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'Now I have hope'

Shandra Sutton stayed in her uptown New Orleans apartment as the water rose after Hurricane Katrina. As it slowly rose to the third floor, she became desperate.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HOUSTON, Texas | September 7, 2005

"We are highly favored and blessed."

—Linda Jeffers

Shandra Sutton stayed in her uptown New Orleans apartment as the water rose after Hurricane Katrina. As it slowly rose to the third floor, she became desperate.

"I've got three kids and I can't swim," she said, sitting in the shade of the Houston Astrodome. "Some guys in boats came and rescued us."

From her flooded apartment she and her children were sent to the Superdome - a place she described as one of the worst places she has ever been.

"It was horrible. We slept outside because I was afraid to sleep inside. People were shooting guns, and there were dead bodies."

Now at the Houston Astrodome with thousands of others, Sutton says the conditions are much better. But now she worries about what the future holds for her. She had a steady job in New Orleans and was studying business management at a local college. Sutton was proud that she had almost saved enough money to buy a home and get herself out of public housing.

Seeing how the recovery has been handled thus far prompted her to join fellow survivors to demand more of a say in the process.

The Survivors Leadership Group (SLG) was founded by interested Hurricane Katrina survivors along with organizers from Houston's "The Metropolitan Organization" (TMO). TMO is a coalition of churches, faith-based organizations, and community groups that helps empower and organize community leaders around common issues.

"No one had heard the survivors' voice yet, so TMO met with them and they were ready to organize," said David Meeker-Williams, executive director of Shalom Zone - an initiative of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and a member of TMO.

The members of the SLG already have some successes under their belts, including getting daycare and an outside play area set up for the children at the Astrodome. The members also helped get elderly survivors out of the Astrodome and into a more specialized care center. And yet another major accomplishment by the SLG was petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to force cell phone companies to not cut off service for survivors who are unable to pay bills.

"We have taken it upon ourselves to see that we come together and have organization," said Linda Jeffers, a Katrina survivor and co-chair of the SLG.

Jeffers, like many of the other members of the SLG, was a community organizer in New Orleans. The rising water in the city forced her from her home as well, but not before she spent hours on her roof waiting for rescue. And again, like the other members of the SLG, she is grateful for being alive and for the amazing outpouring of help from the city of Houston.

"We are highly favored and blessed," she said. Yet there are still significant issues for the survivors. Some are still unable to find family members due to the mass confusion of transporting the survivors from one city to the next. Others are worried about being forced to relocate to new cities and about how they will find jobs.

Wednesday afternoon, members of TMO and the SLG spoke outside the Astrodome to raise awareness about their next priorities, which are: pushing for immediate financial assistance from the government, initiating a transition to dignified living away from mass shelters, creating a public database of survivors so they can connect with relatives and loved ones, improving communication about what help is available to survivors, and providing one complete long-term recovery package with all the information they need for rebuilding their lives.

During the press conference, other survivors from within the Astrodome gathered outside to listen, with most cheering and yelling out shouts of support as the speakers detailed their priorities.

The SLG emphasized that the most important priority for them is the long-term recovery package. "That's the most significant thing to help put us back in order," said Jeffers.

Clergy members from TMO and clergy survivors from New Orleans are happy to be involved with the SLG. They said they realize the importance of listening to everyone's needs.

"We are created in God's image," said Rabbi David Lyon of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. "These survivors represent the dearest of God's children."

Father Ray Bomberger, a priest from New Orleans, says he sees a positive future and a powerful impact possible from the SLG. "We are a people of deep faith," sid Bomberger of New Orleans' Corpus Christi and Epiphany Church. "We are full of hope."

Leaning up against the Astrodome's outer wall after the press conference, Shandra Sutton felt the same. "Now I have hope."

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