Gulf Coast Trip Reflections

April 11, 2006

New Orleans, Louisiana - Biloxi, Mississippi April 5-7, 2006 John H. Thomas General Minister and President

These reflections and observations come from a visit to the New Orleans Association of the United Church of Christ and to the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was accompanied by Florence Coppola, Executive of National Disaster Ministries, Wider Church Ministries.

The local New Orleans' NPR station's annual fund drive offered as its premium gift a sophisticated battery operated radio/television unit with programmed weather and emergency information bands, a clock, a cell phone recharger, and a hand crank that could generate sufficient power to operate the device for one hour with each minute of hand cranking. Where else in the country would such a gift lure generous donors to NPR but in New Orleans! This was but one small hint of the altered state of mind experienced by the residents of the Gulf Coast.

The first glimpse of hurricane damage to be seen flying into the New Orleans airport is of the ubiquitous blue tarps that cover damaged roofs, not an uncommon sight after major storms anywhere. But this is seven months after Katrina, and the tarps I saw covered large homes in affluent neighborhood where yards typically included in-ground swimming pools. If these residents, normally the first to be able to restore their homes, were still waiting for repairs, how were the poorest neighborhoods dealing with Katrina? Other telltale signs of massive disruption and dislocation were soon apparent. The airport appears to have at least half of its gates shut down. Vendors in the concourses have yet to reopen many shops; restaurants in the main waiting area are still closed. Traffic lights at many major intersections, even in the downtown area, are still not operating. Huge "auto graveyards" under the elevated highways are seen everywhere; thousands of flooded automobiles, some cannibalized, others simply covered with months of dust and dirt lie abandoned where they were dragged in the early weeks of clean up. In the French Quarter the music still booms at night, but the crowd of revelers and sightseers is much smaller than I remember from previous trips. Some shops remain closed, restaurants are often functioning on reduced schedules with reduced menus, and "help wanted" signs abound. When hotels and restaurants advertise for help, offering competitive wages, health and dental plans, 401K plans, and vacation and sick time, it is obvious that there is an enormous labor shortage even to simply run the critically important tourist industry. A sign in our hotel, normally advertizing meetings of various convention groups, directed people to workshops on "hazmat and mold remediation." Instead of the normal business crowd on the elevators at 7:30 in the morning, there are school children heading for classes, some of the many residents still being housed in hotels.

My visit, hosted by the New Orleans Association of the United Church of Christ, included visits to several local churches and tours through some of the devastated areas. Beecher Memorial Church and Central Congregational Church are two historic African American congregations located in thriving neighborhoods. Both suffered severe flood damage. The interior of Beecher has been gutted by UCC work groups and mold abatement will begin soon. Central awaits cleanup. The neighborhoods around these two churches, once filled with small wood frame homes and shops that was a center of the African American community, are empty. Block after block of flooded homes sit vacant. Debris still lines the tree lawns; spray-painted messages by the front doors recall the search and rescue efforts that took place. A bit of clean up work is taking place here and there; a few FEMA trailers are set up in drives. But for the most part the neighborhoods remain as they were in the first weeks following the flood. The residents are among the evacuees living across the southeast or are with relatives in less damaged parts of the city. With most members of the congregations gone, the future of these churches remains uncertain. Each is now worshiping with other UCC congregations.

The famous "Lower 9th Ward" is a graphic scene of destruction. The lowest section of the city, it experienced the severest storm surge and flood damage. Vast expanses of vacant land are broken up only by the occasional destroyed houses deposited here and there by the power of the storm. One can see areas where houses were pushed across the street, smashing into other homes. One house sits atop an overturned, crushed automobile. This is the area of the city where the greatest loss of life occurred. Some removal of debris continues; there is no rebuilding taking place.

The drive to a third affected area took us along a wide thoroughfare lined with strip malls and shopping centers. All are closed. In many sections it is impossible to find even a gas station or a convenience store, The neighborhoods to the east of the city were once filled with modest middle class neighborhoods surrounding a large oil storage facility where many of the residents worked. One of the massive oil tanks ruptured during Katrina, spreading oil throughout the area. Some families have returned, living in their front yards in FEMA trailers. Flood debris still sits atop their houses. The environmental dangers have not yet been well defined, but it is clear that there are huge, unspecified health risks for returning residents.

