In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, investing in people is a chance to "build back better"

By Mary Babic
More than $6 billion was invested in Gulf Coast recovery following Katrina. Photo: Minor Sinclair/Oxfam America

When Hurricane Katrina ripped the covers off communities along the Gulf Coast, it exposed deep fissures along racial and economic lines.

In keeping with Oxfam America’s practice of supporting marginalized, vulnerable communities, Oxfam focused on making sure that people in neglected, hard-to-reach rural areas, would have the tools to rebuild and the wherewithal to advocate for their needs. The best humanitarian effort may be as simple as organizing communities to stand up and speak out.

A hurricane hits with a bang, and Katrina sounded one of the loudest bangs in American history when it hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.

“It was like a bomb had exploded,” says Rosa Herrin, currently Gulf Coast policy officer for Oxfam America, who lived in Biloxi, Miss., at the time. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calls it "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in US history." A huge swath of strong winds and high water resulted in over 1,800 deaths, $135 billion in damage, a million people displaced, and 80 percent of New Orleans flooded.

What happened after the flood, though, is a whimper: the long, hard work of cleaning up, clearing out, and rebuilding what had been knocked down and washed away. It required a serious commitment of labor, money, and time.

The first step is immediate disaster relief: getting people out of harm’s way, and making sure they have the essentials (such as shelter, water, food, diapers, medicine).  The next steps involve repairing what was broken: rebuilding roofs, clearing out debris, drying walls.

But there is another step that is vitally important to a serious approach to recovery: invigorating and investing in the communities--making sure residents understand their rights and know how to raise their voices to advocate for what they need.

And, indeed, while this step is the thorniest part of a recovery strategy, it may be the element that will offer the most resilience when the next disaster hits.

While Oxfam America initially responded to Katrina with basic disaster relief, in the long run, it was our commitment to empowering residents to understand and advocate for their rights that was the true step toward “building back better” in the wake of the devastation.

As Roberta Avila, currently executive director of the Steps Coalition in Biloxi, MS, puts it, “It’s all about civic engagement. We want people to know what it’s all about and make their voices heard.”

Why invest in people?

The stunning scenes of devastation from Katrina kicked off a flow of private money to the region. In all, $6.5 billion was invested in Gulf Coast recovery. Oxfam America has invested over $17 million in the region since 2005, including 25 Oxfam staff at various times.

This money, along with thousands of hours from volunteers, went far in rebuilding. But it was only a drop in the bucket. A tragedy of such scale and national importance required the might of the federal government’s resources. And the government did commit roughly $142 billion dollars – about 20 times more than private donations.

This meant that it was imperative to hold government agencies accountable to the needs of communities—and required building the capacity of local institutions to give voice to their interests.

Oxfam America focused first on communities that were not being reached by mainstream agencies, such as FEMA and the Red Cross, both for relief supplies and to get their voices heard. Minor Sinclair, regional director of the US Regional Office of Oxfam America, notes “We were one of the few grantmakers that understood the value of capacity building and invested in it. This approach framed our relief and recovery efforts, especially through organizing at the grassroots level.”

With new urgency, and additional funding, Oxfam dug in, helping to develop local leadership skilled in advocacy and asserting their rights. Avila notes, “We built an advocacy network; we’re back-end support for efforts, to enable residents to be spokespersons for their concerns. We help them to organize around needs. And to understand what they can do to effect change.”

Organizing for resilience

These train tracks in East Biloxi, Miss., were mangled by a storm surge that engulfed the neighborhood from two sides of the peninsula. Photo: Kenny Rae/Oxfam America

In the wake of the storm, it became apparent to Oxfam staff that what was really needed at the community level was to organize and empower residents. They needed to know what resources were available for communities, and to stand together and take action to make sure they were not left out. And they need to be better prepared for future disasters.

“There were organizations that were just missing on the ground, especially when it came to the big money flows that were to be coming from the federal government,” says Ashley Tsongas, who was Oxfam’s Gulf Coast policy advisor during the post-Katrina work. “We were saying ‘we need to be more organized.’ We needed a way of getting people together to present a united front when decisions were being made.”

“We wanted to do more than just help people get back on their feet, return it to the way it was,” says Sinclair, “We wanted to do it differently, to change the social landscape.”

Among the organizations that formed was the Steps Coalition, an umbrella for roughly 40 community organizations in coastal Mississippi, which came together with Oxfam’s help. Avila notes, “It was named for all the steps you would see around town, marking the former entrances and foundations where everything else had washed away.” Avila refers to “basic fundamental organizing skills,” such as dealing with conflict, power mapping, and building action plans.

Using new skills to fight for rights

Just as it’s certain that hurricanes will strike again, other forces threaten vulnerable communities, and advocacy skills can help.

In July of this year, Steps organized opposition to a developer proposing to fill in wetlands in North Gulfport, a low-income, African-American neighborhood. Loss of wetlands sacrifices flood protection and threatens water quality.

Word got out that the developer was having private meetings with the city and other groups about the proposal, with no notification to the public. Steps organized an informational meeting, gathered over 500 names on a petition, and requested that the permit to fill in wetlands be denied.

Avila notes that the people in North Gulfport now understand the proposal is more likely to hurt than help. “We worked with our partners to inform the community about what it would mean.”

She notes that, before Katrina, some environmental groups might have done something about the proposal. “But since Katrina, there’s been more civic engagement around these issues than ever before.”

She notes that Steps is “careful not to be out in front. When the work is done, people will say, ‘we did this ourselves’. If we were to go away tomorrow, people would be able to continue doing what they do.”

A foundation that’s more than bricks and mortar

Oxfam America created the Gulf Coast Equitable Recovery Program in 2006, with the goal of promoting equity in Mississippi and Louisiana during rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Of the 23 partners, 22 organizations still existed in 2014. Five of them are partners in Oxfam’s current program in the Gulf Coast, aiming to ensure that the BP oil spill fines go toward local workforce development and coastal restoration.

Partner organizations:

  • Back Bay Mission, Biloxi, MS
  • Bayou Grace, Chauvin, LA
  • BISCO, Thibodaux, LA
  • Coastal Women for Change, Biloxi, MS
  • El Pueblo, Biloxi, MS
  • Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, Gulfport, MS
  • Hope Community Development Agency, Biloxi, MS
  • Louisiana Housing Alliance, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI), New Orleans, LA
  • Mary Queen of Vietnam, New Orleans, LA
  • Mississippi Immigrant Rights, Jackson and Biloxi, MS
  • Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP / One Voice, Jackson, MS
  • Moore Community House, Biloxi, MS
  • New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), New Orleans, LA
  • North Gulfport Community Land Trust, Gulfport, MS
  • Pro Bono Project, New Orleans, LA
  • Puentes, New Orleans, LA
  • Restaurant Opportunities Center - New Orleans (ROC-NO), New Orleans, LA
  • Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia, LA
  • Steps Coalition, Biloxi, MS
  • Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC), Houma, LA
  • Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, Gulfport, MS
  • Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, Braithwaite, LA

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