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By Daniel Webster
Director of Media Relations
National Council of Churches USA

The New Orleans Diaspora 

            I wondered.  Are any of these people on this city bus from the airport to downtown New Orleans some of those who I met at the evacuee camp in Utah eight months ago?  There were about 500 victims of hurricane Katrina flooding who were flown to Utah.  I was a volunteer chaplain with the Red Cross at the National Guard base turned evacuee center.

            Many of those shipped off to Utah felt betrayed.  They had family members spread across the country.  One woman told me she felt lied to when they said they didn’t know the destination of the plane she had been instructed to board.  “I used to work for the airlines,” she told me over lunch one chilly Utah early fall day.  “I know those planes don’t go anywhere without knowing the destination.”

            I wonder if she’s in Texas where she found out her husband had been sent.  Or is she back here now?  How many other residents of this city are still scattered, living in hotels or apartments, or with relatives and friends, wondering when (or if) they’ll ever be able to return to their community?

            This is my first trip to New Orleans in many years.  I choose to ride the city bus downtown so I can see more of this city.  I want to see the people away from the French Quarter.  It is not a happy place, this city of so many happy and party memories.

            There are piles of debris still waiting for removal.  Block after block you see damage and debris.  There are a lot of “for sale” signs.  But there are a lot of “Opening Soon” and “Now Hiring” signs, as well. 

FEMA is a word you hear a lot here.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency is part of daily life.  It even is a color—FEMA blue.  That describes the thousands and thousands of blue tarps you see on rooftops, or should I say, “on what used to be rooftops.”

            FEMA trailers are parked next to damaged homes.  People are living in these 30-foot long, 8-foot wide aluminum homes.  I wonder how hot it will be in those metal boxes as summer approaches.  My mother’s mobile home in Virginia, even with air conditioning, was pretty warm in those sticky, humid summers.

There are trailers next to businesses trying to stay open, or trying to open for the first time, since the devastation of August 29, 2005.

            I’m here to witness with my new colleagues at the National Council of Churches that the church is here.  We come to witness that millions of faithful Christians are concerned about their brothers and sisters in this city (whether they are Christian or not).  There are church relief agencies doing their gospel work on the ground from Texas to Alabama, all along the Gulf Coast.  The Moravian Church has no congregations in Mississippi yet they are actively doing rebuilding work in that part of the region.

Our ministry is to speak for the voiceless at the table of rebuilding power.  We have chosen to make sure that the poor and low income people from this city are not forgotten in any rebuilding plan.  It would be easy to sell to the highest bidding developers and turn New Orleans into an upscale gambling resort city.  It would be easy to say to people who have made New Orleans their home for generations that they are no longer welcome here.  It would be easy to dismiss them as the woman who ended up in Utah without even being told where her plane was going.

Already one local church group has announced plans for 150 homes for low income residents in and around the downtown area.  I smile as I hear that in one of our meetings knowing there will be a place in this city for some working people to come back and live.

            My job at the NCC is to get our message out in the media.  I realized the enormity of my challenge as we walked in silence and prayed at the Convention Center.  No cameras or reporters were there to see our tears or hear our prayers.  They had other pressing news stories to cover.  There really was a lot going on that day. 

            But I reflected on the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  It’s the one that begins, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace,” and continues with the list of opposites.  The news media, of which I was a part for 25 years, is interested in one column of that prayer and not the other.  The media is drawn to hatred, injury, despair, darkness and sadness.  My challenge will be to get them interested in love, pardon, union, faith, hope, light and joy. 

That’s my gospel work in this huge effort they call the rebuilding of New Orleans.  For the displaced people of this city—the Diaspora New Orleanians—I pray I’m up to the challenge.


Catholic Charities Plans
to Develop 4,000 Homes in Hurricane-Hit Area

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Catholic Charities plans to build 4,000 rental homes and apartments in an attempt to address the area's shortage of affordable housing, according to Jim Kelly, the charity's executive director in New Orleans.

The new units, when combined with the housing Catholic Charities already operates in the city, would make the social outreach arm of the Archdiocese of New Orleans one of the larger landlords in the city limits. Catholic Charities has 2,700 rental units already in place in the metro area, although 2,000 of those require Katrina-related repairs. It plans to do business -- nonprofit business -- as Providence Community Housing.

The new units will take shape in several different projects:

-- The creation of 2,000 units in mixed-income communities, setting aside about 500 units for the disabled or elderly.

-- The construction of 1,000 modular homes.

-- The construction of 1,000 apartment units.

Kelly would not reveal the locations of the projects. He did say that church property, in many instances, would be used to accommodate the new housing.

To develop the 2,000-unit mixed-income projects, Catholic Charities may seek Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI funds.

