South Central Conference Disaster Ministry - New Orleans

June 21, 2010


You may be wondering, just what is a THU?  It is a politically correct term for Temporary Housing Unit supplied by FEMA.  At this years National Hurricane Conference FEMA personnel held a workshop on mass housing options after a disaster.  FEMA is looking at several options and may utilize many of these options once they are approved.  For example; one option is housing that fits inside a forty foot container.  One of the main reasons they are looking at that option is the ease of transport to a location.  They are also looking into a stackable option for those instances where space is crucial.  Someone asked the question, "If something happened today, what would FEMA do?  The response was, travel trailers.  That is the only approved option at this time.  It was obvious FEMA is working hard at finding and approving a variety of options.   

Currently, there are 848 THU's in southeast Louisiana and 323 in Orleans Parish.  This office is part of a 20 million dollar federal grant with seven other agencies.  The purpose of the grant is to work on meeting the needs of those 848 families in getting them out of their THU.  For our part we agreed to rebuild 10 homes with funds from this grant and volunteer labor.  Being a federal grant, there are many steps (15) to the process before work may begin.  Currently we are on step four with the first round of homeowners. 

This is a first time program so that adds to the slowness of the process, but on the positive side, I see this as an outgrowth of the faith based initiative that began during the Bush Administration.  By doing a lot of the groundwork now, in future disasters the process will work more smoothly.   The Director of FEMA's Center for Faith Based Initiatives, David Meyers is committed to doing all he is able.  David, among other things is a Mennonite pastor who most recently did community organizing in the Chicago area.  


House Cooling

Besides all the attention the oil disaster is getting in the national and local news, the everyday work of the Disaster Ministry in New Orleans continues unabated.  Nearly every day someone calls the office and asks for assistance.  Every so often FEMA calls with a potential project as well.  Since we began keeping score, we have completed 65 rebuild projects.  We give thanks to God and to all the volunteers who have contributed to these rebuild projects.  It is a special day when a family is able to move back home. 

Recently Fay Kaufman was one of those people.  After a long time she is home.  There was a house blessing, a small group gathered to spend time with her on this special occasion.  Then just this past Sunday, Fay had a house cooling.  Her words, "It's too hot in New Orleans for a house warming."  Being a fan of Blue Bell ice cream, (made in Brenham, TX) there were plenty of flavors and plenty of friends and family to celebrate with Fay.

This was one of those projects we came into after a contractor had left.  We picked up where the work left off, called in our subcontractors and groups of volunteers. Four months later the house was complete and ready for Fay to move in.  In one of her conversations she said, "Where would I be without the UCC?"


Southern Regional Youth Event Work Project

The South Central Conference was host to the Southern Regional Youth Event last week.  About 150 youth and adults gathered for the multi-day event.  The S.C.C. Disaster Recovery Ministry hosted the group for the service project time on Friday.  Since the ministry normally does not handle that big a crowd, it worked with the Church of Christ disaster response, Operation Nehemiah on one of their projects.  The task was to help maintain Holt Cemetery in New Orleans.  Since Hurricane Katrina the city of New Orleans has not had the funds to maintain this property.  About a year ago, a local news station did a story on the neglect of this cemetery.  Operation Nehemiah took on the task on initial cleaning and maintaining the grounds.  They regularly send groups to do the maintenance at the cemetery. 

Holt Cemetery is also known as the Pauper Cemetery.  It is one of the older cemeteries in the city and one of the few cemeteries in New Orleans where people are buried underground.  It is still an active cemetery.  Several veterans are buried their including some Buffalo Soldiers.  Because it is a cemetery for the poor, some of the headstones are hand made and even hand written.   More information about the Holt Cemetery and Buffalo Soldiers may be found by an internet search of those words. 

The youth worked on cutting grass, trimming grass, pulling weeds from the gravesites and digging in a drainage trench to aid the water flow out of the cemetery when it rains.  It was a hot, humid, sunny day in New Orleans.  The youth and adults enjoyed their time in the hot sun caring for those that most have forgotten.  At a glance one could see several youth bent over or kneeling tending a gravesite.  What a wonderful tribute of compassion and care.



Rebuilding Homes, Rebuilding Hope

On Monday June 7, I had the opportunity to travel to Grand Bayou, Venice and other areas along the lower Mississippi River affected by the oil spill with Florence Coppola, Executive for National Disaster Ministry, Loey Powell from Justice and Witness Ministries, individuals from Mennonite Disaster Services and Lutheran Social Services.  The purpose of the trip, was to see first hand the affects of the oil spill and to talk with some people affected by the spill.  We met with a group of pastors at one location, several fishermen and an official from Plaquemines Parish.  We also had the opportunity to travel by boat out in the bayou to see oil in the bayou.  It is hard to describe the feelings as we were on the water skimming across the bayou.  Beautiful marsh grass, wildlife of all sorts dominated the scene, until we arrived where the oil has reached.  Then it was just heart wrenching.  We were just in one small area for a short time.  Knowing that the oil is stilling spewing out of the sea floor is almost too much to comprehend.  We're still counting the days

The group of pastors we met talked about what they saw in their respective congregations and communities.  From the group there was a collective sense of grief, anxiety and loss on their faces, voices and in their hearts. Our captain on the boat and his family has deep roots in Grand Bayou.  They go back generations.  Fishing is what they know and what they do.  He is very representative of the population there.  This is their home and they don't see themselves living anywhere else.  That was easily understood as we toured around.  The bayou is a very different part of Louisiana and so are its people.  The area, as I said is very picturesque and very serene.  A Vietnamese fisherman we spoke with has been trained by BP but has not been called to help. We heard the same from other fishermen as well.  The selection process BP is using was in question.  A lot of the income in the fishing industry is on a cash basis.  Because of that it is hard to prove income for some, especially the deck hands.  BP has paid out one installment of $5,000. to people and should be paying out more in the near future.  While that may seem like a lot of money, the fishermen said they can make about $20,000. per trip when they go out.  The fishing, shrimp and oyster industries are seasonal and the season was set to begin when the oil starting flowing.  The fishermen told us that in the off season once all the bills are paid they put money into repairing and maintaining their boats and equipment.  So this could not have happened at a worse time of the year.

Our last stop on the tour was to talk with Benny Puckett, a local official in Plaquemines Parish.  I first met Benny and his wife about four years ago, when they were working in the hurricane recovery efforts in the parish.  Benny and his wife were co-pastors of a church in the parish and Benny was the first chairperson of the Committee for Plaquemines Recovery (CPR).  It was good to see him again but not under these circumstances.  He spent an hour and a half talking with our small group giving us all sorts of information and answering questions we had.  I left our time with Benny feeling confident the Parish government is doing all it can to help the residents by being in touch with BP and the state and federal governments.

When we see the pictures from the news media of the oil and wildlife dying, it raises our compassion levels.  For now, the United Church of Christ is doing what we all are doing, watching and waiting.  The denomination is also in communication with other denominations about how we could help if and when the time comes.  It is too early for any form of response.  It is not safe to send volunteers to do any work whether it is cleaning a beach or a pelican.  Those that are working in these areas have received hazmat training and the entire process is being orchestrated by BP and the Coast Guard.  Also for those that have lost jobs and income from this disaster, they should have the first opportunity to be hired to assist. 

We watch and pray that those who are tasked with containment, cleanup and stopping this disaster are guided by God in what they do.  Rev. Alan Coe



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