more vehement.

Back in Slidell, Antoinette McLain’s family gathers at the now-uninhabitable two-bedroom home where the 10 members of the family grew up, in an area of modest, well-kept residences called Lincoln Park. McLain’s family has its own story of surviving the storm, of how her sister Katherline “Cookie” Brown and her mother, Frances Brown, had to outrun rushing water.

“(The storm) had stopped,” Cookie Brown recalls. “Everything was over with. Then water started coming into the house. I went to take a nap, then water started coming in. I said ‘Mama, we have to get out of here.’ I tried to find my shoe, water was pushing us.”

But Ma Brown, saddled with diabetes and pulmonary asthma, was not having it.

“I said, ‘I ain’t going nowhere,’” Frances Brown remembers. “I was just sitting here in the chair. I knew from looking at the rain and the wind that the water wouldn’t come in here. Then my grandson, he says, ‘Ma Brown, can I get some of those towels and put them under the door?’ I said, ‘Why?’ he said the water was coming in the house. I had had some medicine, my picnic basket, he said ‘Mama you have to get out.’ The water was flowing towards us. I was wearing one of those muumuu dresses. Cookie said, ‘Ma, don’t you know you’re supposed to wear pants in a hurricane?’ I didn’t think no water was going to come. We went down to this man’s house on the corner – it was the tallest house in the neighborhood. There was 32 of us on the porch. I didn’t go in anyone’s house. I wouldn’t go in the house. We just sat on the porch. I stayed there till Tuesday night. When (we were brought) home, the water was out of the house. I had drinks, water, canned Vienna sausage.”

George Mills’ house is indeed the tallest in the neighborhood. Built on stilts about 10 feet off the ground, it was the natural refuge for the increasing number of people coming by boat. Mills evacuated before the hurricane and now back at home, Mills was unaware his house saved so many peoples’ lives. “They thought I was crazy 20 years ago (when I built the house) but they think I’m a genius now,” Mills says. “I am very happy to see my house was able to help people. I would have (sought shelter) too.”

Once the 32 evacuees – ages 2 to 70 – were on the porch, a debate ensued about whether or not to use the bathrooms in the house or stick it out on the porch. Eventually the group decided that because of the desperate emergency, it would be OK to break the window to use the bathroom. But Cookie Brown laid down the law.

“I said look, ‘Don’t get on the man’s carpet.’ I said, ‘Don’t you touch nothing in this man’s house.’” And so it was. By the Wednesday after the storm hit, the water had receded enough to try to take the pirogue (a Louisiana canoe pronounced peer-row) to check on the houses. “Mama didn’t ride in a boat her whole life but she went home in a pirogue,” Cookie Brown laughs. “The water was down at the house; it was just soaked; house was just tore up.” Expecting the arrival of federal or local aid workers, they were shocked to wait five days before they saw anyone. With the roads flooded, cars destroyed and only boats for transport, the neighborhood was isolated.

“Five days – nothing happening for five days,” Cookie Brown says. “That’s when (New Orleans Mayor Ray) Nagin got on the radio. You didn’t see nobody. I was (angry) that they already declared this a disaster area, before and it took five days for anyone to come through here. I don’t know if Nagin hadn’t said what he said, maybe it would have taken longer than five days. Didn’t see a soul. It was totally pitch-black (at night).”

But they found ways to make do. By the time they got back to Frances Brown’s house, the water had receded enough. The house was destroyed by flooding and mud, but there was a glimmer of hope. “Went to run the water in the sink, it ran,” Frances Brown says. “I said, ‘We’ve got water!’ Went to flush the toilet, it flushed. Went to turn the gas stove on, it worked. So on Wednesday when I got back to the house, I cooked up two pounds of beans. My neighbor had a freezer where the food was still half-froze so then we cooked up some chicken, ribs and fish. We put some wood on the barbecue pit, put the pan down. I fed ’em all.”

