By Anne Rochell Konigsmark and Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
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. While the government is still trying to sort out
who should do what and fighting about it, many kind individuals have
stepped in to take over the burden.
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"
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 total lack of leadership from President Bush and downward,
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, and it would appear for
now that President Bush does not intend to do that.
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
. 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'
. 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
. 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). ECUSA -- the Episcopal Church in the
United States has _poured_ tons of money into the effort, through the
other church organizations, etc.
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
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
. 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,"
. 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
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
- 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
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
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
"We have to do something," King says. "People here are desperate for
hope, the government has apparently abandoned them, 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."
Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: The Episcopal Bishop for Kansas, Dean
Wolfe visited our church -- Epiphany Church here in Independence and
asked the vestry (local church overseers) to please 'partner' with a
totally devastated housing project and church in Biloxi, MS. Our
vestry agreed to the commitment, despite the fact that we are having
problems of our own. _The major_ Episcopal Church in Kansas (Christ
Church in Overland Park, Kansas, and about 40 percent of the statewide
budget) about a year ago decided to split and go with the more
conservative Anglican Communion, I guess you know the main
reason. Dean asked us to do the best we could anyway. PAT]