After the storm: Oxfam takes stock, rushes in aid

By Elizabeth Stevens

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The side of a mobile home stands upright against a tree. Countless utility poles, festooned with useless wires, lie flat on the pavement, leaving 1.5 million people without electricity. A man ferries belongings from his car to his house in a neighbor's boat.

"At least a third of the houses we've seen have sustained wind damage," says Oxfam's Kenny Rae, who has visited many of the towns south of Thibodaux, Louisiana.

If Hurricane Gustav visited our home towns, most of us would consider it a major disaster, but in coastal Louisiana, Katrina set the bar of dread so high that this level of destruction is a huge relief.

Yet, when it comes to questions of poverty and vulnerability, Gustav picked up where Katrina left off. An Oxfam assessment team touring the most troubled areas is finding that solid homes held up relatively well in this storm, and that the worst destruction was visited on trailers and more vulnerable houses.

The Native American community of Isle de Jean Charles, which is located in what may be the most exposed location in the hard-hit parish of Terrebonne, has experienced "terrible damage," according to Oxfam's Kenny Rae. "Houses have been ripped off their foundations. We saw one leaning on a levee."

Since the hurricanes of 2005, Oxfam America has been working with a network of local partners on the Gulf Coast, focusing on poor communities whose needs have fallen through the gaps in the government response. Hurricane Gustav is a new chapter in the same story.

"Oxfam will work with our partners in the area to ensure that these communities receive the federal funds they need to rebuild their homes and their communities," said Minor Sinclair, who directs Oxfam America's development programs in the United States.

"We'll work on ensuring that temporary housing assistance gets to those who need it most—and quickly. And that rebuilding dollars prioritize low-income communities."

But first, the short-term needs. Damaged roofs, for example, need to be covered quickly with tarps before rain destroys home interiors. And community aid providers have their own problems: many have to repair their offices immediately or find new ones. As partner organizations begin to gear up their work, Oxfam is standing by to support them for projects that can't wait.

"Thousands of Louisiana families are returning home today to find their homes damaged by Gustav," says Sinclair. "I hope that this country's generous spirit—whether through FEMA or through private donations—continues to stand with these families in their time of need."