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Gumbo of the world: Citizens rebuilding Gulf Coast

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Emily Bhatti is Oxfam America’s Media Relations Coordinator

On my first visit to New Orleans, I arrived with over 150,000 visitors, football fans, and Mardi Gras party goers. The Super Bowl drew the eyes of the nation to this city in southern Louisiana, but most paid little attention to the ongoing struggles of the area’s long-suffering residents.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region are no strangers to disasters; from Hurricane Katrina, to Hurricane Rita, the BP oil spill, and the most recent Hurricane Isaac, this region has seen its fair share of struggles. Oxfam America has been working in the Gulf Coast since before Katrina and with our local partners we have fought to not only restore the area but better prepare it for future disasters.

It would have been easy for me to go along with the party in the Big Easy, throw on some beads, order a big plate of crawfish, listen to the music, and have a good time. But I knew what many of the other party goers didn’t know: There is still work to be done.

Completely different world

So instead I went to Plaquemines Parish, where I was soon in a completely different world. The level of destruction was staggering; from boats floating on fields of grass, to vacant homes and silent streets. During Hurricane Isaac in August 2012 flood waters rose almost 14 feet in some areas, damaging hundreds of homes and displacing many.

We arrived early Saturday morning to join local partner, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, (ZTCC) in a community service day restoring some of the area’s damaged homes. We pitched in to help restore four homes. ZTCC, which has received grants from Oxfam America over the years adding up to $80,000 for its work in southern Louisiana, plans to complete one home rebuild per month as part of its larger effort to restore the coast and protect the community from future hurricanes.

With my plaster trough in hand, I started work. I was with a a diverse crowd, described by local volunteer Leo Palazzo as “the gumbo of the world:” church members, kids, a crowned Miss Louisiana, government leaders, and environmentalists. They have become one group connected by the drive to restore the community they love.

Many thoughts weighed on my mind while I was working: I wondered how this devastation could exist so close to the biggest athletic and commercial event of the year; how this region could suffer this poverty in such a rich country; how climate change is leaving this community vulnerable.

But then I looked around me. I saw the ferry boat operator give us a wave and greet the locals as friends. I saw people drive by our project, roll down windows to ask what we were doing, and then jump out to help. I saw the kids amongst us go through painstaking lengths to make sure they knew everyone’s name. I soon realized, the people of Plaquemines mattered most.

They welcomed me into their lives and homes with hugs, food, and smiles, as if I were a distant cousin coming home for a visit. I saw how they interacted with each other; with love, patience, and plenty of humor. I saw that this community was built strong, not only by levees or newly plastered walls, but by the will, determination, and unity of the people. This determination was best described by Oxfam’s Gulf Coast advisor, Yumeka Rushing, “we are showing the world how to do restoration right.”

I left Plaquemines Parish with a belly full of homemade gumbo, arms tired of work, and a heart full of appreciation for the people of the Gulf Coast- the real champions in the Super Bowl city of New Orleans.

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