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Helping Heal a Hurricane’s Scars: Cal Students Still Keeping Their Pledge to New Orleans

August 10, 2015
by Glen Martin

Today, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, the scars are still tender; they linger on the New Orleans cityscape and in the hearts and minds of residents. There are several reasons why the Gulf Coast hasn’t healed, but the short attention span of human beings is the main one.

After Katrina, the money and volunteers poured in. Many activists stayed for months, even a couple of years, rehabbing houses, setting up food banks, cultivating community gardens. But time tends to attenuate passions. That’s completely understandable. Personal issues may intrude. New catastrophes occur. Since Katrina—to name just the most memorable hellish disasters—there have been the Indonesian tsunami, the Fukushima quake and tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Yolanda in the Philippines, the Napalese quake. And not to shortchange the human impulse for bloodshed, there’s the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and the war in eastern Ukraine.

In any event, organizations and ad hoc groups—many from American universities—have been drifting away from New Orleans, either because new calamities beckon or because volunteers burn out.  And to the casual observer, perhaps, that may seem appropriate. The French Quarter is as chock full o’ tourists as ever. The Saints won a Superbowl. Reconstruction is ongoing. To the recreational visitor or to the businessperson looking down at the city on the approach to Louis Armstrong International Airport, New Orleans kinda sorta seems OK.

But much of the city is still underwater, figuratively if not literally. Both immediate and long-term needs remain. And the Cal-based Magnolia Project is one of the few organizations committed to ongoing succor.

Operating out of the UC Berkeley Public Service Center, the project is now in its tenth year, with every indication it’s set to steam on for another decade. Its mission is easy to express, if sometimes difficult to implement: Provide ongoing help for the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast. Since its inception, 633 UC Berkeley student participants, 76 student leaders, 63 summer interns, and 494 “immersion trip” volunteers have gone through the program, dedicating a total of 74,292 service hours valued at $1,714,000. More than a hundred Magnolia alumni remained engaged in Gulf Coast restoration.

“Cal has been an exception,” says Mike Bishop, the staff adviser for the project. “No other university-based programs have been working in New Orleans continuously since 2005. We’ve been able to maintain a 10-year commitment to the Gulf Coast with minimal funding from the university, due mainly to the passion of individual students.”

Bishop observes that initial trips to New Orleans in 2006 and 2007 made it clear to students and university staffers alike that “It would take years for New Orleans to recover, and that a long-term commitment was needed. We also institutionalized some of that work here, on campus. Cal’s history of activism, I think, helped facilitate that deep, long-term commitment.”

Different students come away with different impressions from their service through the Magnolia Project, although many seem to share some similar conclusions: Effective disaster relief can be a matter of decades, and good intentions don’t necessarily yield expected results.

“When I first volunteered, I thought I’d only go down one time,” said Geoffrey Mitchell, a 2011 Cal grad who made three Magnolia service trips to New Orleans. “But I rapidly realized that nothing was going to be fixed right away, that it was going to take a very long time to rebuild.”

Further, says Mitchell, he’s discouraged that the people who most need help—specifically those of the ravaged Lower 9th Ward—have benefited the least from aid efforts. A recreation center established in the Lower 9th has fallen into foreclosure. The rehabilitation of the ward’s damaged houses has somehow transmuted into gentrification.

“Prior to Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward was largely African-American and poor,” says Mitchell, “but a lot of the people who had to move out haven’t moved back in because they can no longer afford it. The remodeled homes are being snapped up by wealthier, mostly white people. I know of people now living in Baton Rouge who were renting their homes in the pre-Katrina Lower 9th for $400 a month. Now, rents have tripled. They can’t afford New Orleans anymore.”

Even efforts to provide housing specifically for low-income residents displaced by the storm haven’t panned out as planned. “There is a massive gentrification trend going on in New Orleans,” says Mitchell. “It is making the city less diverse, and it’s assuring that tens of thousands of people who lived there will never be able to return.”

Gahiji Barrow, a Magnolia intern supervisor and the program coordinator for the ex-convicts rights group Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), says the true disaster of New Orleans wasn’t Katrina, “but the lack of response following the storm. It’s about how the black community was put in state of emergency that could’ve been avoided, and it’s about how they were removed from the city and are unable to return.”

Barrow agrees with Mitchell about the downsides of New Orleans gentrification, and says that many of the non-governmental organizations and aid groups that came to the city post-Katrina are enabling the process.

“(These groups) are not directly seeking to profit, but individuals within them are profiting in terms of high salaries and influence,” Barrow says. “They aren’t necessarily serving disenfranchised communities. We need to be sure of motive. A homeless shelter doesn’t necessarily want to end homelessness—the program can become more important than what the program is trying to do. (In New Orleans), local people have been largely excluded from NGO employment and decision making. I value these programs, but we have to be careful when we move into other people’s communities. We need to be careful how we do it, how we use intern labor, and we should try to fill positions with local folks who need the work rather than always bringing in outside people.”

Despite such institutional impediments, the Magnolia Project has had a positive impact in New Orleans: Houses have been rebuilt and people have been fed and clothed. But perhaps the most dramatic change isn’t manifest in the still-blighted neighborhoods of the Lower 9th Ward; instead it’s occurred within the Magnolia volunteers.

“One of the best things to come out of Magnolia is that it took a lot of people from affluent backgrounds and really exposed them to a different side of America,” says Mitchell. “Many of them were shocked. They had no clue—and now, at least, they do.”

Alice Chamberlain, a Magnolia Project co-founder, said her involvement grounded her with a big picture view of the nation’s social and economic disparities, and the elements of good disaster response.

“Magnolia changed my life,” says Chamberlain. “I saw that it wasn’t just about the scale of the devastation—it was about the unevenness of the devastation, and the unevenness of the response. And it raised the question: How could a city exist so many years in such an unequal way, where some neighborhoods—affluent neighborhoods—were well-protected, and others, the poor and black neighborhoods, were completely flattened, then left on their own? By the second year, we (Magnolia participants) found the need for hard physical work decreasing, and capacity building—responding to our (local) partners’ needs on things such as food banks and daycare centers—increasing. That involves a completely different perspective and a much longer time scale than simply gutting houses.”

Chika Kondo, who made trips to New Orleans as both a Magnolia volunteer and group leader, intimates her experiences taught her the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.

“Lil Wayne and Mountain Dew came out with these ambitious plans to build a skate park, but nothing much came of it,” she says. “One thing I learned was how money funnels around. Only about 10 percent of the money that went to the Lower 9th Ward ended up benefiting the people on the ground. Most of it went to administrative costs. That was discouraging.”

On the other hand, she continues, she worked with the late Ward “Mack” McClendon, a charismatic community activist who founded the Lower 9th Ward Village, a resource center widely praised for addressing the needs of disenfranchised city residents.

“A friend and I moved to the Lower 9th in the summer of 2013, right after I graduated,” says Kondo. “I worked full-time for Mack on food access issues, connecting with local farmers to provide fresh veggies, and I also helped him with a video project documenting people who had returned since Katrina. In between that, I worked at Whole Foods to make ends meet. He was an incredible man, and he changed things for the better. He taught me a lot. He showed how it should be done.”

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this story included a quote containing information that could not be substantiated about housing built by the nonprofit Make It Right.

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