Sunday, May 17, 2009
Friday, May 8, 2009
Governments at all levels responded slowly to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The people of the Gulf Coast took up the slack but haven't absolved government of its responsibilities.
Brentin Mock | February 23, 2009
Walking along the Algiers levees facing downtown New Orleans, Malik Rahim stops at a huge dent in the pavement that he thinks came from a crashed barge during Hurricane Katrina.
"See there," points out Rahim, a Black Panther with grayed locks who has been a community activist since the 1970s. "That's not going to hold water back if we have another major storm." Rahim, a founder of Common Ground Relief, a collective of volunteers formed after Katrina to revitalize New Orleans, sees the levee damage as an opportunity to put local people to work on repairs. People from the neighborhood come regularly to Rahim's house, which is less than a mile away. All of them are African Americans looking for work, which Rahim seems to have readily available in the form of gutting and rehabbing abandoned houses. Common Ground has relied purely on donations and foundation grants and has accepted no money from the government.
"Look at these guys," Rahim says. "You don't see one of them drinking or doing drugs. But they all got one thing in common: They're unemployed."
Many of the hundreds of community- and faith-based organizations that have opened since Katrina have, in fact, done so without significant government help. Instead, throughout the Gulf Coast region, philanthropies and corporate and individual charities have supplied funding and resources.
Call it the "think hopefully, act locally" model. These groups have restored and provided supportive, affordable housing while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) fumbles funding for these needs. The new organizations also have provided specialized help for the homeless, those with special needs, and the burgeoning Asian and Hispanic populations. Many have also taken up work that's outside their normal mission, like wetlands and coastal restoration. Philanthropy has enabled them to do that.
The New York Regional Association of Grantmakers reports that 145 philanthropies from New York alone awarded over $325 million to 950 nonprofits in 38 states that are doing Gulf Coast recovery work. Of those, 612 are based in Gulf Coast cities. Foundations have made their rules more flexible in order to provide more relief and resources as Congress and insurance companies remain slow with assistance.
The new flow of private resources, of course, is dwarfed by the public money -- but the federal funds were released initially with no deliberate speed. As of Feb. 29 last year, of the $6.6 billion FEMA allocated to Louisiana for infrastructure, Orleans Parish had received less than $800 million, which was about 35 percent of the $2.1 billion targeted for them. New advocacy and philanthropic activism have filled funding gaps while trying to hold government more accountable.
Before Katrina, FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would call a compromised levee adequate, and there would be enough despondency in the communities to suppress second-guessing. Now, such a determination isn't made without community members asking questions, seeking alternative expert opinions, and using tools from their community organizations to declare for themselves what is adequate. This is what's been referred to along the Gulf Coast as "the new normal."
Recovery has been a sore issue for much of the Gulf Coast: In Mobile County, whole neighborhoods remain pummeled while $24 million of Alabama's Katrina recovery Community Development Block Grant funds will go toward building a sewage plant. The $10 million initially awarded for housing covered only 200 of over 1,000 houses needing work. In Gulfport, $600 million of the money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that was supposed to go toward rebuilding houses in Mississippi has been redirected by Gov. Haley Barbour for an expansion of the Port of Gulfport.
However, in New Orleans, recovery has been a better study in democracy. The money has been slow to arrive, but civic engagement has helped produce real benefits for communities -- as determined by them.
Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans accommodated this engagement mostly due to political necessity. To get re-elected in 2006 he needed residents' support. On Sept. 30, 2005, he announced the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB), which worked with residents (including the displaced) to develop a master recovery plan. The city needed this neighborhood manpower since its own staff and resources were being depleted -- less than a week later, Nagin was announcing 3,000 layoffs due to unfulfilled requests to the state and federal government for funds.
On Jan. 11, 2006, Nagin unveiled reports from BNOB's urban planning committee all urging massive citizen involvement. On Jan. 17, the commission presented a working plan toward recovery, which divided the city into 13 neighborhood planning districts, each of which were to submit its own recommendations by May. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush created the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding with about $66 billion in working capital from Congress.
The state's Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) handled allocation and disbursement of those funds, most of which went to insurance payments and short-term emergency assistance. The LRA's Road Home program received $2.8 billion of the funds. By the office's own admission, it erred in having overly centralized control. By November of that year, 77,000 home-owners had applied for LRA assistance, but only 28 checks had been distributed.
