- (Photo: AP Images for Rebuilding Together / Cheryl Gerber)
Five years after Hurricanes Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, survivors and those working on their behalf say work is far from finished.
But they are also emphatic that what progress has been made is in great part due to the support, funding and labor of the U.S. faith community and of humanitarian agencies, reports one such organization – Church World Service.
"If it weren't for the volunteers and agencies who assisted me, I don't know where I would be," said Gloria Mouton, 62, whose home in New Orleans East was among those repaired by volunteers from across the U.S. during the 2009 CWS Neighborhood New Orleans ecumenical project.
While saying that the city "is nowhere where it should be five years later," with many areas still dotted by empty or overgrown lots, Mouton praised the efforts that allowed her to return to her home after two years of living in Georgia with family as she waited to return to New Orleans.
"This is home, where I want to be," the retired government employee said, adding that the work of volunteers "came out real nice."
In restoring Mouton's and other homes, CWS worked in partnership with the local New Orleans long-term recovery organization the Crescent Alliance Recovery Effort, and with volunteer teams coordinated by ten of CWS U.S. member denominations providing the labor.
Founded in 1946, Church World Service is a cooperative ministry of 36 Christian denominations and communions.
"I never realized there were that many people such big hearts," Mouton told the ecumenical agency.
Another survivor, Christopher Weaver, 48, agreed, and praised the efforts that allowed him to return to his home in New Orleans East.
"There are people who showed me a new way of life," the self-employed cook said of the work of volunteers and CWS-supported agencies that repaired his residence. "It was powerful to see these things happening."
From individual churches who opened their doors to shelter survivors to faith-based humanitarian agencies and regional long-term recovery organizations, the faith response saved lives, say those who have worked tirelessly in the five years since Katrina and Rita hit the region.
"Absolutely," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana-based state director for Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response. "It saved families. If it hadn't have been for that response, I don't know what would have happened."
And Ellenor Simmons, who helps oversee long-term recovery projects for the United Way of the Greater New Orleans Area, said the faith community was “remarkable.”
“Absolutely remarkable in every way they could be," she added.
Despite the praises, there is still much hurricane recovery work that needs to be done and still people in the region living in temporary housing.
And while there is still a sense of remarkable rebuilding overall, life is not what it was.
"There is a 'new normal,'" Simmons told CWS.
"Five years later, long-term recovery groups continue to assist people with unmet needs," added Simmons' United Way colleague, Benita Corley.
Still, many in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have expressed gratitude for the combined efforts of local, regional and national organizations.
"If it was not for the collaboration of those local, regional and national long-term recovery organizations, many individuals would not be living in safe, sanitary and secure housing,” Corley noted.
On Sunday – five years after Katrina hit New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward to Biloxi, Miss. – a number of special ceremonies were planned in honor of the dead and to focus on rebuilding and moving on. In New Orleans, the bells will toll at St. Louis Cathedral. Meanwhile, in the Lower 9th Ward, a "healing ceremony" and march were planned.
More than 1,800 people along the Gulf coast died in the 2005 storm, mostly in Louisiana. And more than 80 percent of hard-hit New Orleans was flooded.
According to a poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 7 in 10 Americans, or 69 percent, think progress has been made in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf.
Among people in the South - which includes Gulf Coast states - 75 percent say progress has been made.
The poll also found that 57 percent say the country has not improved its disaster preparations. Just 38 percent said the country is more ready than it was.
Church World Service contributed to this article.