In his 67 years, Howard Peterson had never seen a Mennonite. But 11 days before Christmas he stood in the ruins of his kitchen, watching a crew of them gut and clean his flood-ravaged house.
Peterson is a retired African-American barber who lives on disability payments. His eyes are sad, his movement listless, his voice weak. His helpers were strapping white men from Lancaster County, Pa., dressed in dark pants, collared shirts, suspenders and black straw hats.
Peterson and his wife couldn’t afford to pay a contractor several thousand dollars to gut the one-story house, which sat in water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina inundated the working-class Gentilly district. So Peterson, who looks too frail to do spring cleaning, began trying to clear out the house himself. Then the Mennonites came by and offered a hand.
“I can’t thank them enough,” he says. But he also wonders when the professionals – city, state and federal agencies – will do their part. “They should be trying to repair the city.”
The Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular have at times felt abandoned by the American government. But they haven’t been abandoned by Americans, who have volunteered by the thousands to clear out houses, collect trash, fight mold, cover roofs, feed the hungry, tend to the sick and help in any way they can. Now, as disaster relief gives way to rebuilding, volunteers are renovating and constructing homes, restocking libraries, surveying historic structures, tracking down voters and helping communities plan for the future.
Partly because politicians continue to dither, bicker and accuse, non-governmental organizations – “NGOs” ranging from large, non-profit agencies to church youth groups – are emerging as heroes of the recovery effort.
Habitat for Humanity, whose Operation Home Delivery has been building houses across the nation for shipment to the Gulf Coast, received an 85% “positive” rating for its post-hurricane work in a national Harris Poll released in November. FEMA, in contrast, got a 72% “negative” rating.
In New Orleans’ devastated Lower 9th Ward, FEMA is so unpopular that its workers have been heckled and threatened. Some stopped wearing anything that identifies their agency.
Past crises generally have established the limits of non-government action; private charity proved insufficient to cope with the Great Depression, for example. This crisis seems to have a different lesson: Volunteers, outsiders and amateurs can help fill a void created by what Amy Liu, an urban policy expert at the Brookings Institution, calls “a lack of leadership across all levels of government.”
“There’s a general sense that the charitable sector has the touch needed, a better feel for the communities affected,” says Paul Light, a New York University government analyst.
Small steps, massive need
Pride in what non-profits are doing to help the Gulf Coast recover is tempered by the universal acknowledgment that there will be no recovery without a massive government effort.
Charitable contributions for victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma total about $3 billion. That’s less than what the Bush administration says is needed just to fix the Mississippi River levees that protect New Orleans.
“Habitat (for Humanity) will build you a house, and it will build 500 other houses,” Light says. “It won’t build 10,000 houses.” And it won’t rebuild the levees.
However, in New Orleans alone, the volunteer effort has been impressive:
• The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group that works in low-income areas, is organizing the city’s scattered residents to give them a voice in planning their neighborhoods’ future.
• National Trust for Historic Preservation volunteers are canvassing thousands of flood-damaged historic houses and encouraging owners to restore, not raze.
• The Preservation Resource Center, another historic preservation group, is handing out “flood buckets” with materials for cleaning up buildings and offering classes for homeowners on how to repair flood damage.
• Oprah Winfrey’s Oprah’s Angel Network is donating 50 houses for people left homeless.
• Common Ground, a coalition of activist groups founded after Katrina, was among the first to go into the Upper 9th Ward, where it runs a health clinic, a legal aid office, a homeless shelter, a free kitchen, a “tool lending library” and a solar-powered shower.
Religious denominations are focusing on their traditional specialties in disaster relief. They include Southern Baptists (chain sawing for debris removal), United Methodists (tracking the needs of families), Seventh Day Adventists (warehousing supplies) and Church of the Brethren (emergency child care), according to Kevin King of the Mennonites (building trades).
Volunteers include Old Order Amish, who shun modern conveniences and still dress as they did centuries ago; hippies of the Rainbow Family, a 1960s-style, back-to-the-land group that established a soup kitchen and medical tent in a park east of the French Quarter; and planners from the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research group that waived its usual fee to study rebuilding New Orleans.
Outside help a godsend
Local non-profits do what they can, but outsiders are taking the lead. “Everyone who lives here is maxed out dealing with their own situation,” says Patty Gay of the Preservation Resource Center. The out-of-towners, she adds, “are so good for morale. It’s easy to be depressed.”
