Welcome to New Orleans–it is nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, and your federal tax dollars are asleep on the job. You won’t disturb the slumber of dumb money should you come to Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, two essential sources of local revenue, where you will register few traces of Katrina’s destructive power. Only by venturing beyond the warm embrace of the restored French Quarter, with its familiar old-world charms, can one experience the vast stretches of physical devastation and ruined lives that federal and state monies have yet to address.
Today the City Council and local government paint a prosperous, resilient image of New Orleans. It is, after all, cheaper to spin a hopeful message than to rebuild residential areas, schools, commercial centers and the levees to protect the city against future replays of the tragic storm. In the face of FEMA’s failure, and the less-documented, glacial slowness of the ‘Road Home’ program, the New Orleans power elite are cheerleading the city’s boot-strapped recovery efforts, while playing down remaining needs. This serves both to allure tourists frightened by the lawlessness of the Katrina aftermath and to minimize their own failures in leadership and management of the crisis response.
Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area early morning August 29, 2005. The storm surge breached the city’s levees at multiple points, leaving 80 percent of the city submerged, tens of thousands of victims clinging to rooftops, and hundreds of thousands scattered to shelters around the country. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita re-flooded much of the area.
The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. Katrina redistributed New Orleans’ population across the southern United States: Houston, Texas had an increase of 35,000 people; Mobile, Alabama gained over 24,000; Baton Rouge, Louisiana over 15,000; and Hammond, Louisiana received over 10,000, nearly doubling its size.
Recovery efforts across the Gulf region are almost wholly driven by volunteer relief and reconstruction agencies, some of them bootstrap operations that did not exist prior to the storm. Many are funded by private donations from churches and community non-profits across the country; others receive a mix of corporate one-time grants and government-stipended volunteer staffers for a few months at a time, who can serve the recovery effort to reduce their college tuition (Americorps and its affiliates: National Civilian Community Corps, Volunteers in Service to America). The most well-known volunteer agency working in the region is Habitat for Humanity, whose slow progress was the subject of a recent NY Times article.
As someone who works on disaster relief programs worldwide, I was invited to come for a month and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various projects in New Orleans and Biloxi, two centers of urban devastation. The experience thus far has been surprisingly positive and inspiring, an unexpected antidote to my entrenched cynicism regarding relief efforts in places like Darfur or Congo, where I typically work.
The aftermath of crisis in New Orleans and Congo, for instance, is surprisingly similar, and I’ve pondered over some perhaps facile but nonetheless empirical truths about the dynamic of human response to extreme disasters. First there is the universal ineptitude of governments–big or small, inept or adept, rich or poor–to provide adequate protection and succor to victims of major disasters, natural or man-made. The repeated and insistent rejections by US authorities of foreign offers of Katrina assistance, despite appalling need and clear ineptitude on the ground, is a case in point. Some of these offers the USG later humbly accepted, but by then it was far too late. Government officials are the least pragmatic when lives are at stake: expect delays and denial, not action.
Also identical across disasters is the chorus of resignation heard from victims: no one hears our plight, no one will help us, nothing can be done, etc. I suspect this is conditioned by the individualized trauma of loss, a kind of PTSD, for the follow-on symptom or behavior to a crisis onset is often sheer inaction or a very elemental ‘just enough’ survival impulse. While the flight to safety is one common ‘just enough’ survival impulse, it is rarely organized and executed collectively, with the interests of all in primary view. The mass looting and predatory behavior in New Orleans mirrors what I’ve seen in many foreign conflicts where law and order are absent.
Group survival happens all the time in Hollywood, though. Take a movie like Troy: under seige, the community instinctively came together to defend itself. I’ve never seen such a mindful reaction to unfolding doom in nearly 20 years of disaster and conflict-related work. Crisis atomizes and disarms its victims: it scatters groups, disentegrates families. Communication fails; actions are never collective, but primarily individual. In the aftermath, groups of victims may coalesce to support and protect. We may know there is safety in numbers, but in the midst of crisis we dont behave that way.
For the recovery efforts in New Orleans and Biloxi, volunteer mobilization has been massive, attracting Americans and internationals from all walks of life. This outpouring of support in the form of citizen sweat equity, mostly provided by outsiders, has been the primary service model among relief and recovery agencies operating in the region. As one homeowner in the Gentilly area of East New Orleans joked, “We Rebels doin’ nothin’–only Yankees comin’ to fix this mess… .”
