Virginia's New Orleans talk

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Virginia spoke at Sunday’s service, too, about her experience in New Orleans.

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So how is New Orleans doing?

Every day I’d pick up the Times Picayune and see stories like this on the front page.

Every person we spoke with, whatever their income, wherever they lived, had a story to tell. And each no longer lives in New Orleans, but in a post Katrina world

Perhaps the leader of Dances for Universal Peace at First UU summed up best how the city is doing. She described how she was part of a research project and was a subject for qualitative interviews. The questions are asked every 6 months and she feels much better about the town than she did 3 years ago. At that time New Orleans felt gray and dead to her. She feels her spirits did not lift until the green came back in the area. But when the surveyors ask each time if she thinks about Katrina every day, this upbeat, positive woman full of light ponders how close it is to her and still answers yes.

And how could she not?Walking outside the church each morning, we would first confront a collapsing old wooden home that looked like it may have had a little work done – and then been abandoned. Is the homeowner waiting for more funds to continue? Or should this wooden fire risk just be torn down? This was a common dilemma on every block. And every house that we helped to work on was often surrounded by empty homes or empty lots, a lack of retail and a lack of children. It was hard to take, opening one’s eyes constantly to see more work, never-ending needs just from an exterior cosmetic view, that doesn’t account for those without jobs, without family nearby, dealing with poor health, post traumatic stress and a city still racked with crime, despite losing 50% of its population since Katrina.

The work required to REnew Orleans as a T-shirt pronounced is boundless. And yet one resident told me that work will take a break now for Mardi Gras. Let the Bontemps Roulez. Life goes on and the work will still be there. I got a taste of that my last day, spent in a national preserve where the park ranger was more interested in giving us a tour of the incredible landscape, ibises and alligators and enjoying the beautiful warm day than in worrying about how much brush we cleared.

My other days were filled with hammering and scraping and painting and digging in locations throughout the city. Connecting volunteers with meaningful work each day is a thankless job as the matches are hard to make. Do I know how to hang drywall or drive a backhoe or install a toilet? Not really, so organizers should make sure each group has a few with those skills so they direct others. Often the community organizers have no more knowledge of how to best rebuild a home than I do.

So I’m here to give you a larger policy picture. Is there money in New Orleans for reconstruction? Yes. Is it getting where it needs to go? Often yes, but the obstacles are overwhelming.

As you may know, the US government sent lots of money to New Orleans. Much of it, $7.8 billion so far, went to the Road Home Program, the largest single housing recovery program in US history. Designed to help Louisiana residents get into a home or apartment as quickly or fairly as possible, it has disbursed funds averaging $63,000 to 122,000 people so far with 11,000 applications still pending.

Despite this influx of funds and a building frenzy there is a housing crisis in the city. Average rental prices have skyrocketed as few units are ready for occupancy. A report by PolicyLink last August found only one in 3 New Orleans affordable housing units that was damaged or destroyed will be repaired or replaced with recovery assistance. And more than 10,000 residents currently aided by the Disaster Housing Assistance Program will be on their own to pay rent as of March. The state is beseeching the feds for an extension due to the economy and the credit crunch making it even harder to get funds to begin rehabilitating rental units. Officials at the Louisiana Recovery Authority say Katrina wiped out 80,000 affordable rental units. However, the number one problem for rebuilding is contractor fraud. Many homeowners have become victims of outright theft of their recovery dollars and are now facing rebuilding with little to no money. Many homeowners have been unable to manage the construction process which can allow contractors to take advantage of their lack of knowledge or poor decision making,

I went to New Orleans confused about what work was necessary and what policies were workable and I come back perhaps more conflicted about the process, though inspired by those willing to do the work and live in the frustrating conditions.

The Lower 9th looked nothing like I imagined. There is no longer a ghetto and many homes not wiped out were later demolished or are soon to be. Instead, you feel like you are in a small ghost town with a few blocks of homes. Miss Virginia and her husband, Roy, probably feel safer than they have in years now that the people next door, who were into some “bad stuff” have disappeared after a fire started in a car parked by the house burnt down the house and car last year. The loudest noises now are dogs barking and an ice cream truck that rolled by around 4 p.m. Their home is completely redone inside, they have a new car and nice furnishings. Miss Virginia has lost 48 pounds and hopes to lose more. Her husband seems to enjoy his days working in neighbors’ yards and trapping muskrat, rabbit and raccoons for his lunch. Across the street is an empty daycare center. Their grown daughter Tanya talks about how she doesn’t know when it will reopen. The reopening is hard to imagine, again no children and no jobs for their parents.

Down the street however, Brad Pitt’s organization, Make it Right, has started work on 150 sustainable, affordable homes in the most visible area of the Lower 9th Ward. This is the area directly adjacent to the breach in the Industrial Canal levee, where a barge exacerbated the storm’s devastation as it plowed through the levee, sweeping homes in its path off of their foundations. This location is still controversial, but the few completed homes did survive Hurricane Gustav last year. And the city has identified the area as a priority zone for rebuilding.

Many told us of family members now settled in Houston and Memphis or Mobile. Some workers are ready for their retirement day to arrive so they can get out. Or they are putting some touches on their home so they can put it on the market. That’s the plan of one retiree who has been in the
city more than 20 years, a UU and former New York stage manager who has written a play about Katrina that I hope we can bring to you. So as young energetic people with big hearts continue to arrive, others get tired and move on.

This crazy mishmash of rebuilding and lack of coordinated planning and longtime government neglect and mismanagement combined with personal decisions driven by circumstance makes it hard for volunteers to know how their work always contributes to rebuilding. But as UUs, we can bring our principles of inherent worth and dignity of each person and our support for justice and compassion in human relations to support those in need and help renew a broken city.

I’ll end with a Commercial break: The 3 UU congregations that support the volunteer center are in a major capital campaign to ensure Uuism has a vibrant presence in New Orleans. Called Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists, they are aiming to raise $2.7 million for their rebuilding and work. One of the churches has now been demolished after rebuilding started when FEMA changed its building height requirements. Their need for help and partner churches is real and important. I hope that you and our board will consider stepping up.

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