Ten years ago today category five storm surges breached the levies of New Orleans and triggered a fast moving flood that rose 20 feet and swallowed whole swaths of the city. The devastation was utter and complete. The response slow and inadequate. The situation gut wrenching. It was a momentous event that affects our psyche still.
Momentous for the response by our national leaders which caused a proportionate breach in trust that lingers with us. A cynical response that bet Americans did not care about poor black people or that we could be consoled by political theater. It revealed a leadership marked more by cronyism than competence, as if the very notion that “government is the problem, not the solution” had come home to roost.
But Katrina was equally momentous in that she showed us the brighter side of leadership too. Leadership that is local and can-do, genuinely inclusive and anchored in belief, and most of all, effective.
When the storm hit, Kevin Brown had been the director of Trinity Christian Community, a local leadership foundation, for six years. Their work was based in Hollygrove, a working class neighborhood of modest homes, higher than average unemployment, and its fair share of New Orleans crime. Hollygrove was a part of the 80% of the city underwater. The foundation office was destroyed, computers ruined, records lost.
Kevin, who managed to evacuate, was turned back by the National Guard as he tried to enter the city the day after. Aboard a boat one week later he was able to sneak past the guarded perimeter. There he found a city devastated by water, its easy spirit deep in shock.
As we reflect on the storm and its aftermath we reached out to talk with Kevin Brown about his effort to rebuild Hollygrove and the city of New Orleans.
The storm destroyed everything: your home, your staff’s homes, your office. How were you able to get back up and running?
It was devastating on so many levels. We lost everything; our homes were inhabitable for many months. Right afterward Reid Carpenter and other senior leaders came down and offered us a collective shoulder to lean on. They listened patiently to our stories, and were a tremendous source of healing and support. They helped us regain our confidence.
As we talked through how to get back on our feet, we knew we needed to do three things: 1) relocate people who had lost their homes, 2) rebuild our city, and 3) create a city that is better than we had before.
You managed to find homes for a couple thousand people. How?
Teamwork, mostly. My friend John Wiseman went from motel to motel talking to refugees, understanding their situation. Each night his wife Karen would write up his notes and send them over to me. Then I’d reach out to the Leadership Foundations network. I’m proud to say our network reached back in a big way by adopting families who needed temporary relocation. We asked the network to help folks with transportation costs, initial rent and utility expenses, provide job leads and connect each family to a house of worship, and they did. Everyone wanted to help.
Why was the connection to worship such a priority?
These people are relocating with nothing but the clothes on their backs, far away from everyone they know. Churches are full of people predisposed to care, to offer aid, to witness another’s story. It was the most practical way to connect people to community.
You grew up in Hollygrove and based your ministry there. What was it like when you first returned.
Complete destruction. Besides the overwhelming smell of rot and decay the first thing we noticed was that everything was dead. Saltwater had killed the trees, the grass, had rusted out all the cars. There was a thin white layer of salt all over everything. Eerie, like all those descriptions of nuclear fall-out made real.
Incomprehensible. With all that devastation where do you begin?
There was a long period when we couldn’t do anything. Only those with hazmat suits on official business could get in. That was when we were focused on relocating people. It was also when I became obsessed with how to rebuild flooded houses. How do you get rid of mold? Well it turns out it’s not rocket science; you tear out the old drywall and spray the framing down with boric acid. Let it dry out then put up new drywall.
When we got back in and were ready to build we were blessed with thousands of volunteers. Church groups from across the country came to spend their vacations helping us rebuild. Over a period of seven years they repaired or rebuilt 221,000 houses in New Orleans.
That’s where AmeriCorps comes in right?
We had a standing partnership with AmeriCorps for tutoring and mentoring. Of course the storm hit right as the school year was starting. All of a sudden we have no schools. No kids to tutor. I told them what we really needed was help repairing and rebuilding houses. “Oh we don’t do that!” But they came and saw what we were up against, and they gave us 100 AmeriCorps volunteers. How do you organize those thousands of eager and enthusiastic church volunteers? You call AmeriCorps!
When other organizations saw how our partnership worked they wrote their own grants. AmeriCorps was amazingly instrumental in helping New Orleans rebuild. Afterward they added disaster relief & recovery to their areas of service.
Sounds like it was a time to think creatively.
Months after the storm Mayor Nagin was waging his reelection campaign, which, given the city’s reality, was rife with a number of divisive issues, including, but not limited to, race; religion; and money. One example of the creative thinking that took place was how we used the Mayor’s campaign signs, that we believed further divided, and we cut them into strips and painted them to make new “make-due” street signs. Understand that New Orleans was crawling with insurance adjusters who could not find their way around the city — the storm blew away our street signs! Nothing was getting done because the insurance adjusters couldn’t find their way around. They were able to find their way around Hollygrove.
What about the third part of your plan – to recreate a better city?
In many ways New Orleans is in fact a better place to live. Hollygrove definitely is. In addition to rebuilding, we were able to construct ten new houses, something that hadn’t happened in decades. Those ten houses spurred more development till some 30 more houses were built. Our school was a decrepit relic from the days of segregation. Now we have a new school and a new senior center.
We built a hugely popular pocket farm that brings people together and feeds them. By organizing block watches we were able to shut down a notorious bar long the source of drug deals. Crime in Hollygrove is down 70% from pre-Katrina levels.
Even Costco! They redeveloped a moldering strip mall into their very first store in Louisiana. Say what you want but Costco brings in folks from all over the city and provides the neighborhood with good-paying jobs.
Perhaps most telling is that some people who came to help us rebuild actually stayed. White folks, Latinos, black folks – they’ve bought houses here.
I imagine those first few years were a time of amazing personal and spiritual growth for you and your team. What are your big take-aways?
Katrina taught us that no matter how bad things get, the way you see will greatly determine how things will work out in the end. When one of my kids is going through a rough patch I find myself telling them that if they can just make it through today, and tomorrow, and maybe the next day, it will get better. Things do get better if we orient our focus on what matters most – loving and serving each other through the good and the bad.
Katrina also taught us to let go. We lost our kid’s photographs, their artwork. I lost my treasured record collection. Eventually you realize it’s all just stuff. And when you can let go of that stuff you are truly set free.
It was an awful time in many ways. We lost a lot but in the end we gained more. We’ve developed friendships we never would have before, we improved our city, and we’ve come to know ourselves deeply.
As I often do I’ll quote Romans: Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.
Words to live by. Thank you Kevin.
You can read more about the story of Trinity Christian Community’s response to Hurricane Katrina in the LF Book, Cities: Playgrounds or Battlegrounds? Leadership Foundations’ Fifty Year Journey of Social and Spiritual Renewal. Copies are available through Amazon or the Seattle Book Company.