Concurrently, there were rampant resident complaints about house demolitions, which seemed to come randomly and unbeknownst to the owners, often with little advanced warning. The city also could not move ahead with its recovery plans until FEMA released flood-zone maps showing where rebuilding could take place.
The city was able to start moving forward, though, when it produced its Unified New Orleans Plan, bankrolled in large part by the Rockefeller Foundation, an extension and implementation of the plans that came out of the BNOB recovery plan. It was hailed as one of the largest democratic exercises in the country for allowing thousands of everyday citizens citywide to supply tremendous input through public meetings and votes on the city's future.
In December, Edward Blakely, a veteran planner of major urban-recovery projects, was announced as the "recovery czar" for New Orleans, but arrived stirring controversy. In April 2007, he was quoted in The New York Times referring to New Orleans residents as "buffoons." He also boasted he would soon have cranes covering the skyline, but no such visual emerged even well after a year into his tenure.
The first clear and consistent signs of restoration came in 2008. By November, over 600 public works and infrastructure projects in New Orleans were near shovel-ready status, with many actually completed. According to a Brookings Institution report, by July 2008, money had been awarded to almost 115,000 homeowners, although the average amount issued dropped to $58,688 from $72,669 in July 2007. And $411 million in Community Development Block Grant and FEMA funds were finally approved by the City Council to assist people on the ground doing the rebuilding. Much of this progress was made possible by the residents' own influence and urging.
Gulf coast groups had been organizing and agitating the government into action before Katrina. When 2004's Hurricane Ivan exposed flaws in the city's evacuation plans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, an advocacy group for low-income and homeless families, was in meetings with the city helping to draft contingency measures for the next big storm.
No documented plans existed then for evacuating the estimated 130,000 people without cars, in hospitals and hospices, or otherwise unable to evacuate. After a worst-case-scenario simulation was presented to Mayor Ray Nagin and his staff in 2004 -- a digital Category 3 hurricane named Pam -- UNITY executive director Martha Kegel proposed contracting with school boards, Greyhound, and charter companies for use of their buses during an evacuation. Nagin's staff verbally agreed. But no contracts were drafted and nothing was implemented.
When Katrina arrived, three days into the crisis Nagin couldn't even locate the keys to the Regional Transit Authority buses, as reported in Douglas Brinkley's book The Great Deluge. While in the upstate shelter to which she was evacuated, Kegel remembers seeing school buses filled with Plaquemines parish residents pulling up, led by the parish president Benny Rousselle. She found out later that no scripted plan was in place. "They had no contracts with the schools or anything," Kegel says. "They just did what they had to do to get out of there."
One exceptional display of leadership came from Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, head of the Joint Task Force Katrina that was created when FEMA proved ineffective. He arrived in New Orleans the Thursday after Katrina struck with thousands of troops and little tolerance for nonsense. With 25,000 people cloistered in the Louisiana Superdome and another 50,000 spread around the drowned city on rooftops, Honoré came when numerous rumors were circulating about flood victims "looting," raping, and killing. Many armed soldiers from the Special Weapons And Tactics police force and the private-contracted security force Blackwater -- who were supposed to be there on rescue missions -- had their guns pointed at citizens.
But contrary to the lawlessness that was reported, Honoré, commanding general of the Army's 1st Division, determined the area "a zero-threat environment." He shouted at soldiers to lower their weapons and appeared as one clear reminder that the armed forces were there to protect, not police, the people.
In the months after Katrina, recovery money came slowly, if at all. Homeowners were denied claims by insurance companies that faulted "deferred maintenance" -- repairs allegedly needed before the hurricanes -- or that said homes suffered from wind damage, which isn't covered by flood insurance.
A Brookings Institution report published in March 2006 states that the Army Corps of Engineers still hadn't razed any severely damaged houses in New Orleans. FEMA had determined that roughly 50,000 houses suffered major damage, but as of March 2006, they had issued just 16,000 building permits. A report from the National Academy of Sciences published in September of that year states that the "emergency post-disaster period" for Katrina "appears to be longer in duration than that of any other studied disaster."
When people finally began returning home, many African American renters encountered Jim Crow?like racial discrimination. On Web sites like katrinahousing.org and nolahousing.com, postings read: "not racist, but white only," "to make things more understandable for our younger child we would like to house white children," and "we live in a redneck country here, especially in my neighborhood, and blacks are frowned on."
