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Spanish speakers assist Louisiana hurricane recovery

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A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

Representatives of the Rio Grande and Louisiana conferences meet with UMCOR workers to discuss help for Spanish-speaking hurricane survivors.
May 3, 2006

By Betty Backstrom*

BATON ROGUE, La. (UMNS) — It is difficult to lose everything you have in a natural disaster. It is even more difficult to recover from the loss if language barriers exist.

Thousands of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, are Hispanic/Latino, with Spanish as their primary or only language. Not only are many of them struggling to rebuild because of insurance and financial problems, but communicating with English-speaking permit office employees, contractors and recovery volunteers is challenging for storm victims who are not fluently bilingual.

“The need for Spanish-speaking volunteers, specifically translators and skilled workers, is enormous,” said Maribel Calvo, a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries assigned to El Mesias United Methodist Church in Kenner, La. The church is the seat of Hispanic/Latino ministries for the denomination’s Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference, which was hit hard by Katrina.

After learning of the need for Spanish-speaking help, the Rio Grande Annual (regional) Conference sent a contingent to New Orleans in April.

“We saw the coverage of the aftermath of Katrina on television. That alone just doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Rev. Isidro Pina, the United Methodist Committee on Relief coordinator for the Rio Grande Conference.

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A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

Maribel Calvo (right) stands with Jose and Alma Canizales and their grandson, Edwin, in their daughter's front yard.

After visiting with the Rev. Samuel Calvo of El Mesias Church and his daughter-in-law, Maribel, the group was able to visualize how Spanish-speaking volunteers from the Rio Grande Conference can speed up the recovery process for so many storm survivors in the predominantly Hispanic/Latino area surrounding the church in Kenner.

During the fact-finding trip, members of the delegation translated relief process documents from English into Spanish to expedite the application process.

“We are now working in collaboration and partnership with the Louisiana Conference by recruiting Rio Grande Conference Volunteer In Mission teams to go to Kenner to help clean up and rebuild damaged homes,” said Abel Vega Jr., director of connectional ministries for Rio Grande. “Our first VIM mission is scheduled for May 15-20. We plan to bring along bilingual volunteers to serve as case workers in assisting Spanish-speaking storm victims.”

A family opens up

Some of the residents who will be helped by the May mission team are members of El Mesias Church.

Members Mario and Carla Alvarez had more than three feet of flood water in their home, several blocks away from El Mesias Church. United Methodist volunteer teams have gutted and replaced damaged Sheetrock, but the house needs a new roof.

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A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

Maxine Milla displays a rose bush that came back after Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

“Not all recovery tasks can be completed by every volunteer,” Calvo said. “Along with the need for volunteers to gut homes, there is a great need for professionals such as roofers, plumbers and electricians.”

Two trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are parked in the Alvarezes’ small front yard. The home and trailers currently house five families, all related to Mario and Carla. Of the 15 residents, three are children.

Almita, Carla’s sister, and her husband, Edwin, live with their 2-month-old son, Edwin Jr., in one of the trailers. “We were living in the Redwood Apartments, which are right across West Esplanade Boulevard from the church (El Mesias). The entire complex completely collapsed during the storm,” Almita said.

Small miracles

Maxine Milla, originally from Honduras, moved from Connecticut to Louisiana with her husband when he retired several years ago. In her 70s, she has lived alone since her husband died shortly after moving to New Orleans.

“I am so grateful to my friends at El Mesias,” said Milla, whose Kenner home was flooded. Church volunteers gutted the house and are installing Sheetrock.

Milla lives in the FEMA trailer that sits on her lawn. Many of the flowers in her once perfectly kept garden are blooming again. She points to a rose bush full of deep red blossoms. “The flowers on that bush used to be white before Katrina,” Milla says, marveling at the little miracle represented by the color change.

The most poignant miracles are seen in the acts of kindness and the faith of the storm victims living in the worst of circumstances.

“The Hispanic/Latino residents in this area want to rebuild,” Maribel Calvo said. “They know what it is like to leave a country and never go back. For them, New Orleans is home. If it is possible, and if they receive the right kind of help, many will come back.”

*Backstrom is editor of Louisiana Now!, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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