McLain’s brother, Glenn Ray Brown, meanwhile, was fighting for his own survival across town in Slidell. “After the … water came in on us, I got on a tree and tied myself to the limb so I would not fall back in the water. I tied myself with an extension cord. After I was rescued on a boat, I started going around rescuing other people.” He and other evacuees then set up and ran a shelter-type operation at the local John Slidell Park until the Red Cross finally came and took it over. “We’ve been working together to help one another. We kept the place clean, kept the place organized.”

Where is the calvary?
There is one common refrain we hear from all the hurricane survivors we talk to: Where is the aid? For many, life would have been infinitely harder were it not for the generosity of family, church and individual volunteers. As one person puts it, “If it wasn’t for family, we’d be homeless.” Nearly a month after the hurricane and with billions of dollars spent on relief, none of the families we spoke with had been provided a trailer or other living space by FEMA. Many have applications in to receive housing but are still waiting. They all stayed with friends and family or got rent-free apartments from private companies. Families who house relatives receive no support from FEMA. Its plan to build massive trailer parks for evacuees has fallen flat, with parks in remote, rural parts of Alabama and Arkansas going empty and having to be shut down. FEMA’s plan for housing evacuees in cruise ships has been blasted for paying Carnival Cruise Lines $2,300 per person per week, three times what the actual cruise (one that leaves the dock) would cost a vacationer. It is these types of missteps and misspent money that outrage hurricane victims. FEMA’s communications department, subcontracted to Innovative Emergency Management, Inc., would not return calls for comment.

For Michael Manaway of Biloxi, the feeling of being abandoned by the government is nothing new. “We’ve always felt that government didn’t care about southwest Mississippi,” he says. “I am very unhappy with the response of the some of the government agencies and American Red Cross. I am unhappy with how they have responded and how they have handled the people here on the Gulf Coast. (They have treated us) poorly. Salvation Army has now stepped up to begin to meet some needs but that’s because they have been under the gun from several nonprofit Christian organizations who have stepped up to do mission work. Feed the Children has been outstanding. Two days after the hurricane we saw their trucks. FEMA? Well what can I say? I haven’t seen a lot of what the Red Cross has been doing around here (either). I haven’t seen any (disaster assistance) at all yet.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that the majority of the people who needed to be evacuated, they had no means to get out. They were low-income individuals who couldn’t get out. If they needed to evacuate, there should have been means for them to do so. As a result, a lot of people died. I would have to say that if that had been a different class of people things would have been handled differently, by the governor and the president of the U.S. … On the Mississippi Gulf Coast I think the perspective of how we feel about leadership hadn’t been affected much. Government officials really haven’t done much to step up for the people of Mississippi. We have seen church organizations rally to help the people.”

Lance Eden has experienced firsthand the frustration of dealing with disaster aid agencies. A week after the hurricane when he evacuated to Villarica, Ga., near Atlanta, Eden started the process of applying for aid.

“I went to a center at the Georgia International Center at College Park. We were in line from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. before we got in the building to even see the people. I had already made the first trip to Louisiana (from Atlanta) with the (church) van loaded with goods for people doing this goodwill stuff when I realized, wait a second, you’re part of this disaster as well. You’ve got to get in line and apply for the aid just like everyone else. In this center you had FEMA, Red Cross, Salvation Army. … The first thing we applied for was the $300 for Red Cross. … Then you got in line to get food stamps. Then you get the food stamps and it’s like $149 for a whole month. And you’re like $149? Who is that going to feed? Then they send you to FEMA. My grandmother didn’t qualify. They said she made too much. But she said, “But I’m displaced! My check is not coming. My check is not coming to Georgia.” Only because she was a widow of a veteran did she get the $2,000 … They tell you to go (talk) to FEMA, then they just put you on the phone.”
Like for Manaway, faith in government was not a given for Eden. “I wouldn’t say my feelings changed (about the government),” Eden says. “It’s more that our fears were realized. If the community, the local community, doesn’t support each other we wouldn’t really survive as a whole. It’s hard to put your trust in the government. This is a prime example of how they aren’t coming through.

