Today I went along with a member of my church as we drove a large truck and trailer of water, bleach, and other sundries to a distribution and recovery site in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Camp Hope, on the shores of the Mississippi River, has taken over an elementary school, which is no longer able to educate kids - kids, by the way, who are no longer in the area. Only about 1/3 of the 66k residents have returned to Violet and the rest of St. Bernard Parish. The school is home to several organizations, working side by side to return the parish back to some sense of normalcy. Habitat for Humanity has a hub there. With them serving as an umbrella organization for several smaller work groups, about 3,000 homes have been gutted and repaired. AmeriCorps has its local headquarters here, with AmeriCorps volunteers gutting and demolishing homes, prioritized so that older adults (65 and older) and disabled people get attention first. Camp Hope offers laundry services, meals, water, and showers to returning residents as they work to bring back their lost homes. Today was both a fun day and a very sobering one. I met incredible people from all over the US along with people from Spain, Canada, and some from right there in St. Bernard Parish. People have flown to the area to give everything from a couple of days to several months of their lives to breathe life back into a devasted area.
The differences between downtown New Orleans and the areas just outside of it are incredible. While the French Quarter and the central business district still have work to be done, electricity is dependable, water is potable (and reliable), and the sewage system works. Tourists may not be as thick along the sidewalks as in past years, but they roam the streets buying wares from vendors and acting as good patrons to local musicians. But move away from this semi-restored area and you find trucks tossed upside down, houses moved off of their foundations, plugged sewage lines, boarded business fronts, and abandoned neighborhoods. Healing has yet to come full force into the region. It's easy to believe that life has returned to normal down there because uber-businesses and hotel, hardware, and restaurant chains with great capital have been able to rebuild, but life is far from normal. Much of the area near Lake Pontchartrain and in lower lying areas near the Mississippi River look like they did just over a year ago, except the water has receded. Big X's still mark the houses indicating the rescue group, the date, and how many dead were found inside. It is a stark reminder that those without financial means are once again left to fend for themselves in a world of abundance. In one way I hope the yellow water mark that runs along the sound barriers beside the freeways is left there. It marks more than the eight feet of water that has since been forced back into the sea. It marks the ongoing reality of injustice and the struggle to find home that so many around the world face every day.
I want to thank fellow United Methodist John from Ohio for giving me a tour of Camp Hope. I also want to thank all of the volunteers there - Habitat folks, AmeriCorps workers (getting things done!), and all at Camp Hope. Your work may seem thankless and endless, but it is important. Your 300,000 work hours have made a tremendous difference in people's lives. I want to thank UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot for sending the supplies that they can to help folks out as they struggle to rebuilt.
Here is one thing that I learned today that needs to change: After asking where all of the debris goes after houses are gutted, I was told that the federal government, through FEMA, pays for 100% of the removal. Trucks come by, pick up the debris, cart it out of town and dump it. Makeshift landfills are being made all of the time. However, this will end as of December 31, 2006 when FEMA will pay 90% of the debris removal. While this may look generous on paper, it's the same as telling me that I can have 10% off of a 20 million dollar mansion. When you don't have it, you don't have it. Neither St. Bernard Parish nor the people who live there can pay for debris removal. As a result, AmeriCorps plans to cease its gutting work at the end of the year and work on construction. This means, in essence, that gutting will no longer happen after the end of this year. This needs to change. If we can fund two wars and a bridge to nowhere, we can fund 100% of the debris removal. It's preposterous to think otherwise.
Well, after this little rant, I need to head off to vespers. A group of Texas that is also staying at the Sager Brown Depot is leading us in worship this evening. I look forward to what they have to offer as we prepare to end the day and begin our evening...
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