The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed an administrative complaint against the Web sites for violating the Fair Housing Act. It was just the beginning of dozens of legal complaints that would pile up in Katrina's aftermath. The Jeremiah Group, a coalition of faith-based organizations throughout New Orleans that had been doing activism around housing since 1993, felt a surge in capacity.
"We have always been able to pull people together," says Jacqueline Jones, the Jeremiah Group's lead organizer. After Katrina "did it escalate? Yes. The numbers of active and core members have increased tremendously."
"Just before the storm, we were having huge fights with the city over affordable housing," says James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "There was this huge drive about getting people who would be affected by this to show up at City Council meetings to talk about this and advocate on their own behalf."
After Katrina, "They started showing up at every meeting and workshop and were telling their elected officials what they needed and how they needed it."
This new aggressive civic participation fortified Perry and urged state legislators to finally activate the Louisiana Housing Trust Fund, which was enacted in 2003 to create housing for low- to moderate-income families. It had no money until after Katrina when Perry's army convinced the legislature to deposit $25 million into the account. The new civic activism scored again when UNITY, after three years of campaigning, convinced Congress last summer to allocate $73 million for 3,000 rental units from the state's Road Home program, most of which will go to the homeless and disabled.
One fight that community groups lost was the struggle to save the "big four" low-income housing projects: St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. Of these, only Lafitte will get one-for-one replacements of the razed units. In St. Bernard, 466 units will replace the 1,300 that existed before it. However, Jim Kelly, a major developer on the Lafitte project, said in a Times-Picayune article that it was the citizens who deserved the credit.
"Now, you can't keep residents from getting in front of microphones and arguing better than or as good as any lawyer I know," says Tracie Washington, who formed the Louisiana Justice Institute after Katrina and labored to keep the housing projects open. "They've learned how to fight for themselves."
It was one thing that so many community-based organizations were forming and accomplishing so much, but without synchronization they were doomed to meet the same tangled fate as the governments they were challenging. Without coordination among the groups, the threat of cluttered and scattered agendas could have added up to rivalry and stalemate. To avoid this, the new activists began coalescing.
Timolynn Sams, an AmeriCorps worker, became the director of the Neighborhood Partnership Network, which links the city's 73 neighborhoods to one another and also with the city government. The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, formed the week after Katrina, has proved an effective connector for the network and other neighborhood-based associations, as well as an intermediary for funds making their way from national foundations.
The Equity and Inclusion Campaign was conceived by the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and formed in June 2007 to see if the swiftly growing accumulation of nonprofits across the Gulf Coast could collaborate and approach Congress as one regional dependent, rather than as a pack of siblings. With regional equity as the guiding principle, organizations from Mississippi and Alabama could finally get the attention they deserved when sold as a package with Louisiana.
When Gustav and Ike hit the Gulf during the 2008 hurricane season, they tested the resolves of not only the Equity and Inclusion Campaign coalition members but also those of the local and federal governments. Mostly, they passed. UNITY, a member of the campaign, worked with the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness for the City Assisted Evacuation Plan. UNITY's staff was in the streets helping police evacuate the homeless and people of special needs and making sure they got to the front of the line when the evacuation buses came. Campaign members from states not affected were in constant communication with members in Louisiana who were, ensuring they had transportation, bedding and kitchenware for the shelters, volunteers, food, and water.
In helping often-overlooked populations, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice was instrumental in persuading Immigration and Customs Enforcement to suspend their checkpoints so that immigrants could evacuate free of fear. It was like the "lower your weapons" command of Gen. Honoré, who now serves on the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation board.
"Nonprofits make a big difference in these people's lives," Honoré says. "But overall, the responsibility of storm recovery should be on the state government in collaboration with FEMA and the federal government in order to have a more active process and to try [to] do it quicker."
Perhaps lack of government responsibility was the reason Gustav was not a total success. While many agree things went well, there were reports of poor, if not inhumane treatment of those sheltered after the evacuation. The sheltering was the responsibility of the state's Department of Social Services. The department's director, Ann Williamson, resigned after Gustav with apologies. In the old normal, having just this one flaw, however major, in a disaster would probably have been good enough. However, Martha Kegel is already working with the state to ensure that next time, the sheltering runs better.
The funding for much of this new civic engagement came from major foundations such as Ford, Kellogg, McKnight, Annie E. Casey, Gates, and Blue Moon, with much of it funneled through the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Orleans Recovery Foundation. They've even provided supplemental funding for government.
