Charities struggle with cleanup from Hurricane Isaac

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Faith-based ministries and local charities that are ramping up relief efforts after Hurricane Isaac say it's already clear that recovery will proceed without the national outpouring of money and volunteers triggered by Hurricane Katrina.

With their life contents on the curb, a statue of Jesus at the LeBlanc's residence - 709 St. Andrews Blvd. in LaPlace Saturday Sept. 15, 2012.

With their life contents on the curb, a statue of Jesus at the LeBlanc's residence - 709 St. Andrews Blvd. in LaPlace Saturday Sept. 15, 2012.

"From our point of view, the biggest challenge with this disaster will be getting attention and money," said Gordon Wadge, president of the New Orleans chapter of Catholic Charities.

"This is going to be on the local community -- with a few national folks who follow us closely and who will rally to us."

That's a stark contrast to the conditions relief directors saw in 2005, after nationally televised images of human misery from Katrina burned themselves into the national psyche. Within weeks, faith-based ministries and secular relief groups promised to funnel millions of dollars into New Orleans over five years.

In the two years after Katrina, the Archdiocese of New Orleans received at least $107 million for its own rebuilding and storm relief, United Methodists received $34 million, and Habitat for Humanity received $40 million in donations, according to their own estimates.

Much of the faith-based relief work done so far, especially around suburban LaPlace, where 7,000 homes flooded after Isaac came ashore Aug. 29-30, has been shouldered by volunteers working with homeowners.

Regionally, 12 mobile kitchens staffed with Southern Baptist volunteers cranked out an estimated 211,000 meals before withdrawing from the area, said Bruce Poss, the disaster relief coordinator for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board.

Samaritan's Purse, a North Carolina evangelical ministry led by Franklin Graham, has 72 volunteers from as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan gutting houses and cutting away trees for uninsured or underinsured homeowners around LaPlace, said program manager Brent Graybeal.

Operation Blessing, an evangelical relief agency founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, is distributing supplies to homeowners and volunteers in flooded Braithwaite.

And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has assembled nearly 2,500 church members from as far away as Atlanta and Little Rock, Ark., for house-gutting and other jobs, said Randy Bluth, that church's regional disaster relief coordinator.

But coordinators say many of those hands are being put together from a corps of veteran volunteers already in their databases -- and sometimes, as in the case of Southern Baptist mobile cooks and chain-saw teams, equipped with special training.

Moreover, each of those ministries specializes in short-term relief in the earliest stage of disaster assistance.

Seven years ago, moved by the overwhelming need for housing after Katrina, Southern Baptists, among many others, extended their relief mission into long-term home repair and renovation, but they have not yet decided whether to do that for Isaac victims.

"We haven't got to a point where we've even discussed that," said Poss. "It's still pretty early."

In most cases, relief managers' decisions whether to extend relief work will depend on ministries' estimates of continuing donations. Over the long term, money for materials is more important than free labor.

Five years after Katrina, rebuilding ministries found they had to wind down their repair and renovation schedules because they were running short of money to buy tile, drywall and roofing material, even while the pipeline of willing volunteer labor remained relatively robust.

This time, most relief managers said it appears an important verdict has already been rendered: In the public mind, Isaac was not only not as bad as Katrina, it's not even like the tornado disasters of Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Joplin, Mo., last year, which killed more than 160 people and commanded national attention for at least a few weeks.

"Isaac is not in the news cycle anymore," Poss said, "and that makes it more difficult."

It also appears that money will have to be matched with a home-grown labor force. Wadge, the director of Catholic Charities, said he was recently in the field with volunteers that the agency summoned.

"Two or three came up to me and said, 'I'm here because I got flooded during Hurricane Katrina and I got help. So I'm here to pay it forward,'" he said. "There's a lot of that feeling in the region."

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)