Oxfam partners assess Katrina’s impact on rural communities

Published: 24 November 2005

There was a catch in Lorna Bourg’s voice, then silence as she composed herself. The morning after an all-day-and-into-the-night assessment trip through hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, Bourg, executive director of the Southern Mutual Help Association, was confronting the magnitude of hardship Katrina had dumped onto some of state’s most impoverished parishes and people.

There was a catch in Lorna Bourg’s voice, then silence as she composed herself. The morning after an all-day-and-into-the-night assessment trip through hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, Bourg, executive director of the Southern Mutual Help Association, was confronting the magnitude of hardship Katrina had dumped onto some of state’s most impoverished parishes and people.

"It’s going to be a long time before they get to us," she said. "That’s my overall impression. There’s not much help out there. But it’s amazing, because they’re scrapping for themselves: There’s Cajun people, Creoles, Vietnamese."

In the days following the widespread destruction, damage in the rural regions of Louisiana and Mississippi has yet to draw national sympathy—and shock—the way the devastation in coastal areas and urban centers has. With trees down, power out, and communication between some parishes virtually impossible, no one knows the full extent of losses faced by farming and fishing communities. But Bourg, whose organization is one of three to which Oxfam America has given an initial $25,000 emergency grant, has a plan that will help them.

"If I had my druthers, we would be able to create a $10 million rural recovery fund," she said. "Five million of it would be used for direct emergency livelihoods recovery grants and that could be mixed with $5 million in a permanent loan pool."

Raising that amount of cash will be a huge challenge. But for people who need to get back to work, waiting for help from the government can’t be their only option.

"Every storm I’ve been in, we always got some help, but it’ll be two or three years before you get any," said Ben Burkett, state coordinator for the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which also received a $25,000 grant from Oxfam. "It might be a little different this time because it’s so devastating."

Gas Queues and Felled Trees

Late last week, Oxfam sent a three-member team to Louisiana and Mississippi to view the devastation and help determine how the agency can help its local partners with the recovery process. Hattiesburg, Mississippi—Burkett’s hometown—was among the team’s stops. It lay directly in the path of the storm.

"At the moment, rural Mississippi is faced with an almost total loss of phones and electricity, and gas is in very short supply," said Kenny Rae, an Oxfam program officer. "The Oxfam team spent hours yesterday queuing up with Mississippians to fill their tanks. There are gas lines everywhere. It’s like ’74."

In rural communities all around Hattiesburg, Katrina’s fury was evident.

"There was a lot of tree damage," said Rae. "In some locations, every third pine tree had been blown down." Two trees had crashed onto Burkett’s house, leaving it open to the rain. The wind felled hundreds of others across his tree farm.

With electric power lines down, some farmers were facing severe consequences.

"One chicken farmer, when the Oxfam team arrived, was out desperately seeking diesel fuel for a generator to run a cooling system to keep thousands of his chickens from perishing," said Rae. "Ben is monitoring the local fuel situation closely and if this shortage continues, he’ll look for sources of fuel possibly out of state to make sure association members don’t lose their assets."

‘Buckled Like Aluminum Foil’

One of the goals of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, or MAC, is to help farmers—primarily African Americans—produce more lucrative crops and products and to steer them toward new markets. Established in 1977, the association is made up of 15 cooperatives, all of which are engaged in agriculture, marketing, or community development.

With Burkett, the Oxfam team visited MAC’s warehouse and sorting center where local members bring their produce for washing and packaging before it gets shipped to market.

"It fared better than some of the neighboring buildings," said Rae. "But its big, industrial doors that roll up were buckled like aluminum foil from the wind." And without power, the warehouse’s cooling room, where produce gets stored, isn’t functioning. The coop is looking into purchasing a generator to preserve those perishables that survived the storm.

Worse than the damage to the building, however, may be the impact Katrina had on the markets on which MAC farmers have come to rely.

"Over half of the produce from member growers in southern Mississippi goes to the casinos in Biloxi and New Orleans," said Rae. "The contract with the casinos has been very lucrative. This market has now been lost."

One Shrimper’s Tale: Mud and a $6,000 Repair Job

The office of the Southern Mutual Help Association sits in New Iberia, Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans. Established in 1969, the organization advocates for changes in the policies and structures that create severe poverty in southern Louisiana.

Its location spared it some of the worst damage.

"We do have electricity, and we don’t have big trees down," said Bourg, the association director. "But as you go east on Highway 90 toward Morgan City, you begin to see increased damage."

That’s the direction Bourg headed on Friday, through the parishes of St. Mary, Terrebonne, and Lafourche, where fingers of land poke out into the Gulf of Mexico. There were some parishes, such as Plaquemines and St. Bernard, that remained inaccessible because of water. Traveling through others, Bourg passed several huge barges washed ashore by the storm, including one that was so big, it blocked an entire lane on the road.

"There’s a lot of water all around, but there’s no water deep enough for that," Bourg said. "That thing was washed all the way in and landed on Highway 1. It’s tsunami-like."

Down one of the Lafourche peninsulas, Bourg stopped to talk to a shrimper and his brother. The pair had spent three days scraping a coat of thick mud off their boat. They had only just managed to right it. The windows were smashed, and the wiring was ruined. The estimated repair cost: $6,000.

"He doesn’t know where he’s going to get the money from," said Bourg. "He said he’s lost the season."

That shrimper’s tale speaks for many, she said, adding that her agency’s biggest challenge now is getting a full understanding of the scope of the needs in the wake of the hurricane. As in Mississippi, some of those needs are all too apparent.

"They’ve got to get electricity into the areas. They’ve got to get gasoline. Families are going to need cash," Bourg said. "You can paint and scrape four inches of mud and gunk out, but if you’ve got all your wiring that needs to be replaced, you’ve got to have some money. Then they can be self-sufficient again. These are very ingenious, scrappy folk."

Despite Fatigue and Anxiety, Resilience Runs Deep

Material losses aren’t all that weigh heavily on rural folks in Louisiana, where some parishes have poverty rates as high as 46 percent, Bourg added. It’s the worry of not knowing the fate of family members. In Larose, Bourg stopped at a shelter for displaced people set up in the tiny town’s civic center. One elderly woman began to cry. She didn’t know where her daughter was, Bourg said.

"Most of the anxiety I see, aside from fatigue, is people who have not been reunited with their families," Bourg said. "In this great age of technology, why can’t we have a super Internet site reserved for disasters where people can register their names? Why doesn’t our president pick up a phone and call Bill Gates or do this kind of thing? We’ve had four years since 9/11."

Fatigue and worry aside, hard-hit people in rural Louisiana are not feeling sorry for themselves, she said. Resilience, determination, and cooperation are what she saw on her trip through the parishes.

"These are folks who have not been living on government assistance. They’ve been living on low incomes, but they’ve been earning them," said Bourg. And that’s what she wants from the recovery: "An appropriate response that gets people back living normal lives and earning their own income."