When the city's recovery-management office needed additional staff, the Orleans Recovery Foundation provided funding for a director of disaster-mitigation planning, which was filled by Earthea Nance, a professor who took a leave of absence from Virginia Tech to volunteer in New Orleans. "I came here for the same reason someone who wants to be a star goes to Hollywood, or someone interested in politics goes to D.C.," Nance says.
If you are someone whose focus is on planning, environmental mitigation, and engineering, then going to New Orleans is "an opportunity of a lifetime," Nance adds. She now works in the recovery office updating the city's hazard-mitigation plan and synchronizing it with the city's master plan.
But while philanthropy has come to the rescue and fostered the growth of both civic and local government action, the new movement hardly absolves the federal government of its duty to help its citizens recover. Even with all that the community-based organizations have done, there are still tremendous gaps that may be beyond their capacity. Despite President Bush's claim on the Larry King Live show that he led a "pretty darn quick" response, there remains a stalemate between what the state and city say they need for repairs and what FEMA says it will consider for reimbursement -- a $1.4 billion gap, according to the state.
"The levees broke -- that was a federal failure," Perry says. "If federal government makes a mistake, they should be held responsible for cleaning it up. They are funded and charged [with] dealing with these kinds of issues, and they have a certain guarantee of funding and ability to do that. But with us and volunteers, there is no guarantee we will be able to continue to respond like this." However, just the fact that Gulf Coast organizations have been able to respond, especially as the wounded themselves, is the triumph of a region that's been written off as poor, colored, and likely not worth saving. Says Nance, "A major part of this recovery has been the recovery of civil society."
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Reaching out for 9th Ward Recovery
May 5, 2009
As residents continue to rebuild in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, many with the assistance from volunteers, the grind of long-term recovery can wear down the spirit of all those involved. Nadine Bean, a visiting professor in the Tulane School of Social Work, has launched a center that provides emotional, social and spiritual support on a walk-in basis.
Bean, an associate professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania’s master of social work program, came to New Orleans as a volunteer following Hurricane Katrina. She began working with lowernine.org, a rebuilding organization that “pairs wood and nail-and-hammer rebuilding with mind, spirit and community rebuilding,” Bean says.
Bean has worked for many years with the American Red Cross, providing disaster mental health services and and training individuals in psychological first aid. Her first deployment from Philadelphia was to ground zero in Manhattan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The term ‘mental health’ still has such a stigma associated with it, particularly in the African American community,” Bean says.
To reach out to both residents and volunteers working to rebuild houses in the 9th Ward, Bean is partnering with All Souls Episcopal Church. She finds that many people are more receptive to receiving social support services that are offered as both emotional- and spiritual-support services in collaboration with clergy.
Bean has been training volunteers and community leaders in how to provide psychological first aid — recognizing the signs of mental distress among residents, offering them psychological comfort and referring them to longer-term mental health services if necessary.
She also helps volunteers cope with a type of burn-out called secondary or vicarious traumatization.
“Perhaps the best term is ‘compassion fatigue’,” Bean says. “Many of the volunteers are very young — right out of college — and they come with admirable, incredible passion for this work. A couple of them have been here for more than two years. They still care very deeply, but they have less and less energy and effectiveness.”
Some show signs that they need a “mental health tune-up,” Bean says. The symptoms include not sleeping well, nightmares, risky behaviors such as drinking too much alcohol, and not taking care of themselves. Bean provides individual and group counseling.
Bean hopes to obtain funding to find a full-time social worker for the drop-in clinic who can carry the project forward when she returns to her teaching position in Pennsylvania, and she would like to have students in the Tulane master of social work program work at the clinic.
“It’s not enough to rebuild structures. We need to help re-weave the social fabric of the community,” Bean says. “I've seen how resilient and strong people here are — and the astronomical need for mental health services.”
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Report: Shrink N.O.’s ‘footprint’
New shelters, relocation among proposals
Advocate New Orleans bureau
Published: Apr 25, 2009 - Page: 1A
NEW ORLEANS — Addressing the most politically explosive issue in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, a review of a national report Friday recommended that planners throughout the region “discourage” re-settlement in areas vulnerable to destructive flooding.
The 41-page review of an upcoming voluminous report by the National Academies, an advisory panel of scientists and engineers, also proposes the “voluntary relocation” of entire neighborhoods, “elevating” homes of remaining residents; buyouts, and improving local and regional shelters to make hurricane evacuations “less imposing.”
