WASHINGTON – With the onset of this year's hurricane season and with questions still unanswered from last year,the Katrina National Justice Commission,a coalition of black ministers and leaders,met Thursday and Friday to assess the government's preparedness and response to Hurricane Katrina.
The commission is an independent undertaking of interdenominational black churches and activists,sponsored by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.
Rev. Susan K. Smith,a conference trustee and pastor of Advent United Church in Columbus,Ohio,said the commission's hearings are to document firsthand accounts and shape an agenda for legislators on preventing disasters.
The leaders met in a Lutheran church two blocks from the Capitol. They heard from a U.S. senator,Katrina evacuees and one official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This was organized to hear,honor and memorialize those hurricane stories,and to identify the responses,both those that were inadequate and sufficient,” said Iva E. Carruthers,general secretary of the conference.
Carruthers,seated alongside 13 other black ministers and leaders,said all hurricane responses should be heard and studied and the meeting should be a “catalyst to ensure awareness.” She said she hoped to reach those with governmental authority so they would protect everyone.
Chris Rebstock,executive director of America's Second Harvest,said the organization faced many challenges post-Katrina. The organization does not directly feed people,but networks to supply food and assistance to 200 U.S. food banks.
“Some of the biggest challenges were the loss of viable agencies,damage to agencies,the infrastructure and working with programs to identify potential distribution sites,” Rebstock said.
He said that because of the demand for food and water and the loss of many food pantries after the hurricane,standard requirements were waived so volunteers and makeshift food pantries could distribute resources. He admitted the volunteers were quickly educated,often within hours,about food safety,distribution security and product quality.
“You can't just unload it from the truck and leave it for distribution. We are concerned with product and food safety,” he said.
However,when questioned by the Rev. Barbara Reynolds,a commission member,he acknowledged a void between emergency operations of the government and non-governmental organizations. He also admitted he didn't visit the area until several weeks after the hurricane hit.
The Rev. Tony Lee,pastor of the Community of Hope Church in Temple Hills,Md.,testified about how he and his community have become involved. He described how the Saving Our Selves Coalition,which includes 117 groups,helps Katrina survivors receive food,shelter and health care through mobile medical centers.
Lee said that the needs of many black Katrina survivors were not being met due to structural and attitudinal reasons.
“There seems to be disorganization,but it had a pattern to it,an organized structure to it. I believe this organized disorganization connected to issues around how we deal with the least of these in this nation and on the intersection of race and class,” Lee said.
Lee said many of the Red Cross sites he saw were in white neighborhoods and many blacks did not have transportation to reach water and ice,which was often miles away.
Before ducking out to vote Thursday,Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton,D-N.Y.,gave a short speech about shortcomings in the government's emergency response. She said that oftentimes it is difficult to understand the devastation left after Katrina.
“It is very easy for those of us in Washington to see disasters in the form of numbers,statistics,abstractions,and not the faces and the stories that need help,” Clinton said.
Dissatisfaction filled the air as Robert Shea,FEMA's acting director of operations,said Friday that the agency is in better shape now than it was last year. Shea has been with the agency for almost 29 years.
Asked about lessons learned from last year,he said that there is a team of 60 people working with the state and local parish governments of Louisiana if a quick evacuation is necessary.
But he admitted that FEMA is understaffed and overworked,with one-fifth of its jobs unfilled. He said he walks the halls and sees people working too late,every day and on weekends.
But,in response to Reynolds,who said FEMA was in “shambles,” Shea replied,“To abolish FEMA would be to deny all the people who work there and those who receive aid from FEMA on a daily basis.”
“We are talking about the one of the largest reorganizations of government in 50 years and those things just don't gel overnight,” he said,referring to FEMA and other agencies being made part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The next meetings of the Katrina National Justice Commission will take place June 29-30 in New Orleans and July 27-28 in Houston.