Even NGOs that usually work overseas, such as Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee, have sent help.
Although the role of NGOs in disaster recovery has grown over the years, Katrina is a watershed, says Brenda Phillips, professor of emergency management at Oklahoma State University: “We’re seeing how important they are to our country in a way we never have.”
She and other analysts cite several reasons:
• Government lost the public’s confidence after the hurricane and will have a hard time regaining it. “That leaves the non-profits,” says Tiziana Dearing of Harvard’s Hauser Center for Non-profit Organizations.
• The disaster’s scope stretches even well-functioning government agencies, inviting involvement by NGOs that normally focus on the neediest victims – the poor and elderly.
• Lacking government’s power, money and size, non-profits often are more sensitive to people’s needs. “We listen before we do anything,” King says.
• NGOs are relatively nimble – an important asset if, as seems likely, the Gulf Coast will recover a block or a neighborhood at a time. “It’s easier for light-footed individuals to move things forward than a government bureaucracy,” says Greta Gladney, a community activist whose home in the Lower 9th Ward has been rehabbed by ACORN volunteers.
A call to action
“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant – It clothes the naked. It feeds the hungry. It comforts the sorrowful. It shelters the destitute.”
– Menno Simons, 1539
The Mennonites, the denomination Simons helped found, are known mostly today for their belief in adult baptism, pacifism and simple Christian living. Some of the 400,000 Mennonites in North America favor old-fashioned dress. Women who dropped by the Gentilly work site wore dresses and bonnets.
From the start, Mennonites were persecuted in Europe. The account of such trials, Martyrs’ Mirror, is a thick volume. Yet their reaction has not been to hate others, but to try to help them.
Katrina was a call to the action demanded by their founding fathers, who “emphasized doing something about our faith – putting it into practice,” says Werner Froese, a Canadian who supervises New Orleans projects for the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). “So we want to get people back into their homes as soon as we can.”
Since early October, more than 600 MDS volunteers have worked on 200 projects along the Gulf Coast. They’ve donned masks, boots and gloves to do the dirtiest, most basic jobs – ripping out moldy drywall and picking through wreckage.
In Peterson’s house, the flood line was halfway up the wall. The smell of rot and mold was nauseating. A recipe for chicken salad was still taped to a kitchen cabinet, but little else was salvageable.
“It’s dirty work,” says Jerry Weaver of East Earl, Pa. “But it’s worth it. The homeowners appreciate it.”
Much more work will be needed before Peterson can move back in.
Brenda Wise, a widowed teacher who lives around the corner from Peterson, says the Mennonites were her only hope. She felt betrayed by her insurance company, which said her flood insurance was inadequate and homeowner’s insurance did not cover her belongings, and by the Orleans Parish school system, which laid her off.
Wise has been living in Houston, but says she must move back into her house. She can’t afford anything else. The Mennonites are readying the house for her return – and lifting her spirits.
“When I first saw my house, all I could do was just turn around and come out,” she says. “I thought nothing was salvageable. I couldn’t see beyond the destruction.” But the Mennonites carefully set aside dishes, pots, pans, photographs and other items that could be cleaned and saved.
Just a week earlier, the Mennonites’ mission was in doubt.
King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service, and five board members had spent the day touring the city and talking with residents. By 10:30 that night they were exhausted, but King insisted they discuss a disturbing question: Should they commit tens of thousands of volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to a community that might not survive the next big storm?
Some Mennonites favored concentrating on other parts of the Gulf Coast and writing off New Orleans. By helping people rebuild in the city, they argued, we might only be setting them up for the next disaster.
Nothing King saw or heard that day challenged such pessimism, especially the residents’ despair over government inaction and their uncertainty over the condition and future of the levees that are supposed to protect the city from flooding.
But as they sat around a table in a small, second-floor conference room at an Hispanic church, he and the directors kept thinking about the desolation they’d seen in Gentilly and the 9th Ward. The situation was desperate – so desperate they decided in the end that they should stay.
“We have to do something,” King says. “People here are desperate for hope, so we’ll take a risk with them and walk with them.”
The Mennonites expect to stay for at least two years and continue to import work teams from around the USA and Canada each week.
King says that if New Orleans is a lost cause, it is one for which there are many volunteers: “We’re booked through March.”
Anne Rochell Konigsmark and Rick Hampson, USA TODAY