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Bishops wade in as Hurricane Katrina aid dries to a trickle

by
02 October 2007

Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the US bishops joined efforts to restore the city. Much still needs to be done, reports Pat Ashworth

US bishops took a day off debating in order to help with construction work ELO/MATTHEW DAVIES

US bishops took a day off debating in order to help with construction work ELO/MATTHEW DAVIES

THE BISHOP of Louisiana, the Rt Revd Charles Jenkins, was sitting in what look like the biggest trailer in the world. It’s parked on a car lot outside Walgreens, a former drugstore that is evolving into a church and community centre in the poverty-stricken, storm-wrecked Lower Ninth ward of New Orleans.

The trailer is a familiar sight in this and other districts. It is part of the hurricane-relief effort that has earned the diocese of Louisiana and the Episcopal Church the respect of angry residents who, two years after Hurricane Katrina struck, are still without decent homes — or any promise of them.

Away from the stunning architecture of the tourist areas and wealthy residential districts, this city shocks you to the core, which is why the larger-than-life Bishop Jenkins declared himself mighty glad that the House of Bishops chose to come here.

Away from the stunning architecture of the tourist areas and wealthy residential districts, this city shocks you to the core, which is why the larger-than-life Bishop Jenkins declared himself mighty glad that the House of Bishops chose to come here.

“Among all the humidity and the jazz and rock ’n’ roll and jambalaya, this city has become a place of pilgrimage,” he says. “I wanted the House of Bishops here because it can really change people.”

“Among all the humidity and the jazz and rock ’n’ roll and jambalaya, this city has become a place of pilgrimage,” he says. “I wanted the House of Bishops here because it can really change people.”

The bishops raised nearly a million dollars, and brought the offering with them, and Bishop Jenkins saw their presence as “a wonderful sign of hope. I want to grab everyone by the collar and say, ‘Let’s get on with mission, and these other things will fall into place.’”

EIGHTY PER CENT of New Orleans was flooded when the levees broke during Katrina and released a 12-foot torrent of water through the city. Only the high ground of this crescent-shaped city on the Gulf of Mississippi was spared. Stinking water stood up to eight feet high for weeks in homes that had had to be abandoned instantly, and where bloated bodies remained until they could be retrieved. Scrawled marks remain on houses, indicating how many corpses and cats and dogs were taken out.

Flimsy trailers outside rotting homes house the optimists. They won’t abandon their houses, even though they will have to be gutted and rebuilt if they are ever to be fit to live in again.

Flimsy trailers outside rotting homes house the optimists. They won’t abandon their houses, even though they will have to be gutted and rebuilt if they are ever to be fit to live in again.

I met Valerie, a feisty black woman whose house was almost entirely swept away, so that only two sets of stone steps were left. She has kept them as a monument outside the wire fence round her trailer. She has created a compound within which she fights on for the federal government to recognise the plight of the hundreds of thousands who want their homes back.

She’s ill, she’s stressed, and she has the “Katrina cough” that comes from the formaldehyde contained in the material used to construct the FEMA temporary homes. But she won’t budge until she’s got some justice.

This is the ward that the Archbishop of Canterbury visited a fortnight ago, and which he owned had moved him deeply. Street after street has houses decaying from the inside out. Many have defiant messages scrawled on their rotting walls: “DON’T DEMOLISH. WE’RE COMING BACK.”

THE STORM didn’t just flood the districts, but peeled back layers of poverty, neglect, and injustice. State schools have been in receivership, infrastructure is dire, and there is a conspiracy theory that knows the federal government doesn’t want to encourage back the hundreds of thousands of the poorest people, mostly black, who have hitherto given the Democrats a block vote.

Wire fences and “Keep Out” signs surround social-housing blocks in Gentilly district which are intact and could re-house many who were scattered across the country — but they haven’t been invited to return.

There are many shocking discoveries to be made, but none more so than the fact that chemotherapy has run out in New Orleans. I learn this in almost casual conversation in the middle of a house that the diocese has gutted and is rebuilding with the aid of Episcopal Church volunteers, who have come from all over the US.

There are many shocking discoveries to be made, but none more so than the fact that chemotherapy has run out in New Orleans. I learn this in almost casual conversation in the middle of a house that the diocese has gutted and is rebuilding with the aid of Episcopal Church volunteers, who have come from all over the US.

The man who owned this house has cancer and won’t see it finished, but his wife will. Health care is non-existent for many, especially those who can’t travel, and the poor don’t have insurance.

And it isn’t just the poor who have been abandoned. We tour Lakeview, a middle-class district of broad streets and substantial houses with gables and verandahs and gardens. They look weirdly normal — except that almost all of them are deserted, their owners mainly retired people on fixed incomes who lost everything and haven’t the money to rebuild.

There is fury and protest that the federal government has given the “Road Home” contract — which is supposed to award families $130,000 each for rebuilding — to the same company whose incompetence exacerbated the tragedy of the levees. The red tape to get temporary trailers or money is beyond many people’s competence to deal with.

Areas of New Orleans that were already blighted have gone rapidly downhill. The Episcopal Church moved its urban programme headquarters into Central City, which borders on one of the richest and most stunning areas of town, the Garden District. Here and elsewhere, the magnificent mansions that grew from the rich pickings of fruit and cotton look like something from a film set, with their stately pillars, porticos, and balconies. The wealthiest parts of town escaped the waters entirely. When news of looting reached them, residents called in members of the Israeli army, who landed helicopters in the park to keep trouble at bay.

Bishop Jenkins told it to the bishops as it is. Episcopalians donated an unprecedented $10 million to the Louisiana Office of Disaster Fund, which has been used by enterprising New Orleans people, including clergy, to buy mobile respite units, such as the trailer we were sitting in. They also funded laundries, child-care centres, and medical care, as well as affordable-housing projects such as Jericho Road in Central City.

Where we visited, black kids were sitting on the streets and verandahs, and playing in the muck, and disillusioned residents stared sullenly at white strangers, especially the bishops who were doing a “day of service” with project volunteers.

Those who had expected the Archbishop of Canterbury to make some mention of the crisis in the Communion, when he addressed an estimated 3000-strong congregation in the ecumenical service in the Convention Centre at the start of his visit, were disappointed. Instead, he chose a simply homily on the gospel vision of a city where old people could sit and children play in the streets. It meant everything to the people here, whose vision that is, too.

Those who had expected the Archbishop of Canterbury to make some mention of the crisis in the Communion, when he addressed an estimated 3000-strong congregation in the ecumenical service in the Convention Centre at the start of his visit, were disappointed. Instead, he chose a simply homily on the gospel vision of a city where old people could sit and children play in the streets. It meant everything to the people here, whose vision that is, too.

No one articulated it better than Cynthia, a young and impassioned city councillor who spoke at the official launch of a new church which has grown out of the community. Dr Williams had dedicated it the previous day. The community had felt abandoned, the city broken and on its knees — but not giving up, she said to huge cheers.

  Cynthia invoked the “power of the Holy Spirit of the living God to speak to the wasteland and to the desolate places”, and said of the Archbishop: “He’s honoured us with his holy presence, and we’re proud and humbled that he’s walked on the soil of this great city.”

  Cynthia invoked the “power of the Holy Spirit of the living God to speak to the wasteland and to the desolate places”, and said of the Archbishop: “He’s honoured us with his holy presence, and we’re proud and humbled that he’s walked on the soil of this great city.”

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