Five years after Hurricane Katrina

As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast prepare to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, those who have worked tirelessly on behalf of the most vulnerable assert that much of the progress made so far could not have been accomplished without the support of the U.S. faith community and of humanitarian agencies like Church World Service.

Juanita Williams
Juanita Williams, of St. Bernard Parish, La., was one of more some 700 homeowners who were able to move back into their homes thanks to a CWS-HFHI collaboration. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast prepare to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, those who have worked tirelessly on behalf of the most vulnerable have three consistent messages.

  1. Progress has been made.
  2. Work is not yet completed.
  3. What has been done could not have been accomplished without the support of the U.S. faith community and of humanitarian agencies like Church World Service.

"The faith community was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable in every way they could be," said Ellenor Simmons, who helps oversee long-term recovery projects for the United Way of the Greater New Orleans Area.

Not only that – the response saved lives.

"Absolutely," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana-based state director for Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response. "It saved families. If it hadn't have been for that response, I don't know what would have happened."

The contributions of Church World Service were significant:  The CWS response was multi-tiered, which initially included shipments of CWS Blankets, Hygiene and School Kits; organizing for long-term recovery work; and focusing on spiritual and emotional care.

Thousands of people received CWS Kits in the days following the disaster. Later, thanks to a collaborative effort between CWS and Habitat for Humanity International, nearly 700 families were able to return to their repaired or rebuilt homes – an accomplishment that won Church World Service and HFHI the Award for Excellence in Long-Term Recovery Partnership by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

Other accomplishments: Schools and youth programs were helped to recover, three major international grants were administered and dozens of long-term recovery groups were established, trained and ready for the next disaster.

The region is now confronting that next disaster, the Gulf oil spill, and local recovery groups have begun their response.  They say they have not forgotten the support from CWS and its member denominations. "You made a commitment to be with us and not forget us," Simmons said, praising CWS's long-term commitment to the region, which built on earlier, long-time CWS support for local recovery groups.

Not all the hurricane recovery work is done, of course; there are still those in the region who are living in temporary housing. While there is still a sense of remarkable rebuilding overall, life is not what it was. "There is a 'new normal,'" Simmons said.

Still, enough are back in homes for Simmons' colleague, Benita Corley, to praise the combined efforts of local, regional and national organizations.

"We could not have done it without y'all," she said. "Church World Service was a real blessing for us. The clients didn't know who gave us the money to do our work, but we do."

Bonnie Vollmering, CWS's associate director for domestic response, returned the compliment.

"Numerous long-term recovery groups have and continue to work to assist those with unmet needs," she said. "If it was not for the collaboration of the local, regional, and national organizations in long-term recovery, many individuals would not be living in safe, sanitary and secure housing.

"Church World Service has had the pleasure to work with the local partners in assisting individuals return home."

Chris Herlinger is an author, freelance journalist and CWS communication officer based in New York.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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