Cross-posted on Kos.

From USA Today via Yahoo News:

The Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular have at times felt abandoned by the American government. But they haven’t been abandoned by Americans, who have volunteered by the thousands to clear out houses, collect trash, fight mold, cover roofs, feed the hungry, tend to the sick and help in any way they can. Now, as disaster relief gives way to rebuilding, volunteers are renovating and constructing homes, restocking libraries, surveying historic structures, tracking down voters and helping communities plan for the future.

Partly because politicians continue to dither, bicker and accuse, non-governmental organizations – “NGOs” ranging from large, non-profit agencies to church youth groups – are emerging as heroes of the recovery effort.

And who are these unlikely heroes?

  • The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group that works in low-income areas, is organizing the city’s scattered residents to give them a voice in planning their neighborhoods’ future.

  • National Trust for Historic Preservation volunteers are canvassing thousands of flood-damaged historic houses and encouraging owners to restore, not raze.

  • The Preservation Resource Center, another historic preservation group, is handing out “flood buckets” with materials for cleaning up buildings and offering classes for homeowners on how to repair flood damage.

  • Oprah Winfrey’s Oprah’s Angel Network is donating 50 houses for people left homeless.

  • Common Ground, a coalition of activist groups founded after Katrina, was among the first to go into the Upper 9th Ward, where it runs a health clinic, a legal aid office, a homeless shelter, a free kitchen, a “tool lending library” and a solar-powered shower.

Religious denominations are focusing on their traditional specialties in disaster relief. They include Southern Baptists (chain sawing for debris removal), United Methodists (tracking the needs of families), Seventh Day Adventists (warehousing supplies) and Church of the Brethren (emergency child care), according to Kevin King of the Mennonites (building trades).

Volunteers include Old Order Amish, who shun modern conveniences and still dress as they did centuries ago; hippies of the Rainbow Family, a 1960s-style, back-to-the-land group that established a soup kitchen and medical tent in a park east of the French Quarter; and planners from the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research group that waived its usual fee to study rebuilding New Orleans.

But these are groups that are centered mostly in New Orlenas. Many other outlying areas and Mississippi and Alabama probably need or are beginning to receive help as well.

FEMA has such a piss-poor standing in New Orleans, particularly in the Ninth Ward, that FEMA workers, if they happen to venture forth in that area, no longer wear special coats or badges or even cars bearing the FEMA logo.  If they are easily identified, they are sometimes threatened.

The outside help, however, has been looked on as a godsend to people like Howard Peterson, a frail, disabled former barber who, according to this story, had never seen a Mennonite in his life:

Peterson and his wife couldn’t afford to pay a contractor several thousand dollars to gut the one-story house, which sat in water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina inundated the working-class Gentilly district. So Peterson, who looks too frail to do spring cleaning, began trying to clear out the house himself. Then the Mennonites came by and offered a hand.

“I can’t thank them enough,” he says. But he also wonders when the professionals – city, state and federal agencies – will do their part. “They should be trying to repair the city.”

But they won’t.  They’re too busy squabbling about creating Gulf Coast economic ‘zones,’ and getting the casinos back in action to worry about the citizenry’s daily needs.

Brenda Philips, a professor of emergency management at Oklahoma State University and other analysts cite these reasons why NGOs have become more effective in assisting disaster victims:

  • Government lost the public’s confidence after the hurricane and will have a hard time regaining it. “That leaves the non-profits,” says Tiziana Dearing of Harvard’s Hauser Center for Non-profit Organizations.

  • The disaster’s scope stretches even well-functioning government agencies, inviting involvement by NGOs that normally focus on the neediest victims – the poor and elderly.

  • Lacking government’s power, money and size, non-profits often are more sensitive to people’s needs. “We listen before we do anything,” [Kevin] King [of the Mennonites] says.

  • NGOs are relatively nimble – an important asset if, as seems likely, the Gulf Coast will recover a block or a neighborhood at a time. “It’s easier for light-footed individuals to move things forward than a government bureaucracy,” says Greta Gladney, a community activist whose home in the Lower 9th Ward has been rehabbed by ACORN volunteers.

For the Mennonites, the Katrina disaster has been more than just a call to arms, but a call that comes from the very heart of their religion.  Their mission, at one point, seemed in doubt.

Katrina was a call to the action demanded by their founding fathers, who “emphasized doing something about our faith – putting it into practice,” says Werner Froese, a Canadian who supervises New Orleans projects for the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). “So we want to get people back into their homes as soon as we can.”

Since early October, more than 600 MDS volunteers have worked on 200 projects along the Gulf Coast. They’ve donned masks, boots and gloves to do the dirtiest, most basic jobs – ripping out moldy drywall and picking through wreckage.


King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service, and five board members had spent the day touring the city and talking with residents. By 10:30 that night they were exhausted, but King insisted they discuss a disturbing question: Should they commit tens of thousands of volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to a community that might not survive the next big storm?

Some Mennonites favored concentrating on other parts of the Gulf Coast and writing off New Orleans. By helping people rebuild in the city, they argued, we might only be setting them up for the next disaster.

Nothing King saw or heard that day challenged such pessimism, especially the residents’ despair over government inaction and their uncertainty over the condition and future of the levees that are supposed to protect the city from flooding.

But as they sat around a table in a small, second-floor conference room at an Hispanic church, he and the directors kept thinking about the desolation they’d seen in Gentilly and the 9th Ward. The situation was desperate – so desperate they decided in the end that they should stay.

Even if New Orleans is a lost cause, King says that the Mennonites are committed to stay through March 2006 to help.

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