But the fact that Katrina recovery, such as it is, has been largely achieved through short-term, unskilled volunteer labor provided by outsiders invites a critique often directed at aid agencies working in developing countries: a vertical charity model (from haves to have-nots) is more efficient at providing a feel-good experience for volunteers than it is at meeting beneficiary needs. In other words, by refusing to engage the politics of suffering by denouncing perpetrators, exposing official corruption, failure or hypcrisy, and pursuing justice for victims, aid agencies become complicit with the causes of suffering they are there to address. The alternative–to provide succor to victims while exposing and denouncing the causes of their plight–may be confrontational, even politically dangerous, but it is this approach that won Doctors Without Borders the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
Having worked for Doctors Without Borders for many years, my conviction that the traditional charity model of most relief work perpetuates the power inequities responsible for suffering (thus making it a sweet-smelling means of maintaining the status quo), was unquestioned as I arrived in New Orleans for this review. I’ll share with you some of the ways that conviction has since been questioned by the quality of the recovery work seen here, and its novel use of Fortune 500 companies to finance the effort.
I’m evaluating a national volunteer-based, community development network based in Atlanta GA, called Hands On Network. The Hands On operational model is curiously apolitical: it is built on volunteer community service aimed at a variety of social problems, but it refrains from shaping or interpreting the experience it provides for the volunteers who come through its doors. Illiteracy among inner city youth, for instance, is a need that is met with volunteer tutoring programs–the phenomenon itself is not branded as a failure of public education, or a manifestation of institutionalized discrimination, or any other political interpretation.
Precisely by avoiding the activism informed by a politicization of socio-economic disparity in many American cities, Hands On is able to attract volunteers from across the political spectrum, from all walks of life. Their exclusive focus on service (‘Be the Change’ is their motto) has, in recent years, allowed Hands On to forge relationships with a number of corporations seeking to expand the limits of Corporate Social Responsibility beyond simple wealth redistribution in support of a given social or environmental cause. Hands On takes willing CEOs and their army of drones and marshals them all into direct community service.
When Katrina hit, Hands On had no affiliates in the Gulf area, no existing relief program or prior experience in disaster response, but wanted to see what could be done. Several volunteers piled into cars and drove towards the storm’s epicenter, Pass Christian and Pascagoula, Mississippi. In the months that followed, the agency was able to establish operational bases in both cities, mobilize its national network of affiliates, and secure corporate donations of several million dollars.
Volunteers began pouring in (they house, feed and equip squads of 50 to 120 volunteers a day), and basic recovery projects began to take shape, resulting in two distinct operations: Hands On New Orleans and Hands On Gulf Coast in Biloxi. Unlike Habitat, they do not build new homes but focus on evacuees seeking to return who lack the means and knowledge to begin the reconstruction process. There is currently a six-month waiting list for their services in the areas of central and eastern New Orleans where they focus their efforts.
Rehabilitation of schools, public spaces (debris removal and murals–see photo above) such as parks, playgrounds and roads, and the gutting and de-molding of private homes form the bulk of their activities today, almost 20 months after the storm. Corporations such as Home Depot, Timberland, Target, and Cisco have contributed funds and spent weeks at a time working in projects organized by Hands On. Entertainment figures like Usher or the cast of The Guiding Light (yes, the soap opera) have come to participate and contribute, even to shoot footage and film episodes using Katrina recovery as a backdrop.
Not prone to celebrate the flowering of a social conscience among CEOs, rap stars or soap opera stars, I continue to wonder at how quickly I’ve come to qualify the impact of Hands On programming as positive and uniquely vital to Katrina recovery. But I’ve been looking at their work for almost a month now–meeting beneficiaries, talking to volunteers, corporate and non-profit partners, and debating with Hands On staff–and have gathered a lot of first hand evidence of their impact. Although a number of technical issues remain, it is genuinely uplifting to see how a bootstrap operation built on a dubious alliance between ordinary volunteers and corporate largesse can result in tangible improvements for the people whose lives were ruined by Katrina and the federal failure that followed.