Last week I spent five days in New Orleans. I was there for a leadership conference with the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee). I volunteer as a Regional Coordinator and this was our annual get together to see what the UUSC is doing and where we can help. I just started volunteering last January, so this was my first conference. It was very overwhelming and inspiring.
We toured all around New Orleans, seeing both the good and the not-so good. It was not surprising to see that Canal Street, the Riverfront, and French Quarter are almost completely back to normal. There was definitely work in progress, but for the most part, it was very habitable and open for tourists.
Then there is the rest. There is still so much devastation. The major debris has been hauled out, but so many houses are barely standing. Numbers are still on houses marking where people died. Near where the levee broke, there are only driveways. It is hard to see. Almost everyone I met has some sort of horror story of themselves or family barely surviving (or not) the flood. I met people who waded over dead bodies, were turned away from escape at gunpoint, and were separated from their children. I was continually struck by their strength. I don't know if I would have had their inner reserve - especially as I began to better understand all the obstacles residents are facing in trying to get home.
We met with various neighborhood organizations. It quickly became evident that they are the ones that are truly bringing people home. The maze that the government has set up to help people return is almost impossible to navigate. If you have access to a computer, you are more likely to get help. Of course, very few people have that luxury. The local government, while claiming to help, has started reinforcing a lawn mowing regulation. If your lawn isn't mowed they can file a lien on your property. The goal is to eventually take over your home. I know if I lost everything, my first thought would be to make sure my lawn is mowed..... Once again neighborhood organizations have stepped up and established groups to go around mowing any lawn that needs it. This is what was inspiring.
There are so many other issues - schools that aren't open or not functioning well, public housing that the city refuses to reopen, no easily accessible medical clinics, few jobs, no daycares - it is almost impossible to know where to help. I was very glad to see that the UUSC had carefully chosen and supported groups that are making a difference. It is sometimes hard to give to an organization and know that what you contribute is going where it is most needed and will be the most effective. I left feeling that we are helping. That our efforts are making a difference.
I would encourage all you to not forget the Gulf Coast. While it has been two years, there is still so much that needs to be done. Please consider giving to a charity of your choice (of course, I would recommend the UUSC). If you are interested in donating directly to one of the groups I met with, please email me and I will send you their address. The UUSC also helps organize volunteer groups to work in the area. You can find out more information at their website - http://www.uusc.org/ or you can go to the UUA's site at http://www.uua.org/ and search for their Gulf Coast Volunteer program.