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Ideas

Doing disaster right

How do you recover from a hurricane? Ask survivors of Katrina.

By Stephanie Grace

Photos by Susan Poag

In an industrial park outside New Orleans one day in September, a tantalizing feast for about 20,000 was quickly coming together. Chefs from some of the city’s famed restaurants, assembled at a community kitchen, deconstructed hams and loosely followed recipes for gumbo and white beans with shrimp. Volunteers spooned rice and grits into large plastic bags to be sealed and flash frozen. 

Along with the menu, the topic on everyone’s mind that day was the weather — not the typically suffocating Louisiana heat outside, but the catastrophic conditions nearly 1,000 miles away in the Carolinas, where Hurricane Florence was dumping rain, raising rivers, and imperiling communities.

The tropical season had been thankfully quiet around storm-prone and perennially anxious Louisiana, but the locals know how quickly these things can change, and how one brush with Mother Nature can change everything. That’s why Amy Cyrex Sins, the chipper blonde at the center of the frenetic action, had summoned these amateur and professional cooks for what one of them called a culinary flash mob.

It was a show of solidarity, yes — “pay it forward,” “strength in numbers,” choose your feel-good platitude. But another cliché that works is “why re-invent the wheel?” Muscle memory, earned in the crucible of Hurricane Katrina, kicked in all over the region as Florence churned across the Atlantic, as it has many times since people here survived, recovered, and rebuilt from the New Orleans area’s near-death experience in 2005. Disaster relief has become a Louisiana export, from groups of volunteers who share not just their empathy, but their understanding of what actually works.

Indeed, as Hurricane Florence bore down in September — and then Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in October — helpful tips from Louisiana started popping up on social media. A news reporter who’d covered Katrina cautioned anyone in the zone to put ice cream in zipped bags, to avert a mess in the event of a long power outage (or just eat it, more than one commenter suggested). A law professor with a social justice bent posted advice for survivors: Housing is scarce and rents skyrocket after major disasters, so lobby for freezes on rent and a moratorium on evictions; because contractor fraud is rampant, don’t pay anyone in advance; amplify the voices of those who are often unheard, including nursing home residents, the disabled, immigrants, and prisoners.

Lobby for freezes on rent and a moratorium on evictions.  Don’t pay contractors in advance. And put ice cream in zipped bags, in case of a power outage.

Just about everyone around is an expert to some extent, and some organizations have developed real, exportable expertise. A group that started its life as the hyper-local St. Bernard Project, a volunteer effort to get people from a badly damaged community outside New Orleans back into their homes, has now morphed into SBP, a non-profit that works around the country to shrink the time between disaster and recovery. SBP has assembled detailed guides on navigating the FEMA, SBA, and insurance bureaucracies, remediating mold, and avoiding contractor fraud. When Florence approached, it quickly deployed several teams to the area.

GNO, Inc., a non-profit economic development alliance, has its own detailed “disaster recovery tool kit,” which covers how to activate a confusing web of government aid programs and create a narrative that doesn’t diminish the need for help, but also stresses that the affected area is open for business. The organization’s executive vice president, Robin Barnes, is a veteran of recovery efforts from 9/11, Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy. After Maria, she traveled to Puerto Rico, which has some particular similarities with New Orleans. 

“We have so many things we share,” Barnes says, including high levels of poverty and infrastructure that was already crumbling before the storm. One message she brought was that there can be opportunity in tragedy, that a recovery can create jobs and attract back badly needed tourists. “The thing that people don’t get is how to plan for the future in the midst of a crisis,” she says.

Joining Barnes on the trip was Andy Kopplin, who headed the state-level Louisiana Recovery Authority and now leads the non-profit Greater New Orleans Foundation. In Puerto Rico, he told fellow philanthropy leaders that they can shake loose government money by setting up pilot programs and policy initiatives, having well-designed redevelopment plans, and convincing decision-makers in Washington — Congress, primarily — that they’ll help local leaders spend the money wisely.

That was an issue after Katrina, when Louisiana’s power in Congress was at a low point and tensions rans high between the Democratic governor and Republican White House and Congress. The state eventually won billions in aid, but Kopplin said that only happened after the politicians put aside their rivalries and presented a united front.

For Louisianans, presenting a united front in these situations has become second nature when a storm hits, both at the official level and in impromptu, grassroots groups. Before Hurricane Katrina struck 13 years ago, Sins was working in sales and living in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood, not far from one of the drainage canals that had been built to funnel water out of the low-lying city. After a shoddily-constructed flood wall disintegrated during the storm, the water poured instead into the low-lying city and filled Sins’ home. The 18-month-displacement that followed was a life-altering, soul-searching event, one that eventually led Sins to a new path running a cooking school and creating connections with dozens of area chefs.

When floodwaters struck in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008, Sins traveled north to cook. By the time huge swaths of Baton Rouge and vicinity went under during a torrential 2016 rainstorm, she was seasoned enough to organize thousands of meals at a shelter. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey parked itself over Houston, Sins coordinated food delivery through the Cajun Navy, a loose group of boaters who headed west to help in the rescue.

And when word came that Florence was on the move and mass flooding was likely, she sprang into action, booked the kitchen at the Second Harvest Food Bank, found an anonymous donor with a private plane to transport the sealed, frozen food to its eventual destination of New Bern, North Carolina. (She’s planning a similar operation for Hurricane Michael next week.)

Natalie Jayroe, president of Second Harvest, stopped in to watch the Hurricane Florence food prep as she was preparing to fly out to Raleigh a few days later. She too is a a pro at this by now, and she brings an on-the-ground understanding of specific situational needs (think bottled water, non-perishable food, buckets, bleach and diapers). Her assignment for the trip was to lead an assessment of the local groups’ demands and resources, but as a veteran of the chaotic aftermath of a storm, she was ready for anything.

“If they need me to load and drive a truck, I’ll do it,” she said. 

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Stephanie Grace is columnist for the New Orleans Advocate.

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