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Storms add new mission for group

Two decades of contacts helps Louisiana environmental network funnel appropriate response to disaster survivors

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | BATON ROUGE, La. | September 10, 2008

Marylee Orr didn't plan to head up a disaster relief organization. As executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, disaster assistance was not her specialty.

Then came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And now Gustav.

Almost as soon as Gustav struck the Louisiana coast on Monday, Sept. 1, Orr's old Katrina contacts started calling.

"We got a call to assist this Native American community down below Houma," Orr says.

In the week since the storm, LEAN has shipped three truckloads of food, water, diapers, hygiene products and cleaning supplies to the Houma Indians.

Just like she did during Katrina and Rita, Orr is planning to partner with other relief organizations such as Oxfam America, United Church of Christ, and Church World Service to provide relief to those hurt by Gustav.

So how did an environmental action network get involved in partnering with faith-based groups to help storm survivors?

"My work is faith-based," Orr says. "We think of the environment in the holistic sense -- where you work, where you play, where you go to school."

By the time Katrina hit, LEAN had already been tackling environmental problems for nearly 20 years. Orr had established a network of contacts who could get things done in a hurry. After the storm, she organized the delivery of emergency assistance and medical supplies to nearly a dozen hard-hit Louisiana parishes.

"We were sometimes the first people to bring food and water to some areas, which was pretty humbling," she says. "I had no idea how much people loved Bunny bread and peanut butter and jelly."

Eventually, LEAN transitioned from delivering immediate relief supplies to delivering tools for cleaning and rebuilding, items such as N95 respirator masks, pallets of bleach, work gloves, and crowbars.

LEAN's commitment to Katrina and Rita relief lasted two years. At its peak, the organization was delivering 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of relief supplies per day, Orr says. In total, she coordinated the delivery of approximately $700,000 worth of disaster assistance.

When Hurricane Gustav crashed into the Gulf and put Louisiana under a severe storm threat, Orr wasn't sure she wanted to again take LEAN's focus off of its primary mission of environmental protection and put it back on hurricane relief duty.

"I went to church two days in a row before Gustav and prayed for guidance whether or not we should step into the relief arena again," she says. "I prayed and prayed and here I am again. How could I turn my back on my neighbor?"

The first calls Orr got were about small farmers who needed to move their livestock to higher ground. Then she heard about a veterinarian who was running out of antibiotics and colic medicine.

She wired money for gas and supplies to a contact with a truck and a cattle trailer who moved the cows and horses. Then she found someone to deliver medicine to the veterinarian.

All week, the calls have kept coming in and Orr has kept coordinating to send supplies out.

"This is the good thing about doing work like this for 22 years," Orr says. "You get to know a lot of people. We couldn't have responded to this if we hadn't had that experience. I have to thank Oxfam America and Church World Service. They were instrumental in getting us up and going."

During Gustav, part of the ceiling at LEAN's office collapsed and there was some flood damage. Orr, along with her Great Dane, Roxie, are working out of her home for now, coordinating relief efforts while still working on environmental issues.

"It's a blessing," she says. "It's a gift. It's a real privilege to be able to do this."

Recalling her prayers before Gustav hit about whether she should put her environmental action network on the front line of disaster relief for the second time in three years, Orr says, "You might say God guided us into this."

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