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September 4th, 2008
02:57 PM ET

Putting communities, and lives, back together after the storm

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Editor's Note: Kate Barron is Oxfam America’s Louisiana Community Development Specialist. She has spent the past 2+ years working with residents of and groups assisting Terrebonne Parish, and also Plaquemines, Lafourche and Vermillion parishes, in its recovery from hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Hurricane Gustav has exacerbated an already bad situation for this area. Kate briefly evacuated to family in Baton Rouge, but is driving back into the affected parishes. She shares her experience in the storm here… both before, and after:

Kate Barron
Oxfam America Louisiana Community Development Specialist

BEFORE:

Last Friday night, August 29th, 2008 was three years to the day of Hurricane Katrina. And there I was, packing up my house, scrambling to whip up an evacuation plan to family in Baton Rouge: Gustav loomed on the horizon.

I work as the Louisiana field representative for Oxfam America, the international humanitarian aid agency, and have spent the past two and a half years in the rural coastal communities south and west of New Orleans as part of the long and heartbreakingly inconsistent recovery from Katrina and Rita. My role in Oxfam’s work is to link small, local non-profits who are renewing these very communities to resources and opportunities that sustain their good work and amplify their voice.

Prior to Hurricane Gustav making landfall in Cocodrie this weekend, one of the community groups that Oxfam’s Gulf Coast Recovery Program supported was Bayou Grace Community Services. As I headed back to Gustav’s ground zero, Terrebonne parish, the day after the storm I spoke with Courtney Howell, Bayou Grace’s now evacuated Executive Director who formed her organization when Hurricane Rita brought over 6 feet of water into her community, Chauvin. She has spent the past three years helping her area recover holistically, as well as to get more informed and involved in its own sustainability and wellness. Courtney is a Gulf Coast leader in the call for citizens to realize one very important thing: Those levees that the media couldn’t take its eyes off this week are a third line of defense.

Coastal Louisiana (including New Orleans) flooded after Katrina and Rita, and continues to be vulnerable because, as she says, “our first and second lines of defense – healthy barrier islands and marshes have been unnaturally eroded and lost.”

In fact, for generations communities lived safely along Louisiana’s coast. My family for example prospered along Bayou Lafourche, settling there in the mid 1700s. “Only until major industry – oil, gas, and navigation- began impacting this environment did coastal Louisiana being losing these first lines of defense to coastal erosion and land loss, vanishing marshes and barrier islands.” Howell knows that as a result, all we have left now is the “third line of defense” – man-made levees. The story remains to be told is the story of how, over the past 80 years, the loss of land approximately the size of the state of Delaware from Louisiana’s coast came to be. And besides, some communities like hers aren’t even protected by those man-made levees anyway.

We in Louisiana give a great deal to our country – for starters, one third of the country’s domestic energy. We deposit almost $6 billion in revenue from oil production off our fragile coastline into our nation’s coffers. “The greatest injustice from the recovery is that we coastal Louisianans are literally losing the land we live on to provide for the rest of the country,” she told me. Coastal Louisiana is an astounding cultural treasure, with a rich tapestry of culture and history: these are not communities of suburban transplants. Down here, people have lived for generations and a last name means more than what college you went to. Despite this eroding land, we have very deep roots.

AFTER:

By Tuesday morning, Gustav had plowed a northwestern path along coastal Terrebonne parish. I have spent the past few days here, away from the media glare, as a part of Oxfam’s post-disaster assessment team. In service of the community leaders still evacuated, I have been serving as their eyes and ears these past few days. Driving along the empty roads (there is 24-hour curfew here) are tin roofs and mobile homes twisted up and discarded, live oak trees, Spanish moss, power lines and transformers tangled and tumbled like dominoes. This afternoon our team spent time pulling insulation, broken rafters and wet photo albums from the wreckage of a tree-crushed house of Lafourche community leaders Sharon and David Gauthe.

Sharon was still evacuated in Alabama with her elderly mother, unable to return with the prospects of 4-6 weeks of no electricity and air conditioning in the sub tropical summer heat.

Getting information to make crucial decisions has been painfully difficult. To the dismay of those of us concerned about communities in the eye of the Gustav the media attention on these areas was noticeably sparse. I wonder if this experience of evacuating, being in the eye of the storm, and of having little information in the aftermath has created a new form of erosion: that of the willingness of these industrious people, to evacuate next time. Evacuation is not in the family budget.

It costs money that we don’t have (gas, meals out, hotel rooms) for an indeterminable amount of time that we can’t know. Toting kids, grandma, medications and Fido on top of lingering stress from Rita and Katrina is not for the fainthearted.

This Friday at 6 am, almost one week after mandated to leave, all residents of Terrebonne parish will be allowed to come home. In spite of the challenges that lie ahead, I can only smile at the spirit of the locals: one neighbor making sure that her fellow neighbor has a hot pot of coffee to start the long day, making it on a gas stove despite the fact that a tree is resting in her living room..