“People will say ‘Here we go again with the African Americans and the minorities, using this as a racism soap box.’ But the truth is, before we had the storm, there was an underlying difference between the races (in New Orleans). There was too great a deficit for the African Americans in the projects to the white people in the Garden District, from my church, where we were dodging bullets every day to two blocks away (where) people are walking their dogs, jogging, sending their kids to private school.

“(The hurricane) has shown a hole where the government hasn’t lived up to what it’s supposed to live up to,” Eden says. “I watched the interviews with (former FEMA Director Michael) Brown, (he asked) was it their fault, or my fault. Nobody wanted him to be Superman. We just wanted him to do his job. His job was support. … If you see there is a house on fire, you should shout from the rooftops ‘The house is on fire!’ That’s what Brown should have done. It took the mayor of New Orleans to curse the president out (before anything happened),” Eden says.

“The hurricane was devastating in itself. But hurricane is a natural disaster, you can’t stop it, you can’t control it. But the rescue and response, you had control over. You can direct it, you can manipulate … That’s why you had the people at the Convention Center shouting – ‘We need help!’ I had friends in the Superdome who were treated like cattle by the Red Cross. They were not treated with the kind of courtesy you treat humans.”

For Eden, Manaway and the majority of evacuees we spoke to, the outpouring of donations to organizations such as the Red Cross is well-intentioned but misplaced.

“The Red Cross has what they need,” Eden says. “If you want to do something, give money to individual persons who have been directly affected. Find someone and give it directly to them. Or start a foundation and direct those funds where you want them to go. Sure, the Red Cross says ‘Send all your money to us!’ but what the Red Cross doesn’t tell you is that we’re going to pay all our staff first and the money will go to relief for other disasters going on at the same time.” Eden encourages people to get personally involved in relief work. “(The majority of the help has) come from the individual people. Don’t send your money to big foundations. Get involved, don’t be afraid to get in someone’s life. Generations of people will be telling the story (of the people who reached out to them).”

Indeed, all across the Gulf Coast you hear stories and see evidence of the individual acts of kindness and generosity that sustain lives and spirits. At one of Eden’s family’s churches in Slidell, a group of independent volunteers loads, sorts and organizes donations for the relief center, set up in the flood-damaged African-American church, where some evacuees also spend the night. Cleaning supplies have arrived and volunteers are compiling much-needed flood buckets for residents to begin cleaning their homes. Three white men from a tiny town in South Carolina have brought their second truckload of sheet rock to help local people tear down soaked walls and rebuild their homes. They stopped by the church to see if any help was needed there. This type of ad-hoc relief – with individual volunteers and donations – and shelter operation are found all across the region.
While there is little love for the Red Cross as a whole, at the same time, individual Red Cross volunteers earn smiles and praise. In one Slidell neighborhood, Sylvester Lawrence, a kindly African-American volunteer from Queens, N.Y., calls out from a Red Cross food truck: “Red Cross with your evening meal, Red Cross with your evening meal. If you’re a senior citizen, wave out of your house and we will bring a meal to you.” Delivering 900 meals a day as well as toys for the kids, Lawrence has been volunteering for two weeks and feels good being able to help. The Red Cross trucks have come twice a day to affected areas and are the most visible sign of aid across the region.

Frustrating process
For evacuees, one of the most frustrating aspects of the relief efforts is the lack of reliable information. Even if evacuees do have some good information – about a Red Cross relief center that is distributing financial assistance, for example – they have to get there by 6 a.m. or they will be too late for help that day. If someone is elderly or infirm, waiting for eight hours in 90-degree heat for aid that may or may not come through often does not seem worthwhile. And negotiating the maze of FEMA and Red Cross can stymie even the savviest people. Perhaps to avoid these obstacles, all across the region – in grassy lots next to gas stations and church parking lots – camping tents have popped up like mushrooms, providing rough shelter near working bathrooms and provisions.

