Dreaming of urban orchards: Two Diocese of Louisiana groups continue Katrina recovery work

August 29, 2010

Five years ago as New Orleanians struggled to survive in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina, few if any of them were thinking about trying to plant an orchard somewhere in the Uptown neighborhood.

This August, a group supported by the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative is working towards just that goal. The orchard will complement the community garden that already exists in the Faubourg Delassize "sub-neighborhood" of what some people call the Uptown and others call Central City.

Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative and Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana are two examples of Episcopal Church-affiliated organizations that have grown and transformed themselves and the people they serve since they began work during the months after Katrina wreaked destruction over the Gulf Coast.

Katrina hit land along the Gulf Coast twice on Aug. 29, 2005, once near Buras, Louisiana, just after 8 a.m. local time with maximum winds estimated at 125 mph, and then near the Louisiana/Mississippi border about three hours later with slightly reduced winds. The storm caused storm-surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet along the Mississippi coast and 10 to 20 feet along the southeastern Louisiana coast. In Mississippi, the surge damage extended several miles inland. The surge overtopped and breached levees in the New Orleans metropolitan area, inundating much of the city and its eastern suburbs.

Katrina was responsible for approximately 1,000 deaths in Louisiana and 200 in Mississippi, according to the National Hurricane Center. Producing an estimated $75 billion in damages, Katrina also was the costliest U.S. hurricane on record.

Both Jericho Road and ECSLA have their roots in helping New Orleanians gut their flood-damaged homes and otherwise reclaim a place to live after Katrina, and both have realized that their missions had to expand.

Nell Bolton, executive director of ECSLA, recently told ENS that the organization has spent the last year transforming itself from the Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Relief out of "a real recognition that as the church we do have a role to play in addressing immediate crises in our midst, as well as longer-term crises around poverty, racism and exclusion."

Brad Powers, Jericho Road's executive director, said the organization's "core idea, which we still have, of creating housing" soon grew to where the staff saw that high-quality, low-cost housing is "one piece of an orchestrated effort that we've come to discuss as community revitalization."

Powers said that Jericho Road has "broadened what we understand make a thriving neighborhood or a thriving community. That's the largest shift or growth for us."

In that respect, Jericho Road has been suggesting to residents that they consider naming the two sub-neighborhoods in which the organization works with what Powers called "smaller, historical" names "in an attempt to help residents bond with each other and brand with the geographic space."

For instance, Jericho Road helped stage a "Pumpkin Walk" in which 10 families who initially didn't know each other opened their homes to 400 people who came out at night to celebrate Halloween. And, in an area that was once the recipient of midnight waste dumping, the residents are discussing whether the proceeds from the lemonade stand ought to go directly into the community garden or into the next event.

"We would never have been able to pick out of thin air that an orchard was something that a bunch of residents would want to have in their neighborhood," Powers said, adding that such ideas are what come of "trying to provide confidence, trying to provide improvements to the built environment, trying to link residents to each other and trying to brand the area a little."

The idea of Jericho Road's orchard is now competing with others across the country in the Communities Take Root competition sponsored from Edy's Fruit Bars and the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, which is providing fresh fruit orchards to dozens of communities across the United States.

ECSLA has helped more than 3,500 New Orleans-area residents to restore their homes, lives and communities, and has hosted more than 12,000 volunteers who came to the area to help in the recovery effort, according to a summary of the organization's work. Some of ECSLA's work has gone on in the same area in which Jericho Road operates.

All of this, Bolton and Powers said, is about "community resilience."

"Home ownership, we hope, will lead to block-face ownership which then can be linked to neighborhood ownership and then, ultimately, to city ownership," Powers said, adding that New Orleanians did not have such an expanded sense of ownership before the storm and its aftermath.

It's work that gets accomplished, Powers said, "one house at a time, and making sure that our residents have the opportunity to be involved with their neighborhood because eyes on the street and knowing our neighbors is the greatest strength, we think, to continue to raise up this neighborhood."

The devastation to people's lives was in some ways incalculable and Bolton said that "clearly people have gone through an extraordinary healing journey, but many others are still on that journey." And, she said, that journey includes emotional recovery as well as material.

There is a "fragility of well-being" among many Katrina survivors, she said, yet there is a "paradoxical reality" that "as a city, diocese and region we are in some ways so much stronger than we were five years ago by virtue of our deepened relationships with one another and our stronger networks."

Bolton said that "neighbors know each other much better now than they did" and "there's a lot stronger civic fabric. In the recovery from Katrina, people had to get very involved in community and neighborhood issues as a matter of survival."

Powers, who calls himself a "pessimistic optimist," agrees that he's seen real transformation in New Orleans.

"The people have changed tremendously," he told ENS. "People used to get angry and then ask if you wanted to go to lunch. I think people now are getting angry and see that there are different groups that they can join to do something about it, and that's revolutionary for New Orleans."

Also revolutionary is the work Jericho Road is doing about reclaiming vacant land and brownfields created by commercial businesses that abandon land that is often polluted.

"We're really looking at some issues that are affecting the nation now and have been very lucky with the funding that we have received to be able to put smart people on this to look at it," Powers said. "The idea of New Orleans becoming a laboratory for different social issues is exciting and we're really excited to the part of that."

And, Powers added, "instead of outside expertise coming here, we've been able to develop some insight into our own issues."

Volunteers have formed the core of workers for both agencies, and ECSLA is beginning its own innovative program based on the still-strong attention the New Orleans area receives from volunteers, especially young adults.

"One of the things that we have been privileged to bear witness to is the way in which the Katrina recovery has been a touchstone for an entire generation of young Americans," she said. "They see this region as a region where their work can have meaning, where they can make a difference and they can make a contribution. And they're staying because they want to have work that has meaning. I think that's something that's really encouraging to us as a nation, that that matters so much to a rising generation."

ECSLA launched the Living on Purpose NOLA Service Corps on Aug. 18. Seven young adults will spend a year serving Episcopal Church-related ministries in the New Orleans area, focusing on service and leadership development as well as community living and personal and spiritual formation. Bolton said ECSLA hopes the program will begin "forming leaders for the church and society to continue to serve throughout their adult lives."

For Bolton, a New Orleans native who was working in Central Africa as a regional advisor for peace, justice and good governance for Catholic Relief Services when Katrina struck, her work has reminded her that "without real intentional focus the most vulnerable will continue to get passed by … and that that is a place that we are called to be as a church."

"There is a place for us in the church to focus on serving the most vulnerable members of our community," she said. "That is something that we saw time and again in the recovery from Katrina, that for the most marginalized members of our communities, recovery doesn't just happen. Programs available to help people with their recovery will pass those folks by. There has to be real intentionality about reaching out to the most vulnerable and making sure that they have access to whatever supports are there to help them in their recovery."

The church has "to be prepared to do that for the long haul" because recovery from disaster is "complex and affects multiple systems in a society and affects people's souls in ways that people have to heal from," she said.

She said she hopes ECSLA can show Louisiana that "we're seeking to equip ourselves as a church to be continually reaching out, forming relationships in our community, so that we might support resilience, support strength and address the short-term crises and the underlying crisis of poverty and racism, and everything that makes people vulnerable when disaster hits."