Five Years After Katrina: Leaders Turn Personal Loss into Passionate Missions

Five Years After Katrina: Leaders Turn Personal Loss into Passionate Missions

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Five years ago, Americans sat in morbid shock as we viewed the devastating and catastrophic results of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf region, from Central Florida to Texas. We were barely over September 11, 2001, and our attention was turned to the people and communities in desperate need of resources and support.

There were many people, public and private citizens, known and unknown, who contributed greatly to the efforts to rebuild the Gulf.  Several people rose to the forefront of leadership with a passion and mission colored by their personal loss during that fateful time.

Lisa Perez Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Projection Agency was adopted as an infant and raised in New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park, a predominately black, middle-class enclave. Days before Hurricane Katrina, Lisa evacuated her wheelchair bound mother Marie to Bossier City. Ultimately, her mother would return to a house ruined by floodwater. Lisa told Associated Press,

“After the hurricane I kept saying if I were rich, I would knock this house down, and rebuild an energy-efficient, elevated house for my mother,” Jackson said. “But then to be able to come back as the head of the EPA and say maybe I couldn’t help my mother in her one instance, and thank God she is OK, but maybe I can help some people and help my city and help the Gulf Coast. You know even one or two times would make a difference.”

Jackson’s mother sold the remnants of her home to the government, but another Pontchartrain Park resident, veteran character actor Wendell Pierce, would be extremely instrumental in bringing those energy-efficient, elevated homes to the community. Pierce was  born and raised in Pontchartrain Park and had the task of helping his parents restore their home after Katrina. The process ignited his curiosity, which led to the founding of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation. When he wasn’t working as an actor, Pierce worked tirelessly to lobby politicians, work with contractors, and everything in-between to rebuild the community in a sustainable, green way that includes the restoration of old homes and building new ones. It hasn’t been an easy job for Pierce who has had to learn first-hand about bureaucratic obstacles, and he’s had to learn how to overcome them in order to make headway. In an interview he stated,

“We have 500 homes. So we’re actually going to have to go through the process of getting a waiver for every home individually — going to a city zoning meeting and ask for a waiver, apply for [it], and then get the vote on each house,”

Four years ago, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D, SC) escorted a delegation of about 20 Democratic House members to the Gulf Coast region to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  Congressman Clyburn was so moved by the aftermath of the hurricane that he initiated SC Cares, an initiative that ultimately served more than 2,000 displaced Gulf Coast residents. He also mobilized Democratic lawmakers to come up with immediate and sustainable solutions that would assist residents overcome the hurdles associated with housing and other recovery issues. He said at the time,

“I have been to the region, and I have seen the anguish on the faces of those that came to Columbia to take shelter from the storm’s brutality,” Congressman Clyburn said.  “Witnessing that amount of devastation moves you to action, and I and my colleagues are leading the fight to rebuild the Gulf Coast.”

Hurricane Katrina was not the first natural disaster the congressman had to confront. His home state of South Carolina was partially ravished by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, three years before he joined the U.S. Congress. Katrina was just the biggest natural disaster ever. In 2007,  Congressman Clyburn introduced legislation to speed up relief in the Gulf Coast and has continued in his work as an influential advocate for the regions hit hardest resulting in the allocation of millions of dollars in aid.

Beverly Wright had just lost her mother and brother right before Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm stole her mother’s home, her home and office, but it did not steal her tenacity or kill her spirit. Dr. Wright transferred all of her pain and heartache into the “A Safe Way Back Home” project. The project was a collaboration with the United Steel Workers Union and with volunteer, faith-based, and neighborhood organizations to remove tainted soil and replace it with new topsoil and sod.

Dr. Wright is an award-winning, world-renowned environmental justice scholar and activist. She is the founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice currently at Dillard University in New Orleans. The Center addresses environmental and health inequities along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor. Since Hurricane Katrina, the Center has focused largely on research, policy, community outreach, assistance, and the education of displaced African-American residents of New Orleans.

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