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'Know Thy Neighbor' 

Learning lessons from Katrina, local neighborhood associations helped lead evacuation as well as recovery efforts during Gustav.

On Friday, Aug. 29, the Lower Ninth Ward needed to remember its dead — and protect its living. Patricia Jones, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward's Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), joined other Ninth Ward community leaders the night before to decide how best to honor those who died three years ago because of the levee failures. Equally important, they had to figure out how to evacuate hundreds of Lower Ninth Ward residents in the face of Hurricane Gustav, which was rapidly approaching south Louisiana.

The group of neighborhood leaders, known collectively as the Lower Ninth Ward Stakeholder Coalition, concluded they could do both — but they would have to move fast.

Jones' NENA and other organizations focused primarily on getting people out. They printed fliers listing rendezvous stations for getting those without transportation to the Union Passenger Terminal, from which they could evacuate to points northward. Members of several Lower Nine neighborhood groups then fanned out across the neighborhood. "All these Ninth Ward folks were walking the Ninth Ward, handing out the fliers," Jones says. "We walked to get people out."

By Friday, residents began leaving for the terminal. It was a vastly different picture than what most Ninth Warders experienced before and during Hurricane Katrina, exactly three years earlier.

Jones instructed her staff and local volunteers to continue the evacuation effort until midday on Friday. Meanwhile, the neighborhood held two memorials to Katrina's victims. Grassroots activist Malcolm Suber held a remembrance ceremony near the Industrial Canal floodwall, which had breached during Katrina. Suber asked the crowd of 200 people to remember those who died during the flood; he added that even though they were recognizing Katrina's third anniversary, many folks from the neighborhood were still unable to return home.

Elsewhere in the Lower Nine, a solemn group marched up North Claiborne Avenue toward the Judge Seeber Bridge. Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis says the march was a collaborative effort between her office, the city and the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council. It was intended "to demonstrate unity in the historic Ninth Ward." As the procession continued toward the bridge, more folks joined in, including some Mardi Gras Indians and members of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

But there was no second-line jubilation on this day, says Willard-Lewis. Led by a National Guard color guard, the neighbors made their way to the top of the bridge, and at 9:38 a.m. — the moment of the first levee breach three years ago — Willard-Lewis cast a wreath into the canal. At both ceremonies, volunteers made sure everyone had an evacuation flier and a way out of New Orleans.

All across New Orleans, similar scenes played out as Gustav approached. To those involved in the grassroots efforts, it's no surprise that neighborhood associations have driven the local recovery, restoring communities where federal, state or local governments fell short or failed altogether to recognize their responsibilities. In Gustav's wake, it's clear that elected officials have improved south Louisiana's evacuation strategy, but it's equally true that "neighbors helping neighbors" is the key to that strategy's success.

'Know thy neighbor" could be the unofficial motto of New Orleans neighborhood associations. Bringing people together to find out about the folks next door, down the street or even several blocks away builds a stronger community. The Broadmoor neighborhood drew upon this power after Katrina and held hundreds of meetings at which residents discussed — and decided — how to rebuild their community. Neighbors talked about revitalizing Broadmoor through education, housing assistance programs and other social service programs. They wanted to move past the flood that submerged the neighborhood in 8 feet of water, but they also wanted to learn from it and make sure no one was left behind.

In early 2006, the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) formed an evacuation committee spearheaded by Duffy Voight, a local attorney who began collecting and assembling information for evacuating Broadmoor in the event of a hurricane threat. Voight's work became part of Broadmoor's neighborhood recovery plan. From there, the BIA developed a Web site called "Broadmoor Prepares" (www.broadmoorprepares.com), which offers planning guides, maps, pet-friendly lodging ideas, re-entry procedures and a discussion board. The site shows people how to prepare for — and evacuate from — a hurricane, provided they have the resources to leave on their own.

For those without such resources, the Broadmoor Development Corporation (BDC) prepared a questionnaire to identify people who might need evacuation assistance. BDC executive director Hal Roark says that as Gustav tracked closer to New Orleans, his staff started calling them.

On the Saturday before Gustav's arrival, a group of 31 people who needed a way out of town gathered in the parking lot of the Free Church of the Annunciation, an Episcopal church located in Broadmoor. The church had arranged for the evacuees — sick, young, old and poor — to be put up in a sister church, St. Timothy's, in Signal Mountain, Tenn. Roark led the caravan of SUVs and cars on a 14-hour trek from New Orleans to safe, higher ground.

'Yep, it was a long ride," says Roark. "And we had people all the way from 3 years old to 85 years old."

Meanwhile, in the Lakeview headquarters of Beacon of Hope Resource Center, founder Denise Thornton wasn't as concerned about the evacuation as what would follow it. Beacon of Hope, which has locations in Lakeview, Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward, sent out email blasts asking residents to evacuate, but the group's real work began immediately after Gustav passed. Thornton says numerous Lakeview residents began calling and emailing to inquire about their properties and the neighborhood, which was devastated by floodwaters after Katrina. Last Wednesday morning, Thornton dispatched survey teams to report on downed trees, damaged properties and the availability of electrical power.

