A half year after unprecedented disaster, where are the citizens of the Gulf Coast—and what do they need?
After the arrival of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast evacuees came to Texas by the busload. Every day for two weeks, I drove hundreds of miles to various shelters, asking what was needed to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and cure the sick. As a regional radio reporter, I’d never worked harder, and I’d never been made so distraught by the story I covered. I spoke to strangers, who’d lost everything, just long enough to get a quick sound bite for my deadline. I frantically searched for friends from New Orleans, including my college roommate and her husband. I welcomed neighbors from the Gulf Coast as they arrived in Dallas.
One neighbor’s displaced mother stopped chemo until she could enroll in a new insurance program. By the time treatment resumed, her cancer had metastasized to her brain. The majority of HIV patients from New Orleans skipped some treatment to keep friends, family, landlords, and employers from knowing their diagnosis. Many patients are now drug resistant or have full-blown AIDS.
More than 50 percent of evacuees are suffering from mental illness, especially depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s two to three times the percentage affected by the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11. And when they are put on hold or lost in voicemail, it exacerbates their already understandable frustration, sometimes leading to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or petty crime.
Public medical and mental health care was already underfunded in Texas, but now the social service providers are more overburdened. While individuals have donated generously, lawmakers have yet to consider comprehensive national health care.
Texas public education was also trailing the rest of the nation, pre-Katrina. Now, even more parents are struggling to get immunization records, buy uniforms, and drive the car pool to help their children make new friends and good grades. But developing a viable system to fund schools adequately has taken a backseat to the political primaries.
The faith community continues to play a critical role—far beyond the work of the Salvation Army. An American Baptist church hosted a baby shower for an expectant mother from New Orleans. An ecumenical group of church organists performed to raise funds for Presbyterian disaster relief. A group of Methodists held a “hurricane shower” to provide linens and kitchenware to a member’s displaced family.
On a larger scale, the mayors of Dallas and New Orleans formed an interfaith, multicultural alliance to help nearly 800 families move as quickly and easily as possible from shelters into homes. And a Presbyterian-run church ministry to the homeless provided evacuees with voicemail, which helped 100 people find jobs.
This calamitous event has forced various entities—nonprofit and for-profit; educational, governmental, and religious—to cooperate in unprecedented ways. They’ve learned from their mistakes—or, to state it more positively, they rose to the challenge of this new experience. The resources to address myriad issues are still scarce. So to maximize available support, there is more communication, less duplication of effort, and greater collaboration than I have ever seen. It is a welcome change from the political infighting that previously occurred over smaller problems.
It is now estimated that tens of thousands of hurricane survivors won’t return home. At a “Bring New Orleans Back” town hall meeting in Dallas, the predominantly African-American speakers said Texas felt cleaner and safer, with more economic and educational opportunity than neighborhoods they’d lived in for generations. Initially, they were disappointed by the federal government. Now they are just as disillusioned by the officials elected from within their local community.
Societies are measured by their strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully ours will reap the seeds of cooperation that have been sown, lifting up the least among us, and listening for the still small voices waiting to be heard.
Catherine Cuellar is a multimedia journalist, producer, and editor. She currently reports for the National Public Radio affiliate KERA in Dallas.