In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an ignored community in Biloxi bands together
How the community responded to Hurricane Katrina, with help from Oxfam in the agency’s first US disaster response.
By Kenny Rae, Oxfam’s Senior Advisor, Public Health Engineering
Over the years I’ve seen, and worked in the aftermath of, many natural and man-made disasters: Afghanistan following the collapse of the Taliban; the impact of the tsunami on Sri Lanka, the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2008, Gaza following the Israeli bombing campaign in 2009, the 2010 Haiti earthquake… Oxfam’s role in these disasters was to provide assistance where governments were simply overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction. Biloxi following Katrina was different; Oxfam stepped in because of the absence of an uncaring government.
While the world’s attention was on New Orleans, Oxfam decided to focus on the badly hit, but less visible areas of coastal Mississippi and Louisiana. I arrived in East Biloxi three days after the storm, and witnessed devastation every bit as bad as I’d seen in Sri Lanka earlier that year following the tsunami. Mainly African American, but with sizeable white, Latino, and Vietnamese communities, East Biloxi is on the tip of a peninsula which was slammed by the storm surge from the north and south. On the southern side, entire blocks were completely devoid of houses. The small houses that had been there did not have proper foundations, and were carried hundreds of yards away by the surge, where they lay smashed like driftwood. Big buildings along the coast had been completely demolished. Driving down Beach Boulevard on the south side of the peninsula I saw what at first looked like a large, five-story building that appeared relatively unscathed. When I got closer, I realized that this was not a building but a casino barge the size of a cruise ship. It had been lifted out of the water by the storm surge, carried a couple of hundred yards inland, and now covered three city blocks.
But it wasn’t just the level of destruction that flabbergasted me, but the disregard of government to help those who were suffering. In the humanitarian sector we like to point out the most immediate response to a disaster comes from the affected community itself, and this was certainly true in East Biloxi, where pastors turned their churches into shelters and community kitchens.
On the evening of our first day there we met Bill Stallworth, who represented the district on the city council. (He was the only African-American on the council.) I’d seen him earlier, racing around in a small pickup usually filled with mattresses and household items, but now at 9:00pm he was sitting talking with a few people outside a church. We introduced ourselves and he told us that he’d been working for 14 hours, delivering goods that were slowly arriving. Well-meaning people were coming to East Biloxi with food, water, and other goods. But they had no clear idea where to take it, so they were dropping it on street corners.
When I asked about coordination he pointed to his head and said “it’s all in here.” My only reference points at this time were international disasters, and I told him about the role UN OCHA played in them. We agreed that we needed to set up a mini-OCHA. But who was going to pay for it, he wanted to know? Stallworth told me later he was skeptical: Some guys from Boston he’d never heard of were going to pay for cleaning out a building, remodeling it, covering the rent and purchasing the furniture, computers, phones, and other materials they needed to run an effective organization?
But it happened, and barely 2 weeks later, largely due to the efforts of tireless volunteers, the East Biloxi Relief and Coordination Center (EBRCC) was born, with Oxfam as its midwife. The center became the go-to place for the aid groups and volunteers that were gradually descending on East Biloxi.
The focus of the work in East Biloxi quickly changed from goods distribution to salvaging and rehabilitating houses. Within a couple of weeks, volunteers had surveyed all of East Biloxi, and they created a map indicating the houses that could be salvaged. Usually this involved removing the drywall and insulation before mold set in, allowing the house to dry out, then replacing these materials. Volunteer groups doing clean up made the EBRCC their first stop after arriving. The following year Oprah Winfrey visited the center and was so impressed by its work she donated $3 million.
After a couple of name changes, and expansion into bigger premises, it’s still going strong today, renamed the Hope Community Development Agency, with Stallworth still at the helm.
Where was FEMA?
Incredibly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was nowhere to be found in East Biloxi during those early days. FEMA had set up a Disaster Recovery Center on Pass Road in West Biloxi, a predominantly white area, not badly affected by the storm, where people could submit claims for assistance. But this was more than seven miles from the worst-affected area. Without cars or any functioning public transportation, only the young and fit could apply for the assistance they were entitled to. With Oxfam’s support, Bill Stallworth raised the issue with the US Homeland Affairs Committee in Washington DC. Belatedly, a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center was opened in the East Biloxi Sports Stadium on September 29th, fully a month after the storm struck.
Katrina was the only time that Oxfam has enacted a full humanitarian response in the US. We did this not by having lots of boots on the ground, but by identifying and supporting people and groups that led the relief and reconstruction efforts. Bill Stallworth was joined in this effort by churches and other local institutions. The flagrant disregard shown by authorities to East Biloxi would probably never happen today; the voices of the community groups established and strengthened in the aftermath of Katrina are just too loud.