One of my hosts described the devastation of New Orleans not as a single disaster, but as the product of a series of multiple disasters. The first was decades of corruption, bad decision making, and political and corporate indifference that left New Orleans vulnerable to storm surge and flood. Inadequate levee systems, the misuse of public funds intended to shore up storm defenses, shipping canals that allowed the port to grow but created huge funnels to accelerate the destructive power of storm surge, the loss of huge amounts of the wetlands to the south that formed a natural storm barrier and the altered course of the Mississippi that reduced the natural restoration of those storm barriers - all these "acts of humans" as opposed to "acts of God" put in place the elements that led to disaster.

The second disaster was the storm itself. It was the only disaster not attributable to human failure. Disaster number three was the ineptitude and indifference of government agencies in the initial hours and days after the flooding began, leaving thousands at risk and undoubtedly causing significant death. While the Coast Guard seems to get high marks from the people I talked with, other federal and state agencies are spoken of with nothing but scorn. The harrowing hours and days in attics or inadequate shelter on interstates, at the Convention Center, or the Superdome continue to take a toll. United Church of Christ hospital chaplains report a high death rate, particularly elderly people who simply have not been able to recover from the effects of heat, stress, and dehydration.

The final disaster has been the months' long inability of governmental agencies and insurance companies to respond effectively and efficiently to the needs of residents. Poorly trained staff brought on in the immediate post-Katrina days, insurance adjusters with little experience, conflicting information or no information about rebuilding, have left a bitter residue of frustration and anger. While the magnitude of the damage is stunning to see, most astonishing for me is the fact that almost no rebuilding is taking place. The political decisions have simply not been forthcoming from any government agencies about what can be rebuilt, where things can be rebuilt, what regulations will govern rebuilding, etc. As a result, residents don't know whether they will receive compensation, don't know whether to try to plan on rebuilding their homes. Most small business don't know whether the neighborhoods that were their markets will return. Churches, including some of our own, don't know whether their congregations will return. Everyone is simply waiting, some in New Orleans, many in other cities across the country, waiting now for seven months! The view of Dillard University from the street is typical: chain link fences surround a campus that still looks quiet and beautiful. But where is the construction activity necessary to clean and repair the flooded buildings in time for the fall semester? Residents, business, and institutions are clearly resilient and hopeful, but little seems to be happening.

An Association meeting brought pastors and members from all of our churches together for the first time since Katrina. In a meeting with pastors I found a high degree of appreciation for the way the denomination has supported them and their congregations. Churches that are now sharing space, like Central and St. Matthew, expressed joy in discovering the gift of living in this uncertain time as a multi-racial congregation. Congregations that are now hosting work groups from across the UCC testify to the energy such activity brings them. A new church start is being actively explored in Baton Rouge. The presence of the Rev. Alan Coe to coordinate work groups and UCC disaster response in New Orleans has been a boost. The president of the Association, Lynn Slagel, has been an energetic and gifted lay leader. Yet our congregations remain fragile. The future is very uncertain for some. A poignant conversation with three elderly members of St. Paul's centered on a vote this next week over whether to try to sell their building. Nearly a half of this already small congregation has left New Orleans. Contemplating closing their church in the face of so many other losses is terribly painful. The fellowship at the worship service was rich and eagerly embraced. Volunteers from Indiana, Massachusetts, and Ohio were a tangible symbol of the wider embrace of compassion from UCC members. Hopefully the Association, and the pastors, can find additional ways to gather during the months and years of recovery.

Biloxi, Mississippi is about an hour and a half drive east from New Orleans. The United Church of Christ has been present in Biloxi since the early 20th century through Back Bay Mission, a ministry began by the Evangelical Synod of North America. Over the years it has served the poorest residents of Biloxi, including the fishing community, through programs in housing and health care. Displaced by the growing casino industry in the 1990's, Back Bay was rebuilt in a new location and continued its service. Biloxi, along with Gulfport and other coastal cities in Mississippi received the direct hit of Hurricane Katrina. Here you see entire sections of the city leveled, scene's reminiscent of what I saw in southern India last year following the tsunami. The casinos which now line the Back Bay and the ocean front were severely damaged. Only one is now operating though all the others are planning to reopen and two additional casinos will be added. They provide thousands of jobs but do little to improve the economic condition of many in Biloxi, add huge new social challenges, and mar the natural beauty of the coast with their oversized and garish silhouettes. The bridge which linked Biloxi with communities to the east is destroyed, the concrete sections stacked like fallen dominos. No work has started to rebuild it. Churches and stately homes along the shore, including the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, have either been destroyed or severely damaged. There is more evidence of a community coming back to life in Biloxi than in much of New Orleans. But the devastation is profound. A new memorial testifies to the loss of life.

