Rebuilding in the Big Easy doesn't have to be so hard

Ed Feulner

8/31/2006 3:08:15 PM - Ed Feulner

Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was correct -- you can't go home again. Certainly that's what many former Louisiana residents are saying one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and nearby communities.

Fewer than half of the 450,000 people who lived in the Crescent City last August have returned. One reason is that the governments that are supposed to help these people have instead failed them.

Not because of a lack of spending. If simply throwing cash around could accomplish anything, New Orleans would be repopulated already. The federal government has dedicated $7.5 billion simply to help rebuild and repair hurricane-damaged homes.

But the program, called "Road Home," is taking the scenic route. So far, the Associated Press reports, it's helped only 42 -- that's right, 42 -- homeowners. Gov. Kathleen Blanco admits that progress is slow. "We are moving in government speed," she told reporters last week.

But let's compare the government's response with that of faith-based organizations. While elected "leaders" dither, religious leaders are building homes and lives.

First Presbyterian Church of Iowa City sent 19 members to New Orleans this summer to rebuild a family's home. "It's a blessing, really a blessing," said recipient Alicia Boswell.

Dulin United Methodist of Falls Church, Va., sent a team to Mississippi to rebuild a home. It also adopted a family that fled New Orleans, helping them furnish an apartment and giving them a car.

A team from Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn., traveled to Bay St. Louis, Miss., to help a family rebuild. They hung dry wall, painted and installed plumbing. "Meeting this family humanized the loss and helped us feel like we could make a difference," Pastor Bob Guffey said.

Parishioners at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., adopted two families that had lost virtually everything in Lacombe, La. Church members helped the families rebuild their homes, and they purchased new furniture and household items to replace those Katrina destroyed.

These are all small steps, of course. But that's why they're successful. Instead of burning through billions of bucks to help everyone simultaneously (the Washington approach) these churches do what they can -- and make a difference. "You help one person at a time," volunteer Don Garland says. And it adds up. "The only way you can [do disaster relief] is by making life better for one person, then another person, then another. Anything else is good intentions."

John Daugherty understands this. He coordinates Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana's relief efforts. The group has rebuilt dozens of houses. "It seems like a drop in the bucket, but with these 50 homes, we've made a significant difference," he says.

Not all faith-based efforts were small in scope. Catholic Charities USA took in $16 million and helped 200,000 people. The United Methodist Committee on Relief collected $62 million last year alone. But these big charities worked through local coordinators and groups to ensure their money funded real progress.

Again, compare that with the federal approach. Remember the FEMA trailers? There are 9,855 mobile homes parked near an airport in Hope, Ark. The federal government spent more than $30,000 per trailer, and they've sat empty for a year while Katrina evacuees spread out around the country. Adding insult to injury, Washington has since spent an additional $4.3 million just to keep them from sinking into the ground.

"American taxpayers are spending $250,000 per month to maintain these empty mobile homes, and it is time we do what is right and put them to use," Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said recently. Maybe he doesn't realize FEMA is "moving in government speed."

As is often the case, Washington's talking heads have missed the point. The lesson of Katrina isn't that we need more federal involvement in our lives. It's that faith and civil society works -- and big, centralized government programs don't.