For many evacuees we spoke with, the official relief effort has been bureaucratic and unsympathetic, hopelessly confused and painfully slow. But it is not only evacuees who are confused. The New York Times reported Oct. 19 that the Red Cross and FEMA had overstated by 400,000 the number of people housed by the agencies in hotels. This highlights the agencies’ own lack of accurate numbers on evacuees and their housing needs. This and continued complaints about ineffectiveness are further eroding public trust. The Times reported in the same article that confidence in the Red Cross has declined among the public since this disaster, even as confidence in other charities remained the same.
Antoinette McLain wants to check on her brother, Glenn Ray Brown at the latest incarnation of the Red Cross shelter at the new North Shore Convention Center in Slidell. Moving three times in three weeks, Brown had just settled in the day before. As a fierce wind barrages the building, the outdoor shower tents appear ready to blow over.

As we enter the shelter to visit Brown, we are immediately swarmed by predominantly Euro-American volunteers in Red Cross shirts. First we are told that no cameras are allowed in the shelter. Then we are told no media are allowed in the shelter. This is a “hard and fast” rule. We must shut off our tape recorder for the privacy of the residents in the shelter. We are told we have already invaded the privacy of the workers of a federally funded agency by taping them asking us to leave the shelter. After traveling through barricaded and closed cities, this is our first encounter with official resistance.

We put away our camera and recorder and go to see where Brown is staying. In a huge room with approximately 200 beds, he has fashioned a space for himself where he is quite content. As he shows us his bed, more workers rush over to tell us we cannot see his living space, even though we are with his family, again because of privacy reasons. We are only allowed to speak with him if we go outside the shelter. It is these kinds of interactions that drive evacuees mad. The next day in The Times-Picayune newspaper, a photo of the inside of the same shelter taken that same day with images of evacuees at the same beds we saw accompanies a story about the new shelter.

Resentment toward the Red Cross runs deep among some of the evacuees. Many feel the organization is overly bureaucratic and hopelessly out of touch with the communities of color and particularly the churches that form the backbone of the community. Consequently, many black pastors, including Eden, are starting their own organizations to more directly funnel aid to those who need it.

“It’s been tedious and stressful (in the shelter),” African American evacuee Annie Nevis says. “Volunteers’ attitudes, sometimes they act like you are there to serve them and they are not there to help you with your stress. There are a lot of rules. They don’t seem to understand the people who are here, they had homes, they had jobs, all are not poor. … We’ve been waiting for trailers for the longest. They always say it will be in two weeks, but the two weeks go on and on.”

Another evacuee says the shelter treats the evacuees like inmates, not people with homes deserving dignity. He says each day, including Sunday, the shelter blares an alarm and turns on the lights for a mandatory 6 a.m. wakeup. Why, he asks? “Haven’t we been through enough?” Louisiana Red Cross representative Tim Williams says the rules are designed to allow shelter residents who work the chance to wake up in time for their jobs. He says that the situation is stressful for everyone but that the system is set up to do the most good for the most people.

The Volunteers
McLain is a woman on a mission. No matter where she is in the world – and she has been everywhere, from Iraq to Afghanistan – Slidell will always be her home. Born and raised in Slidell, McLain watched in frustration and agony as her community was ripped apart by first the hurricane and then by government inaction.

Determined to do something, the Tumwater resident volunteered her boundless energy locally to help Operation Evergreen, a Washington state program to help resettle and service evacuees. Through organizing and networking, McLain helped evacuees connect with local government services as well as relief. But after a few weeks, McLain knew she had to go home and try to help on the ground.

One of the families McLain helped in Washington, the Vails, needed a favor. Could she go to their house in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and retrieve their family photos? They stayed during the storm and left with only the clothes on their backs. Lucien Vail Sr. even left behind his wallet. Armed with an address, McLain sets off to find a house in a part of New Orleans that was only recently opened to residents. While there is much damage to parts of the infrastructure of New Orleans, the most prominent feeling is of desolation. We could count on two hands the number of people we saw as we traveled through the Seventh and Ninth wards. The “toxic sludge” has dried, leaving behind caked mud that quickly became dust in the streets. Asked if this dust was as toxic as the water, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency could not say.

Expecting to be stopped by police, we instead traveled unimpeded to the Vail’s home on Louisa Street. Inside, the tidy two-story brick house, like so many others in the Ninth Ward, is a disaster. It looks like someone picked it up, shook it and set it down – and then covered it with mud. McLain locates the photos and puts them in a plastic bag.