As the survey teams reported back, Thornton and her staff emailed Lakeview evacuees to let them know what the teams had found. "Communication is the key" to storm preparation, evacuation and re-entry, says Thornton. She adds that city recovery director Ed Blakely called her the day after Gustav to ask about opening a homecoming center at St. Paul's Episcopal Office of Disaster Recovery on Vicksburg Street near Harrison Avenue — in the heart of Lakeview — as a supply distribution point for returning Lakeview residents. The site is already a Beacon service center, and it would have functioned well as a post-storm recovery center. Blakely never called back to discuss details, probably because the storm didn't warrant that level of response — but the St. Paul's center remained open throughout Gustav.

'We never closed," Thornton says. "The resource center at St. Paul's was open and available to Third District police officers" who stayed on patrol throughout the storm.

In a similar vein, Mid-City resident Kevin Dettman wanted to make sure he was available to his neighbors immediately after Gustav. He therefore decided to ride out the storm, but in a most unlikely place: inside his 1978 Airstream trailer on the roof of a 40-foot building. As crazy as that notion sounds, the 48-year-old telephone repairman says Gustav was the fifth hurricane he has faced in a trailer or truck. Dettman regards his perch, which includes a portable horseshoe pit and a 4-foot-by-20-foot dog run, as prime post-hurricane real estate.

'If it floods, people will need a place to go," he explains. "My friends now have a place to go. It's my house, and I'm scheduled to be among the first responders anyway."

Dettman came to New Orleans in November 2005 on the promise of steady post-Katrina work, then decided to call the city home. He says that when Gustav touched down, his trailer rocked back and forth, but not enough to dissuade him and his dog, Pepper, from staying. "I've been sold on New Orleans," he says. "I get it."

As Dettman is relating his Gustav experience, another post-Katrina transplant arrives to fetch his truck off the roof. James McCormick, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran and former construction company owner from Ohio, is the assistant construction manager for Operation Nehemiah, a faith-based volunteer organization that has gutted more than 3,000 homes and rebuilt 32 houses and three churches in the New Orleans area since the 2005 flood.

McCormick says his first order of business is to check on people, get them food if they need it and make sure their homes are OK. He adds that he's relieved the city made it through Gustav and that his organization is already bringing in a new wave of volunteers to assist in the post-storm cleanup. "We'll be cleaning up debris at Audubon Zoo, and then we'll be going down to Plaquemines Parish to help out," McCormick says.

As Gambit Weekly went to press, Patricia Jones and her family were traveling back to the city from Knoxville. She says that she's extremely pleased with how the evacuation proceeded — with 2 million people safely leaving south Louisiana. There is room for improvement, Jones notes, referencing several barges and ships that broke loose in the Industrial Canal during Gustav. The loose vessels damaged interior floodwalls, but those floodwalls are not part of the area's flood-protection system; they are owned by the Port of New Orleans and designed to protect harbor-related businesses.

Jones says Mayor Ray Nagin's "tiered" re-entry system might have worked but that not enough people knew about it. Besides, she adds, people need to be able to come home as soon as possible, regardless of utilities. "If they don't mind being hot, let them do it," she says.

Thornton agrees that there are many lessons to be learned from the latest evacuation. She already has been discussing with her staff how the city as a whole could improve its pre- and post-hurricane preparations. One idea is for the city to formally partner with neighborhood organizations as part of a coordinated recovery effort. Thornton says the time has come for the city to reach out to groups like hers, recognize the vital roles they play and invite them to participate in future planning efforts.

'We should have a place at the table," Thornton says.

click to enlarge Broadmoor, which was devastated during Katrina, fared well in Hurricane Gustav although it did suffer some wind damage, as is evident at this house that lost part of its roof. No one was injured during the storm, however, mainly because neighborhood groups made sure everyone had the means to evacuate. - SEAN DAVID HOBBS
  • Sean David Hobbs
  • Broadmoor, which was devastated during Katrina, fared well in Hurricane Gustav although it did suffer some wind damage, as is evident at this house that lost part of its roof. No one was injured during the storm, however, mainly because neighborhood groups made sure everyone had the means to evacuate.
click to enlarge Patricia Jones and members of NENA and other neighborhood groups organized a campaign in which they passed out flyers to Lower Ninth Ward residents informing them of ways they could evacuate before Hurricane Gustav arrived. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Patricia Jones and members of NENA and other neighborhood groups organized a campaign in which they passed out flyers to Lower Ninth Ward residents informing them of ways they could evacuate before Hurricane Gustav arrived.
click to enlarge A barge left unsecured in the Industrial Canal damaged floodwalls designed to protect harbor-related businesses at the Port of New Orleans. - SEAN DAVID HOBBS
  • Sean David Hobbs
  • A barge left unsecured in the Industrial Canal damaged floodwalls designed to protect harbor-related businesses at the Port of New Orleans.
click to enlarge Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, which caused substantial traffic tie-ups on interstates leading out of town. In all, some 2 million southeast Louisiana residents fled their homes in front of Hurricane Gustav. - KRIS ARNOLD
  • Kris Arnold
  • Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, which caused substantial traffic tie-ups on interstates leading out of town. In all, some 2 million southeast Louisiana residents fled their homes in front of Hurricane Gustav.
click to enlarge Telephone repairman Kevin Dettman rode out the storm in a trailer home on the roof of a 40-foot building in Mid-City because he wanted to be available if his neighbors needed his help. - DAVID WINKLER-SCHMIT
  • David Winkler-Schmit
  • Telephone repairman Kevin Dettman rode out the storm in a trailer home on the roof of a 40-foot building in Mid-City because he wanted to be available if his neighbors needed his help.
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