ReNew Orleans: An Update from New Orleans UCC Hurricane Recovery

March 2, 2006

A message from Rev. Alan Coe, Minister for Disaster Recovery South Central Conference

Months after the greatest disaster to hit the United States there are more questions, more issues and more frustrations. At the same time one sees a great sense of hope and faith in the future. One feels a sense of urgency and resolve among homeowners in the New Orleans area. That same sense of urgency is expressed by people who come to help in the cleaning out and rebuilding of people's homes.

If you come to New Orleans to work with a group from the UCC or have heard testimony of someone who has already come then you have a different and more realistic picture of what life is like for the citizens of New Orleans post Katrina. This is one of those instances in life where you have to see it to understand and begin to comprehend the disaster.

The most striking thing is the mass devastation to a major American city. Thousands of homes will not and cannot be rebuilt simply because the force of water running through the neighborhoods dislodged them off their foundations and have rendered them uninhabitable. Thousands of other homes are able to be rebuilt although they experienced severe flooding and standing water, with the right amount of care they are structurally sound and will house families again.

In areas where a lot of our work takes place, the level of standing water was in 5 - 12 foot range. Most of these homes are structurally sound and people hope to come back and make it their home once again.

Since the beginning groups have been cleaning out people's homes, mostly church members from UCC churches in the area. The homes have been largely untouched since the hurricane so that means the first thing to do is remove people's belongings. We work with the homeowner to identify places in the home to look for valuables, either monetary or things of sentimental value. We also work with the homeowner to salvage whatever we are able. Non-porous items and items with a homeowner's identity information are salvaged. Then we begin the process of removing walls and if necessary ceilings, depending on the height of water and mold growth. All nails are removed from the studs and the home is then ready for mold remediation. The debris from the house is taken out to the curb for collection. Certain things are separated out, electronics, appliances, bleach, paint and other cleaning chemicals. Different crews pick these things up. The cleaning out of a house is the first step in a long process of rebuilding. It changes the look of a home a great deal and gives the homeowner a sense of hope.

One homeowner was referred to us to have her house cleaned out. A group was busy on their second day of working in the house. The belongings had been removed and the crew was working on walls and ceilings. The house had about seven feet of water in it. This is a house raised off of street level about ten feet, so in total about 17 feet of water was in this neighborhood. As I walked in the house the woman was sitting on the fireplace hearth, the only place to sit. She looked about ready to cry. The trash removal people had just come and picked up the pile of debris outside her home. Her comment was, "I just watched twenty-five years of my life get thrown away." One can only begin to empathize with the situation. There is no way we can understand what the people of New Orleans are. After her comment all I could do was hug her and sit with her, tears welling up in my own eyes, then and now as I write this. This is what drives me to do this work, compassion.

Compassion is also what drives people to come and help. The story is told over and over in the Bible. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind. The person with a compassionate heart stopped and gave aid to the person in need. That on a grand scale is what is happening after the 2005 hurricane season. There is an unprecedented amount of need, not only in New Orleans but the entire Gulf Coast region. That need is being met by individuals whose hearts are touched to do this work.

The work is not easy. Not physically, nor emotionally. Statistics change rapidly here but some give a sense of what the region is like. Seventy percent of the city is still without electricity. There are approximately 2,500 people missing. The Red Cross is still feeding people on a daily basis. This is the latest they have done that after a disaster. Over 200,000 homes are already uninhabitable and will have to come down. Many retail stores remain closed and may never reopen. Some places of business that are open have limited hours and restaurants may have limited menus. It is improving all the time, but this will be a long slow recovery for the city.

With the addition of long term volunteers from Ohio, Jim and Linda Ditzler, the UCC ministry is expanding. There are now three UCC churches available to house work groups that come to the area. The primary focus of this ministry is to help homeowners rebuild and work in partnership with other denominations and agencies in the overall recovery of the region. We are in essence starting a small re-construction company, using volunteers from all over the country as the work force to help recover and rebuild New Orleans or as seen on a TV ad, ReNew Orleans.

As the person who is overseeing the recovery efforts for our denomination, my hope is to build an awareness of need. As Christians that is what we respond too. We see a need, our hearts are touched and we respond with whatever means we are able. That is all we can do. In that we become the hands and heart of Christ's compassion and love here.

May God bless you. If you are interested in working in the region, please look online at www.ucc.org.

Rev. Alan Coe Minister for Disaster Recovery

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