September 11, 2005
Dear Friends, Supporters, Donors, Funders,
It was September 11th. The Southern Mutual Help Association Rural Recovery Task Force (RRTF) visited by helicopter the most rural devastated areas. The purpose of the grueling 12 hour tour was to see and hear first hand from the people and to make assessments for the staging areas for recovery and re-development.
The scope of what we saw in rural Louisiana seems beyond what the human mind and heart can contain. From the air, it’s thousands and thousands of square miles of utter desolation – roof tops poking out of black, oily water, entire rural medical centers gutted, houses and boats in the middle of what used to be roads, large petroleum tank farms emptied of their contents into areas where children used to play.
Joining me on the helicopter ride was State Representative Sydnie Mae Durand (and SMHA board member), Wilma Subra, a McArthur Fellow and world class environmentalist, Sister Helen Vinton, SMHA’s Director of Life Quality. Throughout the day we landed in little villages and towns in lower Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes. St. Bernard Parish and the lower third of Plaquemines had to be toured by air as the level of water and toxic contaminations were too forbidding. Landing in Jean Lafitte – and almost everywhere we landed – we were met by armed National Guards. In this little town of about 3000 we were struck by the courage of Mayor Tim and a cadre of townspeople who had put in place an enormous organization, handing out food, water, and dispatching of volunteers. All talked about how they were in desperate need of cleaning supplies, Clorox, and gloves. With roofs blown off, water damage presented a health concern with the growth of mold. They were desperate to save their homes and stay in their community and requested 1,000 tarps to put over the holes in the roofs. SMHA’s partner, Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), mobilized to send needed supplies. State Representative Durand was able to dispatch a cattle truck with supplies to address Lafitte’s most pressing concerns – though tarps remain an item in demand.
As each day passes SMHA becomes more concerned about the short and long term environmental and health impacts. SMHA’s Rural Recovery Task Force is fortunate to have Oxfam America as a long term partner. We have asked the team to provide a follow-up assessment of the environmental and health impact and their report will be posted and distributed on 9/20.
Our helicopter tour showed our Rural Recovery Task Force the lack of response by federal and national agencies into the rural areas. From air reconnaissance and on-the-ground conversations with community leaders, our tour provided us with three to five identified staging areas where we can work in partnership with the local communities. This aerial reconnaissance has provided the necessary assessment to move to the next stage to address the growing health and environmental concerns facing the families and communities in this region and to prevent what could be a second disaster from happening if not addressed.