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Recovery will span generations

Responders in New Orleans are meeting today's urgent needs while trying to envision life for the city's next generation.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW ORLEANS | October 16, 2006

"It's going to take a long time. It's going to take five years of building infrastructure, and then 15-18 years of building everything else."

—Dennis McManis, Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana

Responders in New Orleans are meeting today's urgent needs while trying to envision life for the city's next generation.

"What we do now will help the next generation," explained Rich Ohlson, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) director for domestic disaster response and preparedness. "We need to promote that there is hope."

As the months pass, it's easy for people to wear out as their expectations about recovery - their own and the city's - are not met. Even responders had a vision of recovery that simply did not transpire.

"I really thought the city would come back. It hasn't happened that way," said Dennis McManis, an archdeacon who is operations director of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana Office of Disaster Response.

McManis cites the concrete reasons why people can't return: nonexistent transitional housing, uncertainty over whether levees will be rebuilt, lack of jobs, a shortage of childcare facilities, and weakened healthcare systems. "People are just driving a car here assuming there will be a place to live. There isn't."

But curiously enough, he said, people still want to come back - and lack of housing can't easily crush their determination to go home.

McManis hopes they keep their drive - and he worries about people who are quietly giving up. For them, he said, the new norm is depression.

McManis was based in Tampa Bay, Fla., when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. He was asked to take a temporary job - 60 days - to develop an office of disaster response. When he was asked to stay permanently, he didn't hesitate. "I really feel called to be here because of the people. We've built an incredible staff. We've helped more than 150,000 individuals. We've gutted more than 400 homes."

ERD is also building and repairing affordable housing in the city.

The ministry, McManis said, focuses on the elderly and the frail - and his teams hit the road to offer the kind of everyday help that keeps people alive. "We've got three mobile ministries," he explained. "We have a mobile respite unit that gives people water and paper goods. We have a mobile medical unit that goes around the city. And we have a mobile feeding unit that feeds 150 people per day."

On the horizon: a new legal aid program in partnership with Tulane University, and a clergy hotline that would enlist psychologists across the country who could help pastors on the ground cope with their substantial mental stress.

No matter how many creative ministries there are, New Orleans needs transitional housing before recovery can go much further, said McManis. "There's no place to live when you come back. You find people living with relatives and friends or staying in their gutted out house. We've got squatters living in houses that aren't theirs."

The current population in Orleans Parish is 187,000. Before Katrina struck, it was about 450,000.

City services are finally beginning to return, said McManis. "Water pressure is improving. You can finally get a decent shower. We get mail every day now. We actually get our garbage taken every week."

Recovery continues to evolve at an uneven pace because every person who comes back starts at the initial recovery phase of cleaning and gutting their property. To help people get started on recovery, the Episcopals have opened two "Welcome Home Centers" in local churches. "These are centers where people can go for information, the distribution of goods, medical or mental health care needs, and legal aid," said McManis.

He still sees Katrina recovery as an opportunity. "I tell people that God gave us two wonderful opportunities. One is to correct systemic problems with our education, health, and legal systems. The other is the opportunity to witness to our faith. If it weren't for faith-based groups and non-profits, work wouldn't be getting done."

Like other groups, the Episcopalians are recruiting volunteers because the numbers coming to the city have declined. Philanthropic giving has also dropped off, said McManis, who worries that the public receives mixed messages about recovery.

He commends the city's efforts to stimulate commerce, he said, but the city's insistence that "we're back" also sends a message to the public that people have recovered. "We're a city of two cities: the tourist and commerce area, and everybody else."

Nonetheless, McManis said tourism should be encouraged. "I took a walking tour, and I was absolutely delighted to see the number of tourists in town. And for the month of October, convention business is as good as any month pre-Katrina."

For now, McManis wants to keep the story of New Orleans alive. "What I really want is your heart," he said. "We'll get people here. I'm asking people to come see it."

McManis is staying - and he's optimistic. "There's something about this city with its culture, with its history. We've got young professionals coming in here just to be part of the recovery. It's going to take a long time. It's going to take five years of building infrastructure, and then 15-18 years of building everything else."

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