The panel further suggested creating a “smaller footprint” for redevelopment within a 350-mile long hurricane protection system of the metro area, including low-lying areas of Orleans , Jefferson , St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.
“Although it can be a politically charged topic, the option of voluntarily relocating some structures and residents is one means to help improve safety and reduce flood damages,” the review states.
The science panel’s proposals were contained in a review of the final draft of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force — also known as the IPET report.
A massive investigative study of why the city’s 350-mile hurricane protection system failed during Katrina, the final report may be released in May, IPET director Ed Link, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland , said Friday.
In its review of 7,500-pages of interim IPET reports published through June 2008, the National Academies committee warned that many of the “lessons learned” from Katrina have not been “adequately implemented” in the metro area.
While post-Katrina repairs and fortifications to levees and floodwalls have reduced some dangers, the panel said, the risk of flooding “never can be fully eliminated … no matter how large or sturdy those structures may be.”
The scientists said a “smaller footprint” for the metro area, “especially in areas below sea level,” might create a more manageable and cost-effective flood protection system for the Greater New Orleans area.
“At the very least, pros and cons of a smaller footprint should be a topic for discussion and debate,” the report states. “Nevertheless, it appears that post-Katrina rebuilding activities are taking place largely according to the pre-Katrina (hurricane protection system) design without discussions of how a safer and more reliable design might be configured.”
The costs of rebuilding and strengthening 350 miles of levees, are “substantial,” the report states. The panel recommended consideration of a voluntary buyout program, which is already under study by the corps.
Higher-ground areas of the region, found closer to the natural Mississippi River levees, are “inherently” safer than “extensive” lower-lying areas of eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, the report states.
The panel recommends elevating homes in vulnerable areas where owners are “not amenable to relocations.”
Hundreds of people in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes died during Katrina. Tens of thousands lost their homes. More than 100,000 mostly black residents remain displaced from their old neighborhoods.
Shortly after Katrina, a national panel of urban planners recommended that the city rebuild along a smaller “footprint” of the “green-spacing” of the highly flood-prone neighborhoods.
However, many storm-stressed residents viewed the proposal as a “land grab” by developers. In the ensuing uproar, Mayor Ray Nagin — then facing re-election — backed away from “smaller footprint” plans.
“Because it’s such a political hot potato, the issue will be resolved through inertia,” said Tulane University historian Larry Powell, who has written extensively on the city’s post-Katrina reconstruction. “What is missing in all this (report) is any sense of what is equitable — what can be built and what should be built with finite resources. People were displaced as a result of (government) bureaucratic malfeasance. How do you deny them a right to return to their homes?”
The scientists’ proposal also came one day after a Tulane University-Democracy Now poll showed 57 percent of New Orleans voters (including 74 percent of black residents) disagreed with the statement: “Some areas of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina should not be rebuilt as a residential area again.”
“African-Americans overwhelmingly, strongly and profoundly disagree with that statement,” national political strategist James Carville, who teaches political science at Tulane, said of the poll Thursday. “I would advise the next mayor not to deal with it in an insensitive way and to try to rebuild as much of the city as we possibly can.”
ITEP’s director, Link, said Friday that he agreed with the recommendations on neighborhood relocation.
“The bigger increase in risk is coming from more and more people moving into areas at-risk (for flooding) than changes in climatology,” Link said.
Local officials should protect public safety and property by discouraging development in the worst areas for storm-surge flooding, by land use and zoning regulations.
“Don’t allow people to develop those areas,” Link said. “It’s an issue that people and public officials need to put on top of the table and address it for the long term.”
On hurricane evacuations, the scientists report said more systematic studies, planning and communication is needed. Longer-term strategies, such as improved local and regional sheltering; and locating facilities for the sick and elderly away from high-hazard areas, should also be considered.
“There is always a risk,” Link said of hurricanes. “You need to know what it is and what to do about it.”
Link said are three types of maps in the IPET report that New Orleans area residents can view on the corps’ Web site: flood-depth charts; economic-risk maps and a “loss of life” map. The data is displayed by subbasins not by neighborhoods.
Link added a warning for anyone thinking of staying in the city for a hurricane: “Mother Nature always bats last.”
ON THE INTERNET:
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
By KEN BELSON
New York Times, November 10, 2008
SOMETIMES one person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure — even when they are separated by 1,300 miles.