Florence Coppola and I spent the day with Shari Prestemon, Executive Director of Back Bay, as well as with Peg Jacobs, retired UCC national executive and now volunteer for six months at Back Bay Mission. Back Bay's buildings were flooded and, in some cases moved off foundations. Much will need to be demolished, though there is still hope that the main building can be rebuilt. Staff now work out of three large trailers. A modular building is being brought for meetings and larger gatherings. Two trailers can now house work groups of up to sixteen persons each in relatively comfortable spaces. We were joined for lunch by Bruno Schroeder and David Stephens, retired staff from Back Bay who continue to live in the area. Many stories were shared about surviving the hurricane, about dealing with devastating damage to homes, and about the frustrations of FEMA, insurers, and other political officials.

In addition to its regular case work management for poor residents and the homeless - a growing population without any social service or shelter infrastructure - Back Bay is again becoming a center for volunteer work groups from across the UCC who are coming to help rehabilitate houses in the poorest communities in Biloxi. I visited three sites - in one mold was being removed, in the other two wallboard was going up, courtesy of a UCC church in Wisconsin. Back Bay can restore a house for $10,000 to $12,000, less than half of what it would cost a resident otherwise. Some money will be reimbursed by FEMA and government grants; other funds come from national UCC contributions. The residents whose homes are being rebuilt typically have no insurance. In some cases homes have been passed down through several generations, deeds have been lost, title is difficult to prove, and thus FEMA help is impossible. Work groups are scheduled at Back bay well into 2007.

Frustrations abound. We arrived just as Shari had spent part of her morning with the third FEMA representative she's had to deal with, inexperienced and bringing a whole new set of instructions and rules that conflict with directives from past representatives. She had just gotten off the phone with a city official who had told her she couldn't proceed to demolish the damaged dorms on the campus because Back Bay sits in an historic district - no matter that the buildings were constructed only in the last decade! More red tape to deal with to resolve that question. Nevertheless, energy and spirits seem high and Back Bay is clearly a vital and visible presence in the community, a ministry that will be at the table around the key housing decisions that must be made and that will have such a huge impact on the future of Biloxi's poorest residents. This will be crucial as alternative visions for Biloxi as a casino based upscale resort area conflict with our church's vision for a community that will be hospitable to a multi-class society. The staff at Back Bay is also very grateful for the national support from the United Church of Christ and from congregations across the church. Unlike many faith based programs in Biloxi, they are part of a much bigger family that is able to sustain them in ways unavailable to more local programs.

A T-shirt produced by a UCC group in Massachusetts to raise funds for Hope Shall Bloom, our UCC Katrina and Rita response, reads, "Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint." Clearly there are years of rebuilding and reconstruction ahead. For now, little is happening as residents wait for the tough political decisions to be made by politicians who have thus far demonstrated little urgency and courage. Meanwhile a new hurricane season approaches with New Orleans exposed and vulnerable. For the school children who remain in New Orleans, a summer stretches ahead with no prospects of programs to occupy their time. Faith based initiatives, including huge numbers of volunteers from churches of every theological stripe are pouring south. The United Church of Christ, with a small and fragile presence in New Orleans and Biloxi, is playing its part. The need for, and the effectiveness of our National Disaster Response Ministry is everywhere apparent. For that I am very grateful.

At the time of the union of the United Church of Christ in 1957 predominantly African American Congregationalists and predominantly white, German background Evangelical and Reformed members embarked on a courageous vision of as "united and uniting" church that would transcend the chasms not simply of ethnic and theological heritage, but of race. They took up this challenge at a time when segregation barred the interaction of blacks and whites in New Orleans. Arguably segregation did more to violate the lives of the residents of New Orleans than anything a hurricane could do. The results of this ecclesial experiment are mixed in our churches fifty years later, but the integrity and power of the vision remains. If the response to Katrina can bring together the still isolated congregations of the United Church of Christ in New Orleans to continue this compelling and courageous founding vision from 1957, there will be much to celebrate at the time of our fiftieth anniversary next year, even if much of what was New Orleans in the pre-Katrina time is never fully rebuilt.

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