Episcopal News Service: Clergy tour learns about environmental impact of post-Katrina flooding

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By ENS staff

[Episcopal News Service] When the storm winds of Hurricane Katrina subsided two years ago, a national nightmare unfolded on television screens and other media outlets throughout the nation and around the world. More than 1,800 people lost their lives as a result of the storm and flooding and the city of New Orleans suffered multiple disasters, among them one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history.

Two years later, the Rev. Patrick Keen, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in New Orleans, said, "If it had not been for the Church, we would be in even worse shape than we are now." He was addressing 50 volunteers from 14 Christian churches taking part in Ecumenical Work Week August 19-25 sponsored by the National Council of Churches (NCC) USA's Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

In addition to the work of volunteers who helped to repair and rebuild six houses, visiting clergy spent two days learning about the environmental impact of the post-Katrina flooding.

John Johnson, domestic policy analyst in the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations; Nell Bolton, minister for Social Renewal at Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans; and Dr. Charlotte Shepard from the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona joined the Clergy Listening Tour, which was sponsored by the NCC Eco-Justice Working Group.

The two-day trip included a tour of Chalmette, Louisiana, a community that sits next to Murphy Oil Corporation facilities that released more than 25,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding community as the flood waters rose up around the refineries. The delegation met with local organizers in Chalmette who are part of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization committed to reducing pollution and protecting public health. The organization takes regular soil and air samples with testing kits approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The delegation also toured New Orleans' upper ninth Ward and spent time with community members sponsored by Desire Street Ministries to hear first hand about recovery and rebuilding efforts.

"The city has not yet recovered. It has started and there is much hope in the community, but there is a tremendous amount of work left to be done," said Johnson, who was making his third post-Katrina trip to New Orleans. "The city still faces enormous challenges, but the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana continues to be a strong leader in facing those challenges and is doing great work, but more help is definitely needed."

Compared with his previous visits to New Orleans, Johnson said the most obvious changes were the return of vegetation and that almost all of the refuse and debris has been cleared from the streets.

"As you tour some of the most devastated communities like the upper and lower ninth wards and the Chalmette community in Brevard Parish you are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the destruction and you can't help but marvel at the clear determination by those few but growing numbers of people who are committed to returning to their homes," he said. "Neighborhoods are filled with hundreds of gutted homes or homes that have been raised altogether and yet in the middle of that ghost town of a neighborhood, one or two families are rebuilding."

Bolton said the devastation wrought by Katrina need not have happened. "Had there been proper investment in preserving the wetlands and in the design and maintenance of the federal levee system, the city would have suffered minimal damage," she said. "And, these preventative measures would have cost only a fraction of the relief and recovery effort. It is my hope and prayer that we as a nation take to heart the many lessons of Katrina, particularly the importance of preserving the environment in which we live, work, produce and thrive."

Need for volunteers
Participants in the NCC's Ecumenical Work Week helped to repair and rebuild six houses in New Orleans and Biloxi, Misissippi. The week was intended to highlight the ongoing need for volunteers and the work done by church volunteers and organizations in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

In a survey conducted by the Special Commission of the NCC's 35 member communions it was estimated those churches sent more than 120,000 volunteers who donated 3.6 million hours in helping Katrina victims put their lives back together. Those churches have provided an estimated $250 million in financial aid to local churches and relief agencies.

"The task ahead is still a mammoth one. We need people to stay with us," said Bishop Thomas Hoyt, co-chair of the Special Commission and past president of the NCC. "More volunteers are needed to help people struggling all along the Gulf Coast."

"We didn't come here to get noticed," said the Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, NCC's associate general secretary for justice and advocacy. "We came here to give notice that we will be here until the work is done."

Workers heard from representatives of two dozen different organizations. The message from each was to keep sending volunteers. They warned of a pending housing crisis if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) begins to evict residents of FEMA-supplied trailers. The temporary housing was designed for only 18 months to 2 years.

The ecumenical work week was organized for the Special Commission by its Gulf Coast consultant Tronn Moller and the Rev. Leslie Tune, NCC's associate director for justice and advocacy. Work projects were coordinated through the United Church of Christ disaster relief, Episcopal Disaster Relief and Disciples of Christ Disaster Relief in New Orleans. In Mississippi, the work was coordinated with Episcopal Disaster Relief.

"It was not a sacrifice for us to be there. It was an immense honor and privilege to be the hands and feet of God and to help people rebuild," said Tune. "It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life that people allowed us in their homes and trusted us to help them get things back in order."

-- With files from the National Council of Churches. 

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