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The flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has few precedents. With 140 mile per hour winds and a wave surge measuring twenty feet, the resultant flooding left eighty percent of the city up to twenty feet underwater. The storm displaced over one million Gulf Coast residents, many of whom already lived below the poverty line. Moreover, 1,577 storm-related deaths occurred in Louisiana and, with estimates of the damage in excess of $150 million in Louisiana and Mississippi, Katrina was the costliest Hurricane in American history.
While there are examples of storms with devastation exceeding Katrina, there are no precedents for the massive volunteer effort Americans generated to assist in the recovery of New Orleans. The United Methodist Storm Recovery Center, for example, brought in 28,000 volunteers, generating $30 million dollars in donations and assisting 32,500 people. By 2010, 40,000 volunteers had gone to New Orleans through Katrina Aid Today. Presbyterian Aid Assistance brought 31,500 short-term volunteers, and “long-term volunteers gave another 70,250 hours of service.” By 2009 New Orleans had received assistance from approximately 1.5 million people.
In 2008 I was among those short-term volunteers with Operation Helping Hands (OHH), and the N.O.L.A. Oral History Project grew from my observations of the rehabilitation effort at that time. During this trip it became immediately apparent that the large numbers of volunteers coming to New Orleans as well as the long-term staff leaders of the organizations they worked with, constituted a movement, not entirely unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Like those in the Civil Rights Movement, volunteers in New Orleans tended to be youthful, selfless, and idealistic. Few were from the south and few were African American–making them very different from the populations they served. Nevertheless they often bonded with the local community and rapidly formulated new ideas for community organizing and social justice. Also like the Civil Rights Movement, the New Orleans recovery effort had no central leadership and the work tended to be improvisational in nature. Like civil rights activists 50 years ago, many working in New Orleans experienced moments of self-doubt and questioned whether the work they did really served the most needy. Moreover, the activists leading the work in New Orleans quickly recognized a broad array of deeply entrenched problems revealed by the storm, leading to the development of more than just efforts to rebuild housing, but also campaigns to rebuild whole communities, to stop the retreat of the wetlands, and to address inequality in the criminal justice system.
It is my contention that the rehabilitation effort in New Orleans is one of the earliest and most significant movements of the 21st century. These volunteers and activists, long-term and short-term, from across the nation, responded to several human rights concerns including inadequate housing, environmental degradation, women’s health issues, labor rights issues, and distortions of the criminal justice system–all of which stemmed from or were laid bare by Hurricane Katrina. The waves of volunteers pushed existing organizations, like New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, into new territory and created new groups, like Operation Helping Hands, to tend to new concerns. Their ideologies ranged from the radical egalitarianism of the Common Ground Collective to the Christian community focus of Operation Nehemia. These groups have taken root and their volunteers/workers are becoming part of a new New Orleans–a city that may look radically different by 2050. The NOLA Oral History Project allows these women and men to tell their story and to provide guidance for rehabilitating an American city after the near total devastation of Hurricane Katrina.