New Orleans is a tale of two cities.
If you live on the rim of the bowl – Uptown, the Garden District, the French Quarter, and a few other lucky spots – life is pretty good.
In fact, during the winter months through about now, I’d be hard pressed to find a more pleasant place on earth.
But if you live in the neighborhoods devastated by the levee collapses, it’s a very different story indeed…
I was in Montreal – North America’s other fleur-de-lis city – on the week of August 29, 2005, glued to the television, stunned like so many others by what I saw…
Government incompetence so extraordinary it crossed the line into calculated viciousness accompanied by a smear campaign against the victims that had Karl Rove and the White House written all over it (Why didn’t they leave town?…Why are they living under sea level?…Look at all that looting…)
That same week Howie Jacobson and I started raising money and impressing on others in our industry – regardless of where they lived – the urgent need to do the same.
We were successful in raising cash (over $50,000 in a month), but not successful in knowing what to do with it. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army got it all. I can only hope they spent it well.
In December of ’05, a friend of Howie’s, Mike Ellis, answered a call for social workers to go to New Orleans to counsel people. Mike, who had no connection to New Orleans previously, was blown away by the scale and scope of the human suffering he encountered and the complete absence of any meaningful relief from official sources.
On his trip, Mike ran into Bruce Davenport, Sr. the pastor of St. John #5 Faith Church based on Hamburg Street in the Seventh Ward. The Church faces the St. Bernard Housing Project which was just torn down instead of being repaired after the levee failures.
St. John #5 is a remarkable institution and Bruce Davenport, its pastor is a remarkable man.
Drummed out of the Baptist Church for distributing free condoms, the Church operates a home and training center for single, teenage mothers; an after school homework center; and a computer training center. And it helps church members and others with the practical problems of life like food, housing and education.
It’s also actively involved in repairing flood-damaged homes and making them livable again.
Quick fact for the uninformed: The overwhelming amount of damage caused in 2005 was caused by the collapse of poorly built and maintained levees that were the SOLE responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a branch of the federal government.
The pain hit every segment of New Orleans society, but it was especially felt in mostly black, low income and working class neighborhoods where residents are poorly insured (if they have any insurance at all) and have all of whatever net worth they do have tied up in their homes.
The Seventh Ward happened to have the highest percentage of home owners in the city. Working people…decent people…who spent their life energy taking care of their families and contributing to their community.
Mike created a group back home in Ithaca called Love Knows No Bounds specifically to work with Pastor Davenport and the people he serves.
They’ve sent construction workers and, last summer, brought a bus load of New Orleanians to the Ithaca area for a one week summer vacation.
This April they had an ambitious plan to bring down 65 volunteers to make progress on getting people who are still technically “homeless” back in their homes after two and a half years.
All they needed was to hire a certified electrician and buy a bunch of building supplies. With the help of some colleagues, Howie and I succeeded in shaking down some of our customers for $18,000 and local Ithaca people came up with another $7,000 which raised to the penny the $25,000 that was needed.
This kind of story is going on all over New Orleans. I’m sure that private help has far outstripped any help received from the government.
Most of the people I talked to who are being helped getting back in their homes – including an 88 year old man, an 80 something year old lady with crippling arthritis in her knees, and a great-grandmother – have received little more than spare change in the form of help from the government.
The number of people who need help is vast.
How many is hard to tell.
But just in the category of low income senior citizens who lost everything, it must number in the many, many thousands.
This is the group I work with on this issue: http://renew-orleans.org/
You can also contact Bruce Davenport, pastor of St. John #5 Faith Church directly at: 504-288-3272
It’s been some of the best money I’ve ever spent and if you’re so inclined to help too, I know they’ll make good use of it.
Here’s a rough crash-edited home movie of what I’m talking about: