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Remembering Katrina Video Report
Rob Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief and Development

8/25/2006
[Episcopal News Service] 

As the one-year anniversary approaches of the days when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Dr. Rob Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief and Development, offers an update of the situation and describes the multi-year relief and rehabilitation efforts focused on rebuilding the region and people's lives.

A video stream of Radtke's report is available at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_77280_ENG_HTM.htm

The full text follows:

The general update on the status of things on the Gulf Coast is that the situation continues to remain very, very critical. In Louisiana for example, more than half of the population of New Orleans still has not been able to return. In Mississippi, there continues to be a lot of reconstruction that needs to go on for peoples' homes.

So the situation remains critical. Businesses are struggling to recover. People are struggling to return to their livelihoods. The situation is very stressful for the people who are still there.

In terms of what could be improved in the response, that's a very complicated issue. I think it is very clear that when we look at the government response there needs to still be a tremendous amount of coordination that goes on between the federal, state and local level. I know that our own activities in the region have been complicated by trying to work with the government. One of the main things that Episcopal Relief and Development is doing is supporting case management, which is to help individuals to put their lives back together and to negotiate the thicket of FEMA and state programs and city programs and to build their own strategies for recovery.

So there seems to be a lot of confusion. The government in the city of New Orleans, for example, doesn't even have many of its employees back, so they're really hampered in their ability to respond.

Mississippi is a slightly different situation. We didn't see the mass evacuations that we saw from Louisiana, but people are still in temporary. People have not been able to move back to their homes. Businesses seem to be coming back in Mississippi. We've all seen the news accounts of the businesses that have returned, particularly the casino industry. But it still remains a very, very precarious situation for the community. Mississippi is not at all analogous to Louisiana. We really have two very separate disasters. The State government in Mississippi was not as impacted. There was not a major metropolis in Mississippi that had to be evacuated, so the return of people to Mississippi is a somewhat easier thing than it is for the people trying to return to Louisiana and New Orleans.

ERD, in partnership with the Diocese of Louisiana and Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Services, which is the agency for the Diocese of Mississippi, has undertaken a very, very ambitious program of reconstruction and rehabilitation. We had nearly 275,000 homes destroyed between Mississippi and Louisiana. ERD was the recipient of over $15 million in donations from individuals and churches around the country. We've spent about $8.6 million of that already. There have been about 500,000 beneficiaries.

The main programming that ERD is carrying out is through a multi-year response in case management. Again, in helping people, as I said earlier, develop their own personal recovery plans, navigating the thicket of benefits that they are, in fact, entitled to. We're doing a lot of work with psycho-social care. The post-traumatic stress syndrome in the community is very, very high and is a very serious problem.

At the core of our response is livelihood and housing renewal. One of the key issues in Louisiana is that even if people had the means and ability to return -- and there are jobs for them in New Orleans -- there is no place for them to live. There is very little housing stock, so we're looking at helping people with enterprise loans to get their businesses started again. Finding places, both in Mississippi and Louisiana, to do business, incubation and job training. We are in the midst of launching what I think is going to be a very prophetic ministry in partnership with the Diocese of Louisiana to provide affordable income housing to people, called the Jericho Road Housing Project. We've already gotten permission to do 50 homes, and we hope eventually to do up to 500 homes that will provide places for folks who could not otherwise afford to return to Louisiana, not only to live, but eventually to own their own homes. So this is not simply a reconstruction; it's about building it back better and building back a better and more just society. I really salute the people of the Diocese of Louisiana for embracing this ministry. It's a very important ministry.

We're focused on helping one family at a time rebuild its life back to as much of what they had before the disaster struck.

There continues to be a need for volunteers. Mississippi has quite a well-organized volunteer ministry. People who are interested in volunteering in Mississippi should contact Camp Coast Care, which coordinates all of the volunteers.

In Louisiana, the volunteer situation is a little bit different, precisely because of the housing problem; finding a safe place to put volunteers has proved to be a real challenge for the Diocese of Louisiana, although I know they are making plans to welcome volunteers to help people clean out their homes and to again rebuild their lives. The challenge also in Louisiana is that many of these homes have environmental hazards now. They have been vacant for nearly a year, so the ability for volunteers to work in that environment and their safety is a concern. So my sense is that Louisiana is pursuing the volunteer opportunity, but doing it in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances on the ground.

I think the prospects for recovery in the region are excellent. We forget that New Orleans is one of the largest ports in this country. It has a natural importance in the economy of the United States. Ultimately, that will sustain its long-term growth. I think that the commitment of the people in Louisiana and the commitment of the Episcopal Church in Louisiana and the Episcopal Church more broadly to Louisiana and Mississippi is sustaining hope and making opportunities in Mississippi and Louisiana. Yes, it's a long haul, it's going to be a multi-year challenge, and we have to keep the faith with our brothers and sisters there.

One of the really important lessons learned here is what the role of the church is in a disaster and this was something that was really brought home to me by working with my colleagues in the Diocese of Mississippi. They had done a superb job of preparing the diocese to minister to those in need at the time of a disaster. And this put them months ahead of many other faith groups throughout the region. They had formed an important partnership with Lutherans in their community. They had done a lot of good pre-positioning of their assets in the event of a disaster, so that when the disaster came, they were prepared. And if there is a lesson learned for everybody in the Episcopal Church, it is about preparing for the disaster. And it is more than about institutional survival. It is more than about were the parish records backed up. It's also about what will be the call of our church in the event of a disaster, and these are very profound spiritual questions, and I really commend the Diocese of Mississippi for embracing this before the disaster and I think that's an important lesson for us all to take.