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What's stalling storm recovery?

Lack of state and national collaboration is weakening local hurricane recovery and hampering preparation for next hurricane season, say community leaders.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 20, 2006

"What we are trying to find is some sort of guidance - or something - to help them try to make a decision."

—Kay Raymond

Lack of state and national collaboration is weakening local hurricane recovery and hampering preparation for next hurricane season, say community leaders.

There's certainly no shortage of expert opinions, explained Peg Case, director of the Terrebonne Readiness Assistance Coalition (TRAC) in Louisiana.

Solutions for disaster recovery and preparation are spewing from government agencies, universities, voluntary groups and media pundits, she said. "But collaboration and cooperation are totally blown out the window."

Case saw the same pattern in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: an outpouring of solutions but little overall vision. "Everybody was all of a sudden a terrorist expert," she said.

Despite fresh political appointees and new task forces, the nation is still unprepared for another disaster the size of Hurricane Katrina, showed a report released this month.

More than half of states nationwide reported uncertainty about being prepared for a catastrophic disaster.

A Feb. 10 report to Congress from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shows that, though 93% of states had emergency and evacuation plans consistent with federal planning guidance and voluntary standards, only 42% of states felt confident those plans were adequate to manage a catastrophe.

State leaders reported the weakest areas of disaster plans were related to evacuation, mass care, health and medical needs, and resource management.

There are new opportunities for better coordination. DHS is continuing a national assessment of disaster preparation in every state. And, on March 7, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions will convene a roundtable to hear from community-based groups about how to improve coordinated response.

But while the politicians work out the kinks in the system, community-based and voluntary groups have seen an influx of disaster-related needs, especially since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stopped paying for hurricane survivors' hotel rooms earlier this month.

The number-one issue for local response groups is housing, said community leaders, many of whom are frustrated with state and federal leaders who have failed to reach consensus on a transitional housing plan for hurricane survivors. News broke earlier this month that FEMA purchased more than 26,000 mobile homes that sit empty in Louisiana and Mississippi. At least a portion of them aren't being used because FEMA's own rules do not allow their use in floodplains. Some 10,000 additional trailers are sitting vacant in Hope, Arkansas.

Last week, FEMA officials were pinning most of the blame on the state of Louisiana. "We had hoped for a better reception in the state of Louisiana, in particular, for mobile home parks to be located in those parishes outside floodplains, and we continue to await the needed authorities to move them in," reported FEMA. As for the empty trailers in Arkansas, FEMA stated, "we expect to use these mobile homes in other open or future disasters."

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps is pushing for a transitional housing plan that includes more permanent structures - not trailers - citing both safety concerns for next hurricane season and the negative socio-economic fallout that seems to accompany disaster recovery trailer parks.

Frustrated local leaders said they are wondering why a housing plan wasn't worked out between state and federal policymakers before disaster struck. For now, responders report it's difficult to accompany someone on the road to recovery when there's no clear map of where to go, and little confidence that neighborhoods will be disaster prepared by next hurricane season.

"So many people are having difficult decisions to make about what to do," said Kay Raymond, director for St. Mary Outreach, a long-standing nonprofit in Louisiana's St. Mary Parish that coordinates interfaith and voluntary efforts to help hurricane survivors.

"What we are trying to find is some sort of guidance - or something - to help them try to make a decision. When they come in, I try to just talk to them and ask them what they plan on doing. They have to be the ultimate one to make the decisions. What are you going to do if it takes two years? I have to put myself in that place. Where would I go?"

LIke St. Mary Outreach, TRAC is working with hundreds of hurricane survivors, many of them in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

"At TRAC, the individuals matter when they call," said Case, who added that hurricane survivors are now facing "horrible housing issues around transitional housing."

TRAC tries to assess people's needs and help them formulate their own recovery plan. "Ultimately the goal is to have them as whole as they can be," explained Case. "We go on that journey with them."

Part of that journey involves referring hurricane survivors to agencies that can help them find a safe place to live. At least some survivors are eligible for Public Housing Assistance (PHA), said Conni Davis, Arizona community coordinator for Katrina's Angels, a nonprofit helping hurricane survivors. "But since these PHAs are organized locally, it is impossible for Katrina's Angels - and I would imagine other organizations - to work with them in any organized manner on a broad scale. It is so hard for these people to improve their future not knowing where they will be living tomorrow."

Davis, Case, Raymond and others have pledged to journey with hurricane survivors for the long haul - way past next hurricane season, which starts June 1. While considering how to best rebuild the devastated areas, national and local leaders should be looking carefully at the potential for a hurricane, they said. Now could be the time to put people into safer homes and more disaster-proof housing, said Case, who urges "look at the opportunity."

Like Case, Raymond worries about next hurricane season. "I'm not even sure what I'm going to do if we have to evacuate," she said.

For now, she said, she encourages hurricane survivors to find a job. "I try to help them find something to hang onto," she said, "and I try to help them find something to look forward to when they get back."

Like many other local nonprofits, St. Mary Outreach has continued to serve its clients with non-hurricane-related needs. Balancing those efforts is difficult, said Raymond. "I'm having trouble finding motel rooms to put house fire victims in," she said, "and a house fire is a disaster for that family."

A few weeks ago, Raymond traveled to New Orleans for the first time. "I hadn't been before that. It was an emotional day," she said, adding that photos and film footage do not adequately convey the scene. "Now I can see in my client's eyes what they have seen - the devastation, blocks and blocks and miles and miles of nothing but debris. How many people do not have a home?"

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