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Rebuilt lives are legacy of Katrina Aid Today

E. Dwight Franklin takes a breather while working at his parents' home in New Orleans. Katrina Aid Today has helped more than 73,000 families in the years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Aug. 29, 2008

As she assisted survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Tamera Fontenot found herself not just providing resources but helping to rebuild lives.

UMCOR representative Catherine Earl teaches computer skills to consortium case managers with Katrina Aid Today in 2006 in Biloxi, Miss.
A UMNS photo by Mark Wolfe.

The deadly 2005 hurricane devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast and put into motion massive relocations from familiar surroundings and support systems that created a diverse range of needs, according to Fontenot, who served as both a case manager and coordinator of Katrina Aid Today for Catholic Charities USA.

"It’s rebuilding whole lives, in whole new ways," she said.

Catholic Charities was one of nine partners in Katrina Aid Today, a consortium of social service organizations that provided disaster-related case management services to large numbers of Katrina survivors. The initiative was managed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The consortium received a $66 million grant, which consisted of international donations through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Katrina Aid Today concluded its work at the end of March after two and a half years of operation. Building on that program’s success, FEMA is implementing a two-phase disaster case management plan in Mississippi through March 2009. The agency has awarded more than $25.4 million to the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service to assist case managers on the coast. The Mississippi Case Management Consortium is administering the grant, according to Michele Baker, a spokesperson for the group.

“Nothing like it had ever been attempted and possibly nothing like it could ever happen again.”
–The Rev. Ken Massey
The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who oversees national disaster response for UMCOR, believes Katrina Aid Today was successful because it was a collaboration among voluntary organizations that "had a more direct access to clients than the government does."

The statistics tell the story: 73,346 households, representing 193,633 individuals and families, were assisted through the partners of Katrina Aid Today. Case managers were able to leverage more than $136 million for the recovery effort.

At one point, Katrina Aid Today partners had 138 offices in 34 states. Later, the focus shifted to 18 states in the most vulnerable areas.

Consistency was 'positive'

Catholic Charities served about 17,000 households through Katrina Aid Today. "We had offices from Oakland to New Jersey," Fontenot said. "The level of standardization and consistency across organizations, across communities, was different for us and a real positive thing."

Case workers Hien Nguyen and Bao H. Lee talk to shrimp fisherman Hung Van Lai in Biloxi. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Fontenot has worked in social services for 25 years, but Katrina was her first experience with a natural disaster. Despite the formal end to Katrina Aid Today, she expects that "folks will continue to come to our doors to seek assistance," adding that they are still working with hundreds of survivors who now live in Houston.

Hazelwood noted that many of the partners had access to their own private funds, which offered some flexibility because case managers did not have to rely solely on government relief.

UMCOR, for example, contributed $5 million to create Katrina Aid Today’s Local Consortium Member program, with 16 partners in 12 states, assisted by 62 paid case managers and 84 volunteer case managers.

Over nearly two years, the local consortium members:
  • Served 3,988 households impacted by Katrina, 88 percent of which were African-American families;
  • Developed disaster recovery plans for 89 percent of the case-managed clients, with primary needs met in a majority of the cases; and
  • Coordinated with Katrina Aid Today and drew upon community and national resources, providing an estimated $11.4 million in services.

Public/private partnership

Jim Cox, who served as director of Katrina Aid Today, called it a "true public/private financial partnership" and noted that more than $130 million was accessed for families through the organization’s case management system.

"The program empowered local organizations to respond to the disaster," he said. "There is more success when local communities work together for long-term recovery."

Katrina Aid Today has helped more than 73,000 households rebuild their lives.
A UMNS photo by Susan J. Meister, UMCOR.

Cox found a direct relationship between the high percentage of poor and vulnerable populations affected by Katrina and the length of time needed for recovery. "However, there were more challenges in how far and wide persons were displaced. Displaced populations ended up in almost every state," he said.

Fontenot acknowledged that many of the displaced clients served by Catholic Charities "wanted to go home some day. The fact is, for a lot of them, that won’t be a reality."

Lutheran Disaster Response provided assistance through Katrina Aid Today in 12 states and learned that "the needs of clients in the Katrina-affected areas in the Gulf were very different from the needs of clients in Denver, Colorado, and Las Vegas, Nevada," according to the Rev. Ken Massey, director.

Massey said his agency was "immensely proud" to be part of this "unique and historic" project.

"Nothing like it had ever been attempted and possibly nothing like it could ever happen again," Massey said. "This program served the needs of countless individuals and families in ways that it immeasurably helped in its recovery."

He lauded the leadership provided by UMCOR. "They knew they had the talent, they knew they had the capacity and they knew they had the experience. They succeeded fantastically," he said.

Expanding capabilties

Katrina Aid Today was able to both expand the capabilities of traditional groups like Lutheran Disaster Response and bring in other organizations normally not involved in such work, according to Mandi Janis of UMCOR, who oversaw monitoring and evaluation of the consortium.

New Orleans’ 9th Ward was devastated by the deadly storm. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

The National Disability Rights Network, for instance, traditionally is involved with legal advocacy but started hearing from disabled Katrina survivors who were receiving poor treatment in shelters. "They started getting involved in one-on-one advocacy of these clients," Janis said. "It gave them a new skills set."

Having such groups at the table also helped remind the consortium of all populations affected by Katrina. "It was of great value to have their partnership," she said.

Boat People SOS, which assists Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, also was able to expand its capabilities through membership in Katrina Aid Today. "They never had offices on the Gulf Coast until we enabled them to do that," Janis said.

A final evaluation of the program, prepared by the Policy & Research Group in New Orleans, found that case managers were most helpful in connecting clients to resources and material support and guiding them through the federal bureaucracy. But emotional support was important, too. "Clients report in both client satisfaction surveys and the focus groups that emotional support was helpful and fortifying," the evaluation stated.

More than 2,100 individuals were trained in post-disaster case management through the Katrina Aid Today network and could be mobilized for future disasters.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood

On an agency level, the standardized protocols and resources, along with sub-grant funding, helped build the capacity of the nine consortium members. The Coordinated Assistance Network, a Web-based application, helped link case managers around the United States and offered performance information to monitoring agencies.

On a local level, the program brought together some groups which had not collaborated in the past. "This connection will improve the referral network in these communities and is a positive step in preparing to respond to the next local or national disaster," the evaluation noted.

Lessons learned through experiences with Katrina Aid Today have resulted in the development of some common case management standards and a common language among the organizations, according to Hazelwood. "We have certainly gotten better at working with the client," he said. "We’ve eliminated a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessary."
Other partners in Katrina Aid Today were the Salvation Army, Episcopal Relief and Development, Volunteers of America, Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Odyssey House of Louisiana.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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