Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Politics of Katrina

While sorting books, we met the AmeriCorps team that is working in New Orleans (more on AmeriCorps below), so I am now a bit more qualified to talk about the politics of that area.

Hands On Gulf Coast -- formerly run by Hands On USA and now by Hands On Network -- has a core mission, which is to rebuild the community by rebuilding houses so that people can move back into them. You have doubtless heard of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the poorest and most flooded area of the city. Hands On does not rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, because there is some probability that the whole area will be demolished in the end anyway, and my guess is that any other volunteer organizations in the city have the same policy. Thus, no one can move back into houses in the Lower Ninth Ward (unless they can pay for a contractor) and so there is no community there for people to return to, which is a bit of a self-propogating cycle (the government says the area might not be rebuilt, so the houses aren't rebuilt, so there's no community there, so there's no reason to rebuild the area, etc.).

The houses in New Orleans have much more mold than those in Biloxi, since the water stood for weeks. In Biloxi, there is usually a coating of various kids of mold on the surfaces. In New Orleans, the mold is three-dimensional, a thick carpet of mold on the walls and studs and everything else. Thus, people cannot "camp out" in or near their homes, as they can in Biloxi in FEMA trailers and the like.

Another issue is AmeriCorps itself. This is the 12th year of the AmeriCorps program, which sends several thousand 18-24-year-olds around the country in teams of 10 to work with nonprofit agencies. The government gives them uniforms (grey shirts and tan cargo pants), medical insurance, and $12 a day. In return, they spend 10 months sleeping on the floor and eating peanut butter sandwiches, doing community service all over the country. They tutor children in underprivileged schools, build houses, and do disaster relief.

According to the AmeriCorps teams I have talked to, there is a significant probability that AmeriCorps will "get the axe" next year, so that this will be its last year. (They told me it was to make room for tax cuts for companies, but that's another issue entirely.) Thus, 80% of the teams will spend the last few months on the Gulf Coast, doing hurricane relief. This is probably partly to do as much rebuilding as possible before the program is cut, but it is also to show the government how effective the program is and to try to convince the powers that be to keep AmeriCorps going.

In other news, it wasn't a million books sitting around waiting to be sorted; there were a million books all in boxes waiting to be sent out to schools and children who didn't have any. We shipped out about 150,000 books to schools and children's organizations in the Gulf Coast where either the books were destroyed by the hurricane, or just they didn't have many books to begin with. This organization that we were working with, First Book, gives books to children -- not for them to borrow, but for them to keep. We learned that 61% of low-income children don't have a single book in their house at their reading level. That's pretty sad, and that's what we were working to fix.


Becca said...

Whoa, that's intense. Three-dimensional mold? My allergies would not appreciate that. Well, at least it's not four-dimensional, right?

The AmeriCorps' potential disappearance is a big deal. I had no idea that it was in such danger! AmeriCorps helped fund the program I worked with my sophomore year, educating and preparing disadvantaged preschoolers. I feel like AmeriCorps does way too much for this country to be axed!

Did you have a good time shipping books? Details! I need details!

Diana said...

It's four-dimensional, if you count time as the fourth dimension.

I feel the same way, except I feel that, in addition to doing a lot, AmeriCorps is also extremely cheap. You could give a tax cut to maybe one or two companies with the money you saved, if you were the federal government.

I had a good time. We were in a cabin in the woods near a lake. We went canoeing and played tennis. We got free T-shirts and we got to choose a book to take home. I got to stick a lot of stickers on things. You'll probably get one. And we moved books.

Ronit said...

Charities are constantly worried about going under or "getting the ax" on their funding. I doubt anything will actually happen to Americorps as a whole, although restructuring and reduction of some expenditure is certainly possible.

Especially from the point of view of field workers and volunteers who don't have a perspective on the actual funding and administrative process, it's normal to be paranoid about this things.

Laura said...

Indeed, AmeriCorps NCCC is likely getting the axe after this year. But it's the NCCC program specifically, not all AmeriCorps programs (

This is very unfortunate because the NCCC program does so much good not only for the communities served, but the people who are serving. But fortunately there are still hundreds more programs that will continue to serve. I was lucky enough to serve two years with City Year, the non-profit that Clinton modeled AmeriCorps after.

I'm going down to Biloxi at the end of the month so I'll see if the 3-dimensional mold comment is true!