As the waters rose after the hurricane, the more able-bodied of the eight people in the house stayed in the flooded downstairs while the children and elders stayed dry in the attic. Downstairs, the adults used doors to make pallets to sleep on and stay out of the water. They took turns checking on the folks upstairs. When the water receded enough two days after Katrina hit, the family decided to try to get out. With three of the children on their shoulders and one, who has mild cerebral palsy, being pushed in a cooler, the family waded its way to safety, and ultimately, Washington.

McLain phones the Vails and they are delighted at her success. But she wants to do more. She wants to make sure that everyone staying in a shelter without a home to return to knows that he or she has a home in Washington state. She wants them to know that while the Northwest seems far away, volunteers there will work hard to make sure they are comfortable. At the Red Cross shelter at the North Shore Harbor Center, McLain finds a family from the inundated St. Bernard Parish (parishes are like counties in the region) east of New Orleans who are ready to leave. They don’t care where they go. With three young kids and another on the way, shelter life is untenable. North Shore is their third shelter – at the second one, they were forced to leave their clothes behind. It’s 5 p.m. and they are still in their pajamas. It’s too much.

“We’re not the kind of people who wear pajamas all day long,” Guy Clark says. “We don’t care where we go, we need to get out of here.”

McLain gives them the pitch on Washington. They ask a few questions about it: What’s the weather like? Are the people nice? They roll the dice and decide to drive to Washington. But before they are to leave the next day, a family member buys them a trailer to live in Louisiana. They have a home for now.

The Rev. Robert Manaway also has come home to help. Head of Seattle’s Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in the Central District, the Hattiesburg, Miss., native felt compelled to do something. Frustrated by the slow federal response, Manaway and his congregation filled a 48-foot-long shipping container with relief supplies and shipped it down to Hattiesburg to help the devastated town of Palmer’s Crossing. He then flew down the region to deliver the aid and help his own family recover.

Many other people are on their way, too. Rev. Pat Wright of Seattle’s Total Experience Choir was set to take a trip to help as was Yalonda Sinde of Seattle’s Community Coalition of Environmental Justice. A caravan of young people from the United Rescue Relief in Seattle also planned a trip to deliver relief supplies.

Evacuees in Puget Sound
As of mid-October, the number of hurricane evacuees in King County alone amounted to 1,200, Mike Eagan of the Seattle Red Cross says. Statewide, FEMA estimates the number of evacuees to be 4,000. This would make the resettlement of evacuees an unprecedented event for the state, according to Eagan. Eagan says the number of Red Cross volunteers is also up, with XXXXXX.

The Vails are one of these families. Kim Walker and her husband, Kelvin Bradford, both had family hit by Katrina – Walker’s family was the Vail family in New Orleans and Bradford’s in Mississippi. But Walker’s family, who escaped after staying in their attic, had nowhere to go. The couple, who have a young daughter as well as an elderly parent to care for, didn’t hesitate. After three frantic days without any knowledge about the condition of the family, Walker – who was born and raised in New Orleans – finally got word and sent 11 bus tickets to Baton Rouge so the family could come to Washington.

Walker, 34, who has already served one tour in Iraq with the Army’s 47th Combat Support Hospital and is scheduled for another stint in a few months, takes it all in stride. “You just gotta do what you gotta do,” she says. Her military training has helped her adapt to having an extra 11 people in her home: “Adjust, adapt and overcome is what we learn in the Army,” Walker says. Walker says the community has rallied to help her family. “Everybody has been just awesome,” she says. The outpouring of support has included her local gas station and church collecting clothing and food. Walker expects to have the family for at least a year.

After returning to Washington from the Gulf Coast, McLain is eager to return the Vails’ recovered personal photos and mementos back to the family. With the family gathered in the living room to see what was recovered, McLain opens the box. It’s like Christmas in October. There’s the cherished Stetson hat that Lucien Vail Sr. has had for 52 years as well as a waterlogged wallet that he left in the rush to escape; wedding pictures; many other irreplaceable items. “We’ve got some memories (now),” Vail says.