That was certainly the case with the 60 tons of high-end tile that last month ended a three-year odyssey by traveling from this gritty industrial hub west of New York City to New Orleans, where residents will use them to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The journey of the tiles was made possible through persistence, generosity and good timing, and was an example of how building-supply companies, environmental groups and community activists can work together.
Their cooperation may also provide a template for ways to get building materials destined for the dump to people in need, and may prove timely for suppliers trying to shed excess inventory in a slowing construction market.
The trek to New Orleans began by chance at a Christmas party in 2005. Nancy Epstein, the chief executive of Artistic Tile, with seven stores and a distribution center in Secaucus, met Nancy Biberman, the president of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit group known as Whedco that was building affordable housing in the South Bronx.
Laura Pedrick for The New York Times
TEAM EFFORT From left, Paul Eisemann, a contractor; Jon Cramer, an energy efficiency consultant; Debbie Grunbaum of Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation; and Gerard Esmail of Artistic Tile have collaborated to get leftover building materials to projects where they can be used instead of discarded.
Ms. Epstein offered to donate 120 tons of older and discontinued ceramic, concrete and porcelain tiles to Ms. Biberman for her 128 apartments. Unlike many commercial developers, Ms. Biberman did not need large quantities of similar tiles and could use Artistic’s variety of small lots. Artistic, meanwhile, could reduce its inventory taxes and avoid paying to dispose of the tiles.
“There is a cost to dumping it, and moving it around the warehouse has a cost, too, because it keeps you from putting in new product,” Ms. Epstein said. “There is a pride of ownership when the apartments are done nicely, so we donate whatever we can.”
Yet after Whedco placed tiles in bathrooms, kitchens and common areas this summer, 60 tons — worth about $250,000 — remained unused. Much of it sat outside Artistic’s warehouse on pallets, some in open boxes that exposed ceramic moldings, finished crowns and tiles costing up to $30 each. Another load sat so long in a trailer nearby that its legs had sunk into the asphalt.
Serendipity ensued in the form of Paul Eisemann, who refurbishes brownstones in Brooklyn and who volunteers in New Orleans, where he teaches home-building skills. With the hurricane debris largely cleared and the frames and walls of new homes going up, Mr. Eisemann and community leaders in New Orleans turned to outfitting bathrooms, kitchens and other rooms.
Back in Brooklyn, Mr. Eisemann had been speaking to Jon Cramer, an energy efficiency consultant, about how to get donated construction materials directly to communities along the Gulf Coast. Many nonprofit groups, like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores, collect construction materials, but then resell them in stores to raise money.
“In New York, there’s so much overbuilding,” Mr. Eisemann said. “For the next three to five years, there’s going to be excess building materials that sometimes are more expensive to throw away than to donate.”
Their task was daunting. In New York, few warehouses had the space to store materials before they were shipped. Transportation costs were skyrocketing. They also had to verify that recipients would use the materials properly and promptly.
But Mr. Cramer persevered. He spoke to Justin Green, who runs Build It Green! NYC, a nonprofit group that sells salvaged construction materials. Mr. Green’s warehouse in Astoria, Queens, was packed, so he had to turn down an offer of tile from Whedco, which wanted to donate what remained from its construction.
Mr. Cramer and Mr. Eisemann seized the chance to put their plan to work. They learned from Artistic that more tile — enough to fill at least four tractor-trailers — was sitting in Secaucus, too.
Mr. Eisemann contacted Mary Croom-Fontenot, executive director of All Congregations Together, an alliance of religious groups in New Orleans that has rebuilt 142 homes with volunteer labor and donations. Her group, along with Lowernine.org, another nonprofit group in New Orleans focused on rebuilding homes, was excited about the prospect of getting high-quality tile.
“Once people get the walls done and the electrical and plumbing, many run out of money for the flooring, the bathrooms,” she said. “So our hope is to help them with one more piece, to make their house a home with this grade-A, top-of-the-line tile.”
Still, the tiles were two days’ drive from their ultimate home. So Mr. Eisemann called the Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, minister of the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church in Burke, Va., where he runs the TUUL-Belt Ministry, a volunteer program.
Mr. Sammler-Michael had taken some congregants to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding effort. His group offered $3,000 to pay for one tractor-trailer load of tile to be shipped to Louisiana. Before he could write a check, a New Jersey trucking company that did not want its name publicized agreed to haul the first load without charge. Two trailers picked up the tile in October.
