Faith-based Teams Rebuilding New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS - A tap dancer rattles on the sidewalk on Bourbon Street, continuing a New Orleans tradition. But despite bustling business in the French Quarter, other parts of the Big Easy are struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago.

Starting from Scratch

"We came back to nothing. ... We had to start from scratch," says Katrina survivor Stacy Howard of New Orleans' Ninth Ward -- evacuated with most of her family before the New Orleans levees broke during Katrina. Her grandfather decided to stay behind, and died in the storm.

"A lot of people say, it's been three years, and they should be over it," Howard says, "but how can you get over something that took everything from you -- people, material things, memories?"

The physical devastation is stark with street after street of abandoned homes, trailers sitting on empty lots, and boarded up buildings. More than a million volunteers have come to the Gulf Coast to help in post-Katrina recovery efforts, but some areas of New Orleans, like the expansive Ninth Ward, still resemble a disaster zone. Some residents have returned, and others have started to rebuild.

Louisiana First Lady Supriya Jindal says there are "pockets of hope," thanks to the many volunteers.

"People across country that have come down here and worked very hard in the hot and the sweat," Jindal says, "and they've worked and they've poured their hearts and their souls into helping our state and our cities rebuild."

Volunteers Still Coming

Jindal says the volunteers are still coming. Students on spring break. High schoolers coming down to help out with what Jindal calls incredible needs.

"We're basically building a lot of our school systems, our health systems," she said. "There are so many things we had problems with before the storms, and the storms highlighted a lot of those problems. So, now we have a real opportunity. Not that we wished for the storms, but now that they happened we got this opportunity. to truly develop a new system.

"A lot of people are just coming to see how they can help to rebuild, not only a school system and a health system, but a faith system -- to help from a grassroots level. You see churches being rebuilt, you see homes, and just an incredible, incredible community effort that's going on from the grassroots level," Jindal said.

Housing Top Priority

Housing continues to be top priority for local, state and federal officials. General Douglas O'Dell, federal coordinator of the federal Gulf Coast Rebuilding, has been intimately involved with recovery since he commanded the Marine Task Force efforts in the early days after Katrina.

"The complexity and the breadth and depth of this cannot be appreciated unless you've been on the ground almost from day one," O'Dell said. "We're light years from where we were three years ago, but it is a long, long process."

O'Dell estimates 23,000 families across the Gulf Coast region remain displaced.

"That's bad news," he said. "The good news is that about 143,000 was where we were after Katrina. That's families, so quite a number of people."

His agency's goal is getting people back in sustainable housing by March of 2009, and he says, there is progress.

"On average about 1,000 families a week are moving from trailers into longer term, sustainable housing -- most of it, if not all of it, provided free of charge by FEMA under contract with landlord," he said.

'Volunteers Can Get it Done'

At a recent New Orleans conference hosted by the White House Faith Based and Community Initiatives Office, First Lady Laura Bush showcased the role of faith-based and community groups in disaster recovery efforts.

"The federal government has great resources but it cannot, and should not, solve great social problems alone," she said.

"The government moves slow and volunteers can bypass a lot of things because they are volunteers. They can just come in and get it done," said Marcia Peterson, who works with Desire Street Ministries, a faith-based group that's helping rebuild a public housing community in the Ninth Ward.

"We housed about a 1,200 volunteers that gutted out about 600 homes in this neighborhood, and those homes, probably half of them still would not be gutted out or torn down without the volunteers," Peterson said.

"Certain neighborhoods came back really quickly. Other neighborhoods are still really struggling," said Danny Wuerffel, Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries. The 1996 Heisman Trophy winner was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997, and played for the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears, and the Washington Redskins.

"If you go into the Ninth Ward in particular, you've got a lot of devastation, and it's really hard to get anything going," Wuerffel said. "A lot of it's been totally torn down. A lot of the houses are still sitting there. They may have been gutted, or may not, and they're just still sitting there since the storm.

"Some people obviously aren't back, but there are a whole lot of people who want to be back in their homes, but for financial reasons can't get their home done. And that's an opportunity for us to help them," he said.

Some Have Given up and Walked Away

"Everyone is not OK in this neighborhood," Peterson said, speaking about the Ninth Ward. "Some people have given up hope and walked away from their properties. And some people are still waiting for insurance and the road home program to help bring them back."

To help keep children of families returning to the upper Ninth Ward public housing community that was underwater during Katrina, Desire Street Ministries rebuilt Sampson Park with the help of volunteers and private donations.

"It was on the list for the city to rebuild," Peterson said. "We kind of sped up the process a bit." Peterson says of the 300 in the community, about half are children and youth. "And we need a park for the children to play in this summer. If they don't have a park they hang on the streets or they will go into the abundance of blighted homes around here and make their own recreation. So we need this park."

Desire Street Ministries has housed about 1,200 volunteers who helped gut out 600 homes in this Ninth Ward neighborhood, Peterson said.

"Probably half of them still would not be gutted out without the volunteers. They pay their own way. They come here they don't always stay in hotels. They sleep in gyms, dormitories, tents, and just to come here and serve," she said.

Locals here say volunteers can bypass a slow-moving government bureaucracy.

"They come in talk to the people, assess the needs, and get it done," Peterson said. Working with a host of charities and religious groups, Desire Street Ministries helps provide the gap financing many here need to rebuild their homes.

Keep Fighting for Families to Come Home

Pastor Joseph Merrill of the New Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church updates Peterson on the progress of a home for an elderly woman, displaced to Atlanta for nearly three years.

"No matter what they do to stop up, we're going to keep fighting and fighting to get families back in their homes," Merrill said. "That's the major thing now -- folks dying to come back home; they've been displaced long time," he added.

Merrill says more than 60 families are on the waiting list in this Ninth Ward neighborhood. "We want to help everybody but we don't have enough funds to go around. So the list is long. The list is long," he said.

In dealing with the aftermath of Katrina, the government learned some lessons. Jay Hein, Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, says Katrina showed that local churches and charities -- often neglected by government -- are critical in disaster response.

"You had the faith-based community inside the lower Ninth Ward when no one else was there. For a week, it took the Red Cross almost 5-7 days to get in," Hein said. "The Red Cross is a great organization, but it just shows when you come from the outside. They couldn't cross I-10 because of the flood waters and the mud.

'First in, Last out'

"So the groups that were there were the frontline faith-based and community organizations, and so we discovered that they're the first in and the last out in these crises. And then what we discovered is that government didn't have a clear picture of specifically what role they could play, and how government and the smaller groups can partner together," Hein said. "So we have now thought through between government officials and local faith-based leaders what a new partnership can look like," he added.

Pastor J.B. Watkins moved from Memphis to New Orleans after Katrina to help launch the St. Roch in the Ninth Ward. "I saw a lot of people frustrated by the lack of attention. They felt they'd been forgotten," Watkins said.

"People respect the fact there's a church here. For example, when people didn't know this was a church, they were climbing all on the building and on people's cars, and things like that. But now that they see there's a pastor here and I walk out my door, 'Shhhh, don't say that. There's a pastor there.' The simple fact that there's a pastor here has led people to say perhaps there is going to be some hope here," Watkins said.

One more sign that some Katrina survivors are keeping the faith, and not giving up.

"You're always supposed to keep hope," says Katrina survivor Stacy Howard. "You know what I'm saying, keep the faith. Something's going to happen so that it will eventually get better."

*Original broadcast July 21, 2008.

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CBN News
Melissa Charbonneau

Melissa Charbonneau

CBN News Reporter

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