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'Up and out of harm's way'

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced many disaster responders to go beyond their usual boundaries to serve people.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HOUMA, La. | March 23, 2006

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced many disaster responders to go beyond their usual boundaries to serve people.

The Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC) is one example, having only focused on two parishes in southernmost Louisiana before the storms caused mass destruction all through the state.

"Our normal geographic area is Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes for recovery, but these storms changed that," said Peg Case, executive director of TRAC. "We are working with anyone and everyone impacted by the double storms. Our case management has broadened beyond the typical advocacy toward the uninsured, elderly, disabled, non-English speaking, and illiterate."

When Hurricane Katrina roared through last September, it destroyed thousands of homes in southern Louisiana. Not too long after that, Hurricane Rita added to the woes by flooding between 8,000 and 12,000 homes in the same parishes.

So TRAC's membership of more than 40 churches, government agencies and non-profits are steadily working away at the huge list of needs. The current TRAC caseload is estimated to be somewhere near 1,000 - with the number one priority being housing. Case said 150 people are still living in shelters in Terrebonne parish. Others are staying in hotels or with family.

At this point in the recovery, Case said most survivors remain resilient and know what they want.

"South Louisiana bayou folks have a rooted ability to survive the ravages of nature," she explained. "They also are rooted in place. They'd rather muck-out the swamp mud and water to be able to live at home then move away from their bayous. But never before have we heard the unified voice of all five bayous - 'Up and out of harm's way.' People want to elevate. Time and money will make or break these bayou communities."

To help improve housing in the area, TRAC members are also partnering with Oxfam America in the recovery process. Oxfam normally works outside the United States, but announced its coordination with TRAC last fall - Oxfam's first major relief effort in the United States. Oxfam - along with architects from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - is helping TRAC design bayou housing that is elevated eight to 14 feet above sea level and can survive through Category 5 hurricane winds. The partners hope to release a housing prototype sometime this spring.

"We've been saying the weather patterns would change and go back to the intense patterns like in the 1940s and 1950s," said Case. "Now, it's a reality. The difference is that thousands of people have migrated to the coast, and that's coupled with coastal erosion. We have to rethink land use management and housing. When we rebuild, we need to rebuild better."

The partnership with TRAC is one that has only benefited the situation, she noted.

"The partnership is very pro-active. It is giving us the opportunities to vision the possibilities of growing our organization's capabilities in the long-term recovery processes."

TRAC is also doing constant outreach in the communities to help meet any needs they find. Case said they are helping with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) appeals, travel trailer placements, disaster preparedness and recovery education, flood insurance education and any essential living needs they see amongst the families. They are also working with parish officials and recovery partners to address new building codes, she said.

"We do this knowing that we are only a few months from what appears to be another extremely active hurricane season."

TRAC is being pro-active about the next hurricane season, with employees promoting its yearly Storm Safe Louisiana program. The program puts hurricane preparedness manuals, guides and other resources in libraries and public places around the southern parishes.

The young storm survivors are also not being forgotten. The coalition developed disaster preparedness programs for elementary age children and distributed the program to libraries and schools in 21 parishes since 2005. "FEMA mental health outreach works are utilizing our materials in their recovery outreach to that age group, too," said Case.

TRAC is also still accepting donations of items such as baby care products, building materials, cleaning supplies and canned food. Volunteers and financial donations are also in great need, added Case.

"We need reconstruction funds for building materials, professional labor, (home elevations) and sewer treatment systems."

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