To ready the tiles for shipping, three workers at Artistic’s distribution center spent three days repacking the first 47,600 pounds of tile. The tiles were sorted, crated and shrink-wrapped and filled a couple of dozen pallets. “We want to make sure it goes to a good place,” said Gerard Esmail, the operations manager of Artistic’s warehouse.
Mr. Eisemann and Mr. Cramer are now focused on making sure the remaining two-thirds of the tiles end up in New Orleans.
“It seems like it’s been a really long haul, making hundreds of phone calls and e-mails and putting details together,” Mr. Eisemann said. “But big dreams cost the same amount of money as small ones, so dream big.”
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Pictured are Junior Foster, Amy Taylor and Russ Sternglass from Ithaca, N.Y. Russ and Amy are just enjoying a break, and a bit of sunshine, at Junior's before heading to the dump with a load of debris. Junior and his wife were able to get back into their home this year.
COSHOCTON -Amy Taylor of Coshocton spent a week in November volunteering in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
This was Taylor's second trip to the area. Her first experience was in March of 2007 when she spent time there with a group of chefs cooking and doing relief work.
Taylor works at Auer Ace Hardware, but is also a pastry chef with her own business, la petit chef. She volunteered this November with the Lower Nine Organization, which assists homeowners with the rebuilding process that is still ongoing from the hurricane damage in 2005.
"Lower Nine provides all the labor at no charge," said Taylor. "The homeowners are only responsible for the material costs. There are many long-term volunteers working with the organization and several who come and go like we did."
Taylor said that most of the homes need to be reduced down to the frame in order to remove all the water damage. The homes in this particular area were the hardest hit since most of them were completely covered with water.
"This is a very historic neighborhood," said Taylor. "Many of the people don't have the money to come back to their damaged homes. Only 17 percent of the people have been able to return to the Lower Nine area."
Taylor spent most of her time during this trip hauling away debris on several different work sites.
"We would get our assignments each morning from the crew leader," she said. "There were usually three to seven people working at each site."
She said that the Lower Nine organization has 40 to 60 homes on the waiting list for repairs. The Bette Midler Family Foundation pays for licensed plumbers and electricians to do the plumbing and electrical work on the homes.
Taylor recalled her first trip to the area in 2007 with 15 chefs from all over the country.
"Our group leader told us then that we would never be able to forget the place once we left and he predicted that many of us would return," she said. "Two of the chefs are now living there. There's just no place like New Orleans. It sucks you in and you feel you need to be there and help."
Taylor said that if you visit the tourist sites of New Orleans you may not be aware of the extreme amount of work that is left to be done in the neighborhood areas. Many people are not able to rebuild their homes and many of the jobs they once had are no longer there. Many of the lots have just been leveled.
"Yet the residents are determined and so thankful for the help they are getting," expressed Taylor. "It's amazing to see the joy these people have in where they live - even if it is a FEMA trailer sitting in front of their house as they wait for the day when their home can be rebuilt. There is a man named Darrin who had spent four days on a roof during the storm before he was rescued. He is now a long-term volunteer for Lower Nine. He lives in a little one-room camper trailer next to the headquarters and works as a site manager to help rebuild his neighborhood."
Taylor feels that her work in New Orleans is a kind of 'pay it forward' thing.
"I would hope that if we ever needed help in our community we would have volunteers come here," she said. "We had a little taste of what that is like back in September with the wind and power outages."
She expressed her appreciation for her boss, Tom Edwards, at Auer Ace Hardware for working around her schedule so she could spend time in New Orleans.
"He is also helping me purchase a professional chain saw to donate to the Lower Nine organization," she said. "I'm taking donations toward this purchase. I figure if 30 or 40 people donated just $5 I would be able to purchase the saw and have it delivered as a holiday surprise."
Taylor said that she has often felt there was something she was supposed to do with her life. When she was contacted in the spring of 2007 by the French Culinary Institute to volunteer in New Orleans, it was definitely out of her comfort zone to go off by herself and volunteer like that.
"I'm so glad I did and grateful to my husband for taking care of things here while I was gone," she said. "When you volunteer like that you realize that 'it's not about you.' There's a lot of life in that city and I hope to be able to return again within six months. It's my passion help this city come back."
Taylor said she would encourage anyone who wants to go to New Orleans to volunteer or donate to the project to contact her for information. She can be reached at 623-8107."
For more information about the Lower Nine organization, go to www.lowernine.org.