Thursday, March 02, 2006


The long wait for FEMA continues. Way back in September, our state – along with about 20 others – applied for and successfully received monies from FEMA to develop an Immediate Services Program (ISP) to provide crisis counseling for Katrina evacuees. SAMHSA – which reviews grants and makes recommendations on grants to FEMA – approved our ISP in a jiff, as they did with all the other states who applied. The thing is however, ISP’s are only awarded funds designed to provide services for 60 days. Our ISP has now lasted 6 months. In other words, we don’t have any money left.

About 2 weeks ago, FEMA did announce the award of Regular Service Program (RSP) grants to 6 states - Mississippi, Arkansas, Indiana, Utah, New Jersey, and Maryland. The RSP provides enough funds to provide crisis counseling for up to 9 months. Our state, and remarkably - some states like Texas that have been inundated with evacuees – haven’t heard back from the feds yet. We have come very close now to shutting down the state program unless we get the federal funds soon.

So we are holding our breaths for the magical email announcing the award for our RSP. It couldn’t come at a better time. Fat Tuesday came and went. In the words of one evacuee, the response of our government has been like “a kick to the balls.” Some of the evacuees made it out before the flood. They had houses and cars and jobs they left behind. Now they are in limbo. Its been 6 months and because there is yet a comprehensive plan for New Orleans’ future, people don’t know if their neighborhoods will be rebuilt or turned into some sparkling, artificial version of what New Orleans should be in the minds of commercial developers. They’ve been blowing in the wind for half a year now and still don’t know if they should wait to go back or stay here and start new careers.

Then there are those people who stayed and watched the city die. Not because they wanted to but because they didn’t have homes or cars anyway to get out. These people have been forced to start new lives here since they can’t leave. But just getting the basics is still problematic. In my city, there aren’t a whole lot of jobs available in the first place, and those that are available are usually low-paying second and third shift service jobs. But guess what – the local public bus system here only runs until the early evening. Good luck getting a night job unless you can pay taxi fare every night. And of this latter group, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the majority are suffering from some form of PTSD. There are some common themes: The sound of helicopters, wading through flood waters covered with a slick sheen of oil and gas and dead animals that were once house pets, and last but not least, the experience of what people call “the bridge.”

The other challenge is sustaining the charity 6 months after the flood. Back in September, the churches here mobilized. Some of them really stepped up and offered great things to evacuee families: used cars, rental assistance, furniture – the works. I have nothing but respect for these churches. Then there were those minority of churches that provided evacuees a plastic bag containing toilet paper, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a “Good luck…go with God my son” (and don’t come back) blessing.

Equally saddening is the occurrence of what can be referred as “mistaken charity expectation syndrome.” This is when a church stepped up back in September, eager to offer all sorts of aid to an evacuee, and then found out later that the evacuee they agreed to adopt isn’t a sparkling example of human-kind but actually has some adjustment and coping problems. Gosh what a surprise that some evacuees are falling back on alcohol to self-medicate after living through the destruction of a city. But instead of working with an evacuee to get him or her help, they cut them off completely because their religious sensibilities are offended by alcohol use and the evacuees don’t measure up to the perfect little golden charity case.

We are now currently working to develop a training so faith and community groups here know that if they are going to offer help to evacuees, they should realize that everything isn’t going to be a rosy, perfect scene out of the movies. I have hopes for this training, but am not optimistic that it will make a huge difference. Don’t get me wrong – a number of churches here have done a very good job and they should be applauded, but the failures have been horrendous. We are also trying to reinvigorate the community response. Municipal elections are coming up in New Orleans shortly. I’ll be happy if we can get some churches here to make renewed commitments to some pretty simple and inexpensive yet important things: sponsoring subscriptions to the Times-Picayune for relocated evacuees so they can learn about what’s going on down in the gulf, providing reading services and literacy classes for those that can’t read, and better yet, organizing to help displaced evacuees obtain and receive absentee ballots for the upcoming election.

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