An Oxfam partner tackles hurricane disasters—past, present, and future

By Elizabeth Stevens

Peg Case is trying to get back home. It's not just to find out whether her house still has a roof, though given where it's located, anyone would be a bit worried. Her mind seems full of everything but her own concerns.

Case lives in the town of Houma, in the parish now thought to be hardest hit by Hurricane Gustav. She works there, too, as director of the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC), an Oxfam partner. She usually sits out the storms that blow through her town, but this time she evacuated, and now she sounds worried.

"We're trying to get information from the ground, but it's coming in very slowly. We're hearing about a lot of wind damage. When Rita made landfall it was 180 miles away; this made landfall in Houma, so we got the full brunt."

She describes the vulnerability of the bayou communities. "Picture fingers going out into the Gulf. There are no barrier islands to block the storm surge. We know there's water in there. How high, we don't know."

But worry hasn't interrupted her planning. She's thinking about everything from how to help people get access to their FEMA benefits to how to get tarps onto damaged roofs as quickly—and safely—as possible. ("If I put volunteers out and put them on a roof, I want someone there who knows what they're doing.")

TRAC will carry out its own disaster response program, but Peg Case always seems to be thinking about the big picture, so she and her group have taken a leading role in coordinating the 30-40 local aid organizations in the area. At times of disaster, TRAC helps them stay abreast of each other's plans and whereabouts.

"Coordination is important because no one can do it alone," she says. "And it's very economical, because it means we're not stumbling on each other."

She keeps her eye on the future, as well, trying to work out long-term solutions to the problems of living in vulnerable coastal areas. It was in 2005 that TRAC, Oxfam America, and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began to collaborate on an idea for a house built on pilings that could withstand hurricane-force wind, rains, and battering—and that bayou dwellers would find appealing and livable. Three of the so-called "lift houses" have since been built, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, she can't wait to visit one.

"I am dying to see how it weathered the storm," she says. "I'm sure it did fine," she adds. "And if it did do fine, it means let's look at building communities this way." It's not just disaster readiness that she has in mind. Case sees durable houses like these as a means of preserving a culture that makes it living off the land.

But for now, the problem in front of her is getting home to Houma and figuring out what's going on.

"We're about to see what's missing, what the weaknesses are, how we can build on that, and how we can function as a unified body. It's reassuring that we're partners in this together."

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