Filed under: Hurricane Gustav • Hurricane Katrina
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Vickie

    I'm a 44 year old mother with grown children and worked off and on when they were young and feel women should be resected if they chose to work when their children are young. I was excited about the VP pick and really wanted to like Sarah Palin but the whole time I watched her speak I could not shake the feeling of sadness of how much time she would have to be away from her infant. I was still breast feeding my children at that age. I am so ready for a women VP or P but I can't get over the feeling that this is the wrong time for Palin's family and it makes me question her.

    September 4, 2008 at 7:14 pm |
  2. Tom

    Hi new poll here,

    Q. Do you believe the news media is credible

    MSNBC 4%

    PBS 3%

    CNN 14.6%

    FOX 27%

    The American people are seeing through your attempt to sway this election.

    POSERS EXPOSED!

    September 4, 2008 at 6:08 pm |
  3. Vicky, Ontario, Canada

    Must say that I've been waiting for news about how things are in Lousiana and Mississippi, and other areas impacted by Gustav. Also, in Florida from Fay. Dissappointed that CNN has gone on with so much coverage of the Republican convention and little news about follow-up from Gustav and Fay. I've switched to other news to find out what was going on, and then heard that power was going to be out for about 1 month in Louisiana, and saw the Governor Jindal was urgently requesting assistance in restoring power. Also, Haiti and other regions have been really hard hit.

    September 4, 2008 at 5:28 pm |
  4. warren

    I wish I could do something to help the gulf coastline, by building levees or something, but it is mother nature who decides what happens. My family is from New Orleans (the whole south), and I kno that there is one thing, southerners will never do, which is give up!!!!!! Its kind of weird how people have been live'n their for hundreds of years, and they delt with hurricanes day in and day out...........but the way this world is, I can see why were having this problem with floods, the coastal erossion and island barriers are the problem, let's do something to save it!!!!!

    September 4, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Stacy

    I wonder if this experience of evacuating, being in the eye of the storm, and of having little information in the aftermath has created a new form of erosion: that of the willingness of these industrious people, to evacuate next time.

    This is one of my biggest fears in regards to the hurricanes. A few days ago I saw a news report from one of the shelters and the evacuees were outraged about the poor conditions there, leading one man to say that if he had know it would be like that, he would have kept his family in New Orleans.

    It's quiet dispiriting how quickly the media packed up and left . The above-mentioned news report is one of the few I've seen regarding shelter issues, or even on the aftermath at all. It's like everyone called Gustav a success and then moved on.

    Thank you for what you do.

    September 4, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Arachnae

    You are actually giving blog space to a *gasp* community organizer?

    Consider the CHILDREN! (yes, I am being sarcastic.)

    September 4, 2008 at 4:21 pm |
  7. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Better not let Sarah Palin see you helping your community. She will disqualify you from going into politics!

    September 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  8. Jacqueline

    To all the residents of Louisiana. I prayed that this storm Gustav would not be bad like Katrina. To hear the reports bring tears to my eyes. I know that there is a God and he answered my prayers. Pray for us here in Florida that ike doesn't come this way. I have never been in a major hurricane and I have lived in Florida all my life. May God be with us...

    September 4, 2008 at 3:56 pm |
  9. monica wendt

    Gustav just made landfall on Monday and yet the media seems to treat it as ancient history. People in Terrebonne were just allowed to see their houses for the first time today. There are no public services, people are without food, water and electricity and may not have electricity for several weeks. Why aren't you trying to give necessary attention to the needy people in Louisiana. Half of the state is without electricity. I am sure you will not be surprised to know that New Orleans is using needed resources to prepare the city for the Saint's football game. There are people in the dark and the New Orleans is selfishly preparing for the a celebration. Terrebonne Parish and Lafourche Parish housed New Orleans citizens only 3 years ago when their homes were destroyed. If you all have the guts to pursue a real human interest story, look south. A ungrateful and selfish city is mocking the southern parishes that opened their arms after Katrina.

    September 4, 2008 at 3:26 pm |
  10. Kate

    I have been intrigued by the Republican VP choice since it was announced. There is so much to comment about but one thing I heard Palin say was that it was God's will to go to war with Iraq. The first thing that came to mind when I heard this was how it paralled the same belief of extremist Muslims – "It is the will of Allah" that we kill the Americans. Please, Gov. Palin. I understand you are a Christian. Isn't one of the commandments of Christian belief "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? Yes, it is. And just what might that mean in this context? Here is my first thought... Barack Obama wants to try to open a continued dialouge with those we call our enemies in hopes that we can solve problems without war. Gov. Palin, isn't that exactly what God wants us to do? If you are going to refer to God in your political speeches, please be prepared to respond. You couldn't be more wrong..God is the last entity to want war. You are confused, I am afraid.

    September 4, 2008 at 3:19 pm |
  11. eric

    This is what america is about; not a bunch of backstabbing groups that spew hatred on people who have opinions that differ from their own.

    September 4, 2008 at 3:18 pm |
  12. Cindy

    I am glad that Gustav was no where near as bad as was expected. I hope that the people get home, get things cleaned up, and get on with their lives as soon as possible.

    Cindy...Ga.

    September 4, 2008 at 3:01 pm |