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Volunteers key to Gulf Coast recovery

Two-year anniversary of Katrina marked.

BY P.J. HELLER | NEW ORLEANS | August 29, 2007

Residents throughout the Gulf Coast paused Wednesday to observe the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina while still facing the grim reality of a recovery effort that is going to drag on for years.

"At this point, you've got a lot of people that are depressed and wondering if they're ever going to get back to where they were before," said Robert Sharp, executive director for United Methodist Disaster Response in Mississippi

Despite billions of dollars in government aid, billions more in private donations and a massive army of more than 1 million volunteers, much of the Gulf Coast still is ailing severely two years after Katrina.

Throughout the region this week, there were events scheduled to mark the two-year anniversary, including interfaith and church services, community forums and an unusual photo exhibition, with images documenting the hurricane, its aftermath and life on the Gulf Coast over the last two years projected on the levee wall in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

Ire also continued to be directed at the federal government's response to Katrina. The administration, Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were singled out for some of the strongest criticism.

An "Ecumenical Work Week" was held in New Orleans under the auspices of the National Council of Churches.

"The truth is that the faith community was there as first responders to the crisis," a spokesman said. "We provided food, clothing and shelter to those in need. Many of our churches, denominational relief agencies and other faith groups continue to help those displaced and impacted by the storm with housing, finding employment and meeting other basic needs to get back on their feet."

The Rev. Kevin Massey, assistant director of ELCA Domestic Disaster Response for Lutheran Disaster Response, agreed.

"If there's going to be a theme to this year's remembrance, communities are organizing themselves around remembrance and thanksgiving for the volunteers," he said.

One Mississippi community planned to read out the name of every volunteer who had come to the town to help, he said. In Biloxi, Miss., a memorial observance on the Town Green included a special prayer for the volunteers.

Without those volunteers – the majority of them from faith-based organizations – the recovery would be nowhere near the point it is at, according to response officials.

"I can't imagine," Colleen Kershaw, a local volunteer with the long-term recovery committee in Mississippi's Harrison County told a local newspaper. "There would have been so much more suffering from the get-go. The people down here handing out bottled water weren't from the government. They were from faith-based organizations that just pounced on us right away."

Lutheran Disaster Response, alone, has coordinated more than 33,000 volunteers who have put in more than 1.5 million hours of work in the Gulf Coast helping residents recover from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, according to Mike Nevergall with ELCA Domestic Disaster Response. Translated into a dollar amount, he said the effort comes to more than $29.1 million.

That total comes to more than the $27 million that has been donated to the organization, Massey noted.

Some 125,000 volunteers working through United Methodist Disaster Response have flooded Mississippi, where some 12,000 families have been assisted. Even now, the organization receives 20 to 30 calls a day for assistance, Sharp reported.

In Louisiana, more than 28,000 volunteers have spent 1.5 million hours assisting affected residents, said the Rev. Darryl Allen Tate, executive director of the Disaster Recovery Ministry. More than 32,000 people have been helped.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said it has coordinated 31,350 volunteer work team members in the Gulf Coast. They have put in more than 1.1 million hours of work, worth an estimated $19.9 million. That figure nearly equals the $20.4 million in donations the organization reported.

Catholic Charities in Louisiana said it has served an estimated 1 million people since Katrina, the majority of them receiving crisis counseling and referrals through Louisiana Spirit, a program for hurricane recovery operated by the state's Department of Health and Hospitals–Office of Mental Health.

"We have been blessed with thousands of volunteers that have helped us to step out on the road to recovery," said a spokesman for Catholic Charities. "The community has a long way to go, but we cannot lose sight of the great progress we have made in two years. There is much cause for hope."

Massey said it was the volunteer groups that have provided a glimmer of hope for people still struggling to recover from Katrina, one of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes to hit the U.S. More than 1,800 people were killed by the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Damage from the storm has been put at more than $81 billion.

"These (volunteer) groups have shown some kind of hope and a way forward for the communities," Massey said. Without them, he said, "There would not be signs of hope or recovery along the Gulf.

Sharp estimated that the recovery effort in Mississippi could last another eight years. Massey said he expected volunteer efforts to continue for five to eight years in the region.

"We're definitely trying to encourage people to remember that this response is still happening and that there's still work to be done," Nevergall added.

Responders said there was an ongoing need for volunteers – especially those with construction skills – as well as for materials and monetary donations. Individuals and volunteer work teams have returned multiple times to the region to offer help; some have made monthly commitments.

While there has been a slight decline recently in the number of people volunteering, both Sharp and Massey said they expected to have full volunteer work teams in the fall.

"There's been a tremendous amount of accomplishment and still a tremendous amount of work to do," Massey said.

"The size of the work needed to be done still in New Orleans is so huge that it's hard to see where the impact is happening," he said. "Even when I know that we’ve worked on thousands of homes in and around New Orleans, it still looks like nothing has been done."

Not everyone agrees that there has been progress.

"Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I've seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope . . . After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum," historian and author Douglas Brinkley wrote in a recent Washington Post column.

Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, placed the blame squarely on the Bush administration.

"Many volunteers come to understand what I've concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine," Brinkley said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has defended the administration's efforts, saying its efforts demonstrate the agency's "steadfast commitment to rebuilding the Gulf region and rebuilding it stronger.

"We still have a ways to go, but real progress is being made and we are deeply committed to that recovery until the job is done," said Gil Jamieson, associate deputy administrator for Gulf Coast recovery.

"Our primary mission all along, and will continue to be, is to help families recover and communities rebuild," he said. "We will be here until the job is complete."

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Related Links:

Louisiana Disaster Recovery Ministry

Mississippi United Methodist Disaster Response

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

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