To help pay for the rest of the projects, Kelly said, his agency hopes to snag a portion of the $65 million in low-income housing tax credits for

2006 to be made available in Louisiana. This year's Gulf Opportunity Zone Act increased the volume of tax credits available in the state from $8.5 million a year ago. The program also sets aside $65 million in tax credits for the state in 2007 and 2008.

Applications for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program must be turned in by April 17 to the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority. Each project will be graded by board members on a point scale, with the projects with the highest points winning the credits.

Before Katrina hit, Christopher Homes, the arm of the archdiocese that concentrates on providing low-income housing, ran about 2,700 units, most in complexes and some in scattered sites, according to Executive Director Dennis Adams.

About 1,200 of those units were damaged in the storm and are not in use.

ACORN volunteers cleaning and gutting homes

ACORN is organizing volunteers to clean and gut homes of low-income families that were flooded in the aftermath of Katrina.

This requires no construction experience, however the work is physically challenging and sometimes messy. Volunteers start by removing all furniture and appliances that are remaining in the home and take hammers and crow bars to remove the drywall, insulation, and trim that sustained flood and mold damage.

ACORN offers the service for free, saving homeowners an  estimated $4,000. Volunteers have completed almost 1000 homes and  have over 1,000 more signed up.

ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities.  Since 1970, ACORN has grown to more than 175,000 member families, organized in 850 neighborhood chapters in 75 cities across the U.S. and in cities in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

Until June the 1st, ACORN has an agreement with a FEMA sponsored tent city called Camp Algiers where volunteers can stay while they work with our home gutting program.  ACORN requests that  volunteers be prepared to spend $10 a day for transportation but we will do our best to avoid this fee. ACORN require that groups of 4 or more provide their own transportation while in the city.

The main function of the ACORN home clean out campaign is to provide a connection between people willing to volunteer their time, energy and resources and the people from the New Orleans community.  The city of New Orleans is still in desperate need of help in its recovery effort and volunteer help is crucial in the fight to get back some semblance of what was lost.

ACORN provides tools such as crowbars, hammers and wheelbarrows.  We ask that our volunteers bring protective gear if they are able to and we require that all volunteers have a current tetanus shot. Bring work boots and gloves if you have them. The standard protective gear includes tyvek suits, respirator masks (N-95 rating or above,) gloves, and protective eyeware. 

Work crews meet every morning at 8 o’clock at 1016 Elysian Fields Ave to receive house assignments and do a head count.  We look forward to seeing you there and hope that you have an amazing experience doing an amazing thing.
Displaced Louisiana voters need your help.

"If you are a registered voter of Louisiana who has been displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina or Rita, you are eligible to vote in your home parish if you have not registered to vote in another parish or state." – Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater

Help us get this message to displaced Louisianans in your city or state. Thousands of evacuees have moved several times since disaster struck their homes. Your local knowledge may be the only way for us to reach them.

Louisiana's primary election is scheduled to take place on April 22, 2006, and general election on May 20, 2006. There are also other local elections taking place this spring. Many changes have been made to Louisiana voting laws, dates, and polling places as a result of the hurricanes.

Time is very short. We need you to reach displaced voters with the information they need as soon as possible.

For information on how you can help, including handouts you can download and photocopy, visit our website at

For additional information, visit the Louisiana Elections Displaced Voters Webpage at,  email at:, or call 1-800-833-2805.

Thank you,
Dot Wirth
Common Cause Louisiana

NCC Special Commission is 'deeply troubled'
by FEMA decision to end hurricane housing

Washington, D.C., March 16, 2006 -- The National Council of Churches' Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast said it was "deeply troubled" by the Federal Emergency Management Administration's decision to end temporary housing for hurricane victims.

The Special Commission was formed by the NCC's Governing Board in September 2005. It is chaired by retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, left..

 In a statement released today, the Special Commission said:

We are deeply troubled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to end funding for temporary housing for Hurricane Katrina evacuees as of yesterday. This premature and unnecessary action adds insult to injury and will cause further harm to those who have already lost everything.  

Instead of acting responsibly and extending the deadline for temporary housing until real and affordable transitional and permanent housing is available; FEMA has decided to evict hurricane victims and allow chaos to reign supreme as thousands struggle to survive and rebuild their lives. This action is not only a cruel and insensitive bureaucratic mistake. It is completely out of step with our nation’s deepest ethical and moral values. 

We pose the same question today that we did in a letter earlier this week to Michael Chertoff, director of the Department of Homeland Security: Where are these families to go? 

Churches and church families in Louisiana, Mississippi and across this nation have gladly taken in and supported hurricane survivors for months. However, these volunteers simply do not have the additional capacity to house the thousands that will be put out on the streets because of FEMA’s decision. We will continue to do all that we can but we call on President Bush, the Department of Homeland Security and Members of Congress to also do their part to uphold the ideals of our nation as well as their moral obligation to the citizens of this country. Despite media references to those impacted by the storm as “refugees,” these are not refugees from another land but citizens of the United States of America!  