These are the types of personal acts of kindness that Rosalund Jenkins, director of Washington’s Commission on African American Affairs is heartened by. But Jenkins is frustrated by what she sees as the inadequacy of the overall response. “We need to refocus attention on the long term needs of relocation. Long-term housing, furnishings and goods to rebuild your life. FEMA benefits max out at $26,000 for your home. Peoples’ debt obligations are still ticking.”

Jenkins says it’s been individuals and churches that have stepped into the breach. “Community organizations are helping, churches are helping. We have to encourage big funders like Red Cross to build bridges to black churches and find ways to reach out to families. … (I’m) not sure how prepared these organizations are in working with communities of color. … Red Cross didn’t know how to tap into resources in the (black) community. We need to get Red Cross tapped into this community.”

For Jenkins, the response and now the rebuilding are tainted by racial disparity. “The things to remember are that the Ninth Ward is made up of huge communities of black people, many of whom were underemployed and undereducated. This was the life of the city. This community is central to the essence of the city. Listen to the talk about the rebuilding effort. They talk about pushing the poverty out, they’re talking about pushing the black people out. If the racial complexion had been different, the levees would be better maintained. There are hundreds of thousands of black people who need our help. Let’s not let them get abused again.

“People did not leave New Orleans because they had no way to leave New Orleans. These were people who have disabilities, amputations and no wheelchairs. … Many didn’t have cars, and no way to move. Class and income are key facets to this disaster. … Listening to some of the people in government and the private sector, even white people were shocked by the slow response. They didn’t realize the degree to which race influences the actions of the people who are charged to look after the welfare of the people as a whole.”

Going forward
Back in Slidell, the idea is slowing crystallizing in Lance Eden’s mind: Use the church as a relief center for returning New Orleanians to seek food, clothing and supplies to clean out their houses. After dozens of phone calls to Methodist bishops and others in the church leadership, Eden’s gut tells him this is what he needs to do. It’s early October and the church leaders reluctantly say he can go ahead with his plan, but he has one week to secure funding to assure them it will be self-sustaining.

“Avoiding these things make me feel like I’m running. I don’t like to feel like I am running. I feel like some of what these pastors are doing is avoiding the inevitable. You got to come back here, you’ve got to minister, you’ve got to deal with these people,” Eden says. “If I go up (to Ruston) … I will just leave my house to whatever happens. I can’t do that, I wasn’t raised like that. I have never run away from an issue or problem. Yeah, it’s overwhelming, it’s a lot of work. …Yeah, it would be nice to go to Ruston. Put my feet up on a recliner, it would be nice to drive back to Villarica, (Ga.,) get on the couch. And not worry about what’s going on back there. … But I live here, I’ve got to come back here. We could mop up my church. People are going to need volunteers to help gut out their houses, get things cleaned up. People are going to need flood buckets, bleach. Make this a resource center where you have volunteers, people can sleep on the benches. They can have the Methodist church issue out flood buckets, food. … Most of my parishioners were born and raised in this area. People want to be in their houses. If we had our church open we could have food issued from there. As far as I can tell, there is nobody in New Orleans offering these services.”

Even for the purposeful and resourceful Eden, the tremendous size of the task ahead is daunting. “This type of thing, it makes me tired. … Where do you start? It’s just overwhelming.”

A week later, Eden is committed to the idea, but after passing up the Ruston job, he still has no place to live, shuttling back and forth between relatives and sleeping in his office in the church. His grandmother, Phyllis Eden, who was one of the first to apply for a FEMA trailer and who is considered a “high priority” victim due to her age, still has not received her trailer and is staying with acquaintances in Villarica. But Eden’s plan to turn the church into a relief center is gathering momentum. The church’s first service since the storm took place Oct. 16 and 130 people showed up. Already, pledges of support have come from sister Methodist churches as well as individuals. Church members have trickled back the area.

There is still much more to be done, but the embers of a future are slowly burning.


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