The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Orleans Activists Fill Aid Gaps Left by FEMA, Red Cross

by Jessica Azulay

Rather than wait for help from giant institutions preoccupied elsewhere, and instead of building a legacy of dependence, local groups have sprung up to recover poor and working-class neighborhoods through collective organizing.

New Orleans; Oct. 24, 2005 – At any given time, about 30 volunteers with the grassroots relief organization Common Ground Collective work from early morning until late at night in a small corner of the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. They unload trucks, patch people’s homes, staff an on-site distribution center, and drive supplies out to surrounding regions.

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Throughout the day, people from the neighborhood drop by to pick up supplies. Stacks of canned food, bottled water, toiletries, bleach, diapers, baby food and other necessities are stored in what volunteers have dubbed "the tunnel," a long outdoor corridor roofed by tarps.

"Over 100 people a day [are] coming in here, and each of those 100 people were serving on average between two and five people," said Isabelle Troadec, who came from Maine to volunteer with Common Ground, which was founded in the days following Katrina’s blow to the Gulf Coast by prominent black activist Malik Rahim and a few friends.

Toadec arrived about four weeks ago and now heads up distribution for the collective. "We are feeding a lot of people," she said.

the tunnel

[PHOTO: "The tunnel" at Common Ground Collective in Algiers. © The NewStandard 2005]

Though most Americans might be surprised that such grassroots level relief is still necessary a full two months after Katrina flooded New Orleans, the gaps left by federally funded programs and large charities are evident in the still-devastated Crescent City. People live in houses with holes in the roofs. Families struggle to find enough food, water and ice to get them through the day. And neighborhoods sit largely empty waiting for their residents to find the resources to return.

They work with few monetary resources and volunteer labor in an effort to reach those underserved by powerful relief agencies.

In the face of the inadequate official response, small groups like Common Ground are struggling to pick up the slack. They work with few monetary resources and volunteer labor in an effort to reach those underserved by powerful relief agencies. They combine their humanitarian efforts with an alternative vision of rebuilding that seeks to empower and restore dignity to the people of this struggling city.

"These folks have been given handouts, been pushed into places they never wanted to be… [had] to beg for stuff, been denied things they needed – all that for a long time. Over a month [at least], and potentially [over] their whole lives," Troadec said. "So people here need to just recognize what it means to be here giving things out to people."

Almost daily, trucks leave the makeshift relief center for poor communities in neighboring Terrebonne and Plaquemine Parishes, as well as closer neighborhoods in New Orleans. Common Ground volunteers, who run an organization younger than the crisis itself, say they have often been the first relief organization to arrive in the places they serve.

“This is just neighbors helping neighbors; that’s all I can tell you.” -- Mama D.

The volunteers – most from out of town – sleep in tents outside Rahim’s house, cook in an outdoor kitchen and organize themselves through daily meetings. While some stay on-site to help with local distribution and others drive trucks out to needy areas, still more volunteers help tarp people’s roofs and clean homes damaged by wind, rain and flooding. The group has also set up a computer center in the garage where area residents can register online with FEMA.

volunteers unload truck

[PHOTO: Common Ground volunteers unload a truck of donated supplies. © The NewStandard 2005]

In addition to its distribution and aid projects, Common Ground opened a health clinic in the neighborhood a couple of weeks after Katrina hit. Staffed by another few dozen volunteers from all over the country and housed temporarily in a mosque, the clinic provides free primary care to anyone who comes through its doors. Volunteer healthcare professionals administer vaccines, check blood pressure, treat diabetes, fill prescriptions from an in-house pharmacy and provide other basic health care.

The clinic is staffed by doctors, nurses, pharmacists and first aid activists who use donated supplies, and they report seeing well over 100 patients on a typical day. They also send mobile clinics into outlying neighborhoods.

Volunteer Aislyn Colgan said she thinks the establishment of the clinic is proof that people can come together to meet needs without the government’s involvement. "To think that just a bunch of volunteers with donations were able to provide this tremendous support when multiple government agencies could not do it," she said, "[is] just really beautiful."

As their neighbors return, volunteers help clean out flood-damaged houses, providing protective gear and supplies to tackle mold.

The health clinic also tries to help people deal with the emotional repercussions of the storm and its aftermath.

"Every single person, no matter whether it’s a blood pressure check or a tetanus shot or whatever, they’re here for [emotional] trauma," said an RN who helps coordinate the clinic. "It’s deep and it’s unrelenting and there’s a lot of loss, and the grief issues are huge… and so the medicine is just a vehicle to be able to deal and to provide an ear, just to listen to people’s stories and to maybe give them a little bit of a chance to grieve."

Across the river, in the Treme neighborhood, another grassroots initiative sprung up while the floodwaters were still rising. A group of residents there worked tirelessly during the storm to rescue their neighbors from the water when they were all but abandoned by various government-sanctioned responders. Dubbed the "Soul Patrol," the group of mostly young black men is believed by locals to have helped save and evacuate hundreds of people.

A prominent community leader, Diane Frenchcoat, known around New Orleans as "Mama D," has since helped organize the Soul Patrol and several out-of-town volunteers into a cleaning force that is working to make the neighborhood as inviting as possible to returning residents. They have cleared debris from the streets and sidewalks, cleaned off neighbors’ porches, and done as much as they can to make their immediate area livable, even though power and running water have yet to be restored.

Then, as their neighbors return, volunteers help them clean out flood-damaged houses, providing them with protective gear and supplies to tackle the mold that grows like runaway moss in homes once submerged in putrid floodwaters. The volunteers also try to give moral support to residents as they struggle with the loss of loved ones and possessions.

In an interview at her home, which still has no electricity, yet is constantly abuzz with activity, Mama D expressed the importance of having neighborhood support structure in place as those scattered by Katrina and the government return home. She said people are dealing with so much grief and loss that she wants to make sure they are accompanied through the process by their community.

"This is just neighbors helping neighbors; that’s all I can tell you," she said.

Like most of her counterparts involved in other grassroots relief efforts, Mama D said what the community most needs are skilled volunteers to help with the rebuilding process and donations of cleaning and building materials.

But she also wants people from New Orleans to come home and take part in the rebuilding. She said she plans to ask donors to pay stipends to some of the returning residents so they can be compensated for helping to clean up and rebuild the neighborhood.

Mama D’s vision of local empowerment and grassroots jobs is shared by the activists at Common Ground, who plan to start worker cooperatives that employ local residents, land trusts and affordable housing, training programs and free education. And they plan to make their health clinic permanent.

In the short term, Common Ground is organizing buses of volunteers from all over the country to be joined by evacuees who want to return to New Orleans. They describe the Roadtrip for Relief as "a nation-wide caravan of activists, allies and returning evacuees, converging in New Orleans for the immense rebuilding project." It is scheduled for November 20-27.

"Right now we are in the phase of spreading hope, and when there is hope, anything can happen," said Suncere Ali Shakur, a seasoned activist from Washington, DC who moved to New Orleans to work with Common Ground. "I think that’s the first step in being able to have people get their feet up under themselves, and by providing that hope it provides a vehicle for people to express themselves politically."

Shakur continued, "If we can act now, we can save people who are living in misery and we can save lives, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually."

Editors’ note: The Common Ground Collective provided reporter Jessica Azulay with meals and internet access during the gathering of this story.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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