FEMA along with other local, state and federal agencies have repeatedly asked hurricane evacuees and millions of shocked citizens across the nation to understand their slow and inept response to this historic disaster. Now it's FEMA's turn to show it understands the difficult situation in which most evacuees have found themselves: 

Six months after the storm thousands of people are still in limbo and do not even know the full extent of the options available to them. Efforts to rebuild are moving at a snail’s pace and debris is still littered for miles across the areas hardest hit.  

This is not the time to evict evacuees from the places that have provided shelter for them since the storms hit. This is the time to find creative ways to use our collective resources to help those most in need.

Contact NCC News: Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350,, or Daniel Webster, 212-870-2252,

NCC Special Commission Calls for FEMA Independence, Expresses Concern about Red Cross

Lott Aide Says: Rebuilding Efforts are a 'mess'; New Chair of Democratic Caucus meets with Special Commission

Washington, D.C., January 31, 2006 -- As President Bush prepares to address the nation this evening with his administration's plans for restoring the Gulf Coast region, the National Council of Churches’ Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is calling for radical changes in U.S. emergency relief efforts.

With numerous recent reports indicating that progress is moving at a snail's pace five months after the hurricanes devastated the region, and with time running out for evacuees in temporary housing (yesterday was the deadline for the more than 20,000 evacuees still in hotel/motel rooms to apply for an extension of benefits beyond Feb. 6), NCC's Special Commission is supporting Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in a call for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be moved from under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"The system is a mess," said one of Lott's aides to members of NCC's Special Commission at a meeting on Capitol Hill last week. According to the aide, Senator Lott has been dismayed by the slow response to these natural disasters, noting that there was a better federal response to Hurricane Camille in 1969.

The members of the Special Commission believe that removing FEMA from DHS will help the agency better respond to natural disasters and prevent them from escalating to widespread ruin as was the case with hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Although Lott initially approved of FEMA becoming a part of DHS, he now believes it was an "absolute mistake" for the agency to be under DHS, said the aide.

In addition to recommending this change, the Special Commission voted to advocate for two other initiatives based on meetings in Washington last week: to call for the reinterpretation of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, and to urge Congress to review the role and position of the Red Cross as a first responder.

Even with the extension of benefits that evacuees can receive if they met yesterday's deadline, FEMA will only be allowed to pay for hotel/motel rooms through March 1 for most evacuees because of the way the Stafford Act is being interpreted by DHS. The Special Commission is strongly urging DHS to reinterpret the Stafford Act so that evacuees are given more time in emergency housing and additional monetary assistance to help rebuild.

The Special Commission also determined that it is important to urge Congress to review the role and position of the Red Cross as a first responder because of the relief organization's bureaucratic nature and its inability to respond rapidly and sufficiently during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"People have literally died because of the mishaps, mistakes and mismanagement of this situation. Now thousands are just a few weeks of being put on the streets of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and other states as federal funding for emergency housing is cut off," said Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, a retired United Methodist Bishop and chair of the Special Commission.

"Politics must be put aside and urgent action taken so that evacuees get the help that they need, and were promised, from the federal government," he said.

The Special Commission met in the nation's capital Jan. 25-26 to further its work to advocate for the just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. The meeting with Senator Lott's office was one of several such meetings held by members of the Special Commission, including a meeting with Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the Democratic Caucus, staff from Senator David Vitter's office (R-La.) and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Enterprise Community Partners (formerly the Enterprise Foundation), a housing and community development organization that has been part of the effort to build new and more equitable communities in the Gulf Coast region.

"To celebrate the success of speaking truth to power with a rebuilt and restored Gulf Coast region, where communities of love, justice and tranquility exist for those who remained, returned, or resettled elsewhere due to the fair and equitable distribution of available human and material resources from all sectors of society around the world," was adopted as the vision statement for the Special Commission during last week's meeting. The Special Commission also agreed on a set of guiding principles for their work. A more detailed set of principles and a theological statement will also be released in the coming months.

These statements from the Special Commission will join a statement adopted by NCC's Eco-Justice Working Group in October that addressed the critical environmental issues that must be taken into consideration as restoration and rebuilding efforts take place in the Gulf Coast region.

"The Gospel compels the church to advocate on behalf of the voiceless, to be a champion for the rights of the powerless and an ardent guardian of God's creation," said the Eco-Justice Working Group statement. "The foundations of these renewed communities must be sound ecology, social equity, racial justice and pervasive compassion towards the least, the voiceless and the marginalized."

The Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast was established by urgent action of NCC's Governing Board in September, shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast region. In November the General Assembly affirmed the Special Commission and directed it to "strive for the greatest degree of coherence and comprehensive efforts in our rebuilding the Gulf Coast communities and in addressing the human inequities which exacerbated a natural disaster into wholesale calamity."