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'Here for the long haul'

Amid the shock and indecision still reverberating throughout New Orleans, Paul Seelman is thankful for opportunity.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana | November 26, 2005

"New Orleans was 70 percent flooded."

—Paul Seelman

Amid the shock and indecision still reverberating throughout New Orleans, Paul Seelman is thankful for opportunity.

He believes his city will come back - and that it has the potential to be a better place to live. "Hopefully it's going to be a healthier city," said Seelman, associate pastor for mission and membership at the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church. "How many cities get the opportunity to completely rebuild their school system? Also, a lot of people who were evacuated and are not coming back were stuck in a cycle of poverty. While it's very painful to have that cycle be broken in such a way, it's not all bad."

But - like so many other residents - Seelman doesn't believe New Orleans will ever be the same.

"I know in the Ninth Ward, a lot of that was rental property. I don't know how many of those folks are going to come back. I don't know how many people will come back to any of the areas that were deeply affected."

Many people still simply don't know how to respond, he explained. "Until the Federal Emergency Management Agency comes out with some directives on all these things - I mean, can they get insurance? Are they going to have enough money to do what they need to do? Frankly a lot of people aren't coming back. I just don't know how some of these areas will ever come back unless people can get insured or have some assurance that their property is not going to be prone to future flooding. And at what elevations will requirements be different? Even local governments are waiting to hear that."

The city is going to be smaller, Seelman believes. "And I think it will be tighter geographically."

As for the city's frame of mind, he said, "it's up and down. New Orleans was 70 percent flooded."

Whatever the future holds, Seelman said the faith community will be there to help people make a long-term recovery. "From our perspective, we're going to be here for the long haul," he said. "We don't need to know the whole plan at this point. I think the city will retain a lot of its flavor. I think God is involved in a lot of this."

The church has launched a recovery effort - called Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans - that is coordinating volunteer teams as well as handling material donations. "We're accepting out-of-area work teams," said Seelman. "We're hosting them and arranging their work."

Seelman and others are encouraging college students to spend their Christmas break volunteering in New Orleans. Currently, he said, most volunteer work involves removing debris and sheet rock from homes, and cleaning up yards.

The church has also become a place people can stop by and pick up basic necessities. "We're running a household distribution center out of the front of our church for folks to stop by and get any items they might need - cleaning supplies, clothes, household items."

The church is no longer accepting clothing donations, he said. "We maxed on clothes a few weeks ago."

The distribution center has become an ecumenical effort, added Seelman. "We've been supported by goods from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and the United Methodist Church was just great." The distribution center was also supported by the Terrebonne Readiness Assistance Coalition, as well as by private donations.

The church will probably move the distribution center out of its building, said Seelman. "We want to get out into more of the affected areas," he said. "We're either going to partner with a Presbyterian church in an affected area, or partner with a church that's not Presbyterian. It isn't all about being Presbyterian. It's about being a citizen of this city."

Rebuilding Hope has drawn the attention of out-of-state volunteers who want to help Hurricane Katrina survivors. "I had a strong interest personally in going down on a mission trip," said Joe Rigter, a member of the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. He became a leader for a Hurricane Katrina relief task force within his church. Through both personal and church connections, the Mount Pleasant congregation began communicating with the St. Charles Avenue congregation.

"We were down there for a week," said Rigter. "We cleaned out a church basement. We had to tear out some paneling and ceiling tiles. We also went into some homes. We did some debris removal. We hauled out old refrigerators. We brought supplies with us. While were were down there, we made a shower room within a church building so follow-up groups can come in."

The Mount Pleasant church is planning to send another volunteer team in February.

Rigter said they met a couple whose home was severely damaged. "Their next door neighbor is dying of cancer, and so they asked that we come in and help remove some damaged things from her home."

After Rigter and his crew returned to South Carolina, the couple sent them a thank-you card and a $200 check. "A lot of neat things like that happened," said Rigter. "There they are sending us money. The people we met really touched us."

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