Last month, the Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS) opened 14 mobile offices in affected neighborhoods closer to the coast in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Terrebonne and Orleans parishes. As of last week, DSS had received more than 1,622 applications for the Louisiana Department of Social Services' Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) since the offices opened May 3, accounting for hundreds of families now seeking aid in the wake of the disaster.
But that's just a fraction of the people affected. Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana estimates more than 47,000 households may be in need of assistance. Since May 1, Second Harvest officials say they have seen a 15 to 25 percent increase in people seeking aid. Last month, Second Harvest distributed about 40,000 pounds of food and 730 emergency boxes, each packed with about 33 pounds of food — "enough to hopefully help a family get through three or four days," says Second Harvest president and CEO Natalie Jayroe. "Obviously we know we've got a lot more work to do. We're in the early days still."
Founded in 1982, Second Harvest aims to lead the fight against hunger in south Louisiana — coastal parishes from Vermillion and Cameron to St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Tammany all are in its service area. As part of its disaster response, Second Harvest works through faith-based and nonprofit agencies like the Community Center of St. Bernard to find out their needs, then increases its flow and supplies of food. "They've been our partners in several disasters, and fortunately for us they keep a close eye on the communities and families and can be good ears and eyes on the ground," Jayroe says.
At the Community Center of St. Bernard, executive director Iray Nabatoff says the number of individuals and families it serves continues to increase as the disaster continues. The center typically serves 500 individuals and 50 families in ZIP codes 70092 and 70085, representing Violet and St. Bernard, respectively — those numbers have increased at least 20 percent since early May.
"Everybody's Katrina angst has re-emerged," he says. "The level of frustration is very high — unless you're fortunate enough to be one of the 300 or so fishermen to go out with their ships and go booming, or maybe you're involved in animal rescue, there isn't really a whole lot people can do but watch and wish there was something. But as a community entity, the center's here, even if it just helps people combat their isolation and commiserate together over a hot lunch."
Nabatoff arrived in St. Bernard Parish in January 2006 to volunteer at a relief kitchen. ("All I knew is I was going to be living in a tent, in the middle of total devastation, and it was only 18 days," he says. "At the end of 18 days I couldn't leave.") He opened the center January 31, 2007. It offers a food pantry, clothing bank, stress reduction services, a media lab and other services. Last week, the center hosted blood pressure and glucose screenings and referrals, a prenatal unit and a legal aid clinic.
While some outside support has helped the center, Nabatoff says it's still a struggle to keep operations moving forward with little room for administrative overhead — Nabatoff and development director Sharon Ober are "long-term volunteers," he says. "It's simply easier to hang in there than it would be to disengage, realizing there's no other entity that can step up to the plate."
And the number of people seeking help only continues to rise.
"In every bit of our infrastructure, our numbers are up, primarily due to the effects of this oil spill — families that haven't had any income in five weeks, the rippling effect in the community and businesses," Nabatoff says. "People are struggling."
The biggest challenge facing community members, Nabatoff says, is getting clear information from BP — knowing what paperwork to bring for an application and what claims and jobs are eligible for reimbursement from BP.
"I've heard that the rate of reimbursement is different in east New Orleans for the Vietnamese community; and Lafitte, Grand Isle, St. Bernard and Plaquemines were all succinctly different," Nabatoff says. "There needs to be a clear understanding of what resources BP makes available, what the criteria is that needs to be met to be eligible, and no matter where you are, if you're affected the same way, the reimbursement rate is the same."
"It's a tough one," says Jacob Stroman, shelter director of the Plaquemines Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter in Belle Chasse. "People are in high alert and we're expecting the worst. Right now we're just bracing ourselves."
Over the last few weeks, PAWS has found an increased number of pets tied to the shelter's front doors overnight, waiting to be picked up by staff in the morning. Callers ask to relinquish their pets. The shelter already has a waiting list "a mile long," Stroman says, and there are only so many cages and staff members to take in pets without a home or family due to the economic halt from the oil disaster.
The shelter is focusing on fundraising efforts to help pay for veterinary care for animals from families now on limited income. "We're trying our hardest to ask for monetary donations so we can help people when they show up to turn in their pet because they can't afford to treat for heartworms, or flea prevention, or anything they might need," Stroman says. "In the past, we would help people, period. If it were something major, we would just take their pets in, care for them and hopefully get them a new place."
Pet food, however, is "showing up in droves," Stroman says, thanks to donations from across the country. Earlier this month, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) helped coordinate a pet food distribution day for Plaquemines residents. HSUS delivered 12.5 tons of dog and cat food to Belle Chasse on June 3, and a distribution site opened June 5. The delivery included 24 pallets of dog and cat food, or about 24,604 pounds. Stroman says about 75 people attended, helping feed an estimated 300 animals. "Some came with birds, too, but we didn't have food for them," says HSUS Louisiana director Julia Breaux.
While its state chapter (Humane Society of Louisiana) is busy monitoring marine life, HSUS is helping coordinate nationwide efforts and food drives to help feed pets in need along the Gulf. Breaux says HSUS will help transport animals from PAWS and the St. Bernard Animal Shelter to other shelters around the country with more room for the animals — mirroring similar pet evacuations following Hurricane Katrina. PAWS and HSUS are planning another food distribution event in the coming weeks.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said in a statement, "We can't forget our pets. ... We don't want people who are directly affected by this tragedy to have to choose between feeding their pets or feeding themselves."
Jayroe understands the public's helplessness and the "There's nothing I can do" anxiety as oil pours into the coast.
"We're a little restless and anxious ourselves. Just like everyone else, we're watching," she says. "Then, like everyone else, we're concerned about the long-term impact on the economy and the people's jobs that rely on seafood. We feel that same level of anxiety."
With daily images of oiled marine life and pelicans huddled into pens, exhausted from thick coats of oil smothering their feathers, it's hard not to jump online and apply to volunteer organizations. But there also is still work to be done on the home fronts, and it needs all the help it can get.
PAWS is still accepting pet food and monetary donations to help keep its operations running and to help families keep their pets. Visit www.paws-4-life.org for details.
Community Center of St. Bernard seeks volunteers and donations of nonperishable food, clothing, hygiene supplies and baby care items. Find more information on its website www.ccstb.org.
Second Harvest needs donations of nonperishable food (which can be dropped off at its warehouse at 700 Edwards Ave.) and it needs volunteers and monetary donations — for $1, the group can provide for a family of four. Visit www.no-hunger.org for more information.