Monday, August 28, 2006

Oregon's Loving, Empowering Katrina Connections

One of the first reactions of a local news editor in the wake of a defining national or global event is to send his minion into the field to get "the local angle." Somehow, somebody somewhere nearby has a touching story to tell that is someway linked to the bigger one, and the reporters better find it, tenuousness of the link be damned. It's a logical idea, and one that does try to bring the story home.

Indeed, in those first few days of aftermath, they can be very interesting stories to read. But I shy away at forced-anniversary retrospectives, and as we come upon the first full year since Hurricane Katrina, I can't help but be cynical about the rush of stories this weekend--especially to know that so little has changed, and so little has been written about it in the interim. And even now it fights Jon-Benet Ramsey for TV time and column inches.

But on Friday I read a fine story that not only involved Oregon people, but Oregon ideals being offered in a way to teach citizens of New Orleans how to fish, so to speak--helping neighborhoods form associations from which they could begin to gain control of their area's destiny. My Katrina contributions were done through Mercy Corps, and it's such a pleasant thought to know that they didn't just do the acute disaster relief work they're known for, but have stuck around to help defend residents from the carpetbaggers:
Into this mix come developers. Before the hurricane, "we couldn't even get the potholes fixed," [local activist Tricia] Jones said. Now "developers are breaking their tails to get over here to acquire that land."

Property values are rising, and many displaced homeowners are vulnerable to low-ball offers from speculators. Many residents have paid off their homes and, now elderly and living on a fixed income, can't afford to pay the second mortgage necessary to rebuild...
I intended to write about that one story this weekend, but before I could do it three more had appeared in Sunday's O, each as personable and somehow important as the first. I certainly didn't intend a Katrina-Oregon retrospective to be something I'd write about, but my conscience is still a little raw from rewatching on HBO how badly we collectively let down our fellow Americans last summer.

At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC you travel in a circular fashion up four floors through unspeakable horror...and then crest in an exhibit of personal sacrifice and acts of life-saving heroism that rescues the human spirit from itself, at least partly. If you've been newly repulsed by the reminder of what happened on the Gulf Coast a year ago, maybe these items will cut through some of the despair and restore a little humanly faith:

  • Here's one about an organically blooming partnership between Corvallis and Portland residents that started out as a vague idea of helping to build a Habitat for Humanity home, but ended up being a huge project to open a free clinic. Like the Mercy Corps story, it's the kind of concrete, forward-looking relief that it seems the government agencies still aren't able to fully provide. And also like that story, it wasn't a group barging in and deciding what they'd do--they asked the people who would be most affected what they wanted, and adjusted to their requests. The people of New Orleans more than anything may need the confidence that they can get what they want if they stand together and don't wait for the government to help.

  • Some of Oregon's most well-off young people are getting a chance to see the realities of life close up as they spend summertime helping on the Gulf Coast. I could take or leave the ministry that surely went along with their assistance, but bitching about the method sullies the good works being done so I'll leave that alone. Kudos to the parents for shattering their kids' safety bubbles:
    [Teen Lauren] Marschall remembered her first mission as a freshman. "I did not want to go," she said. But her mom put her on a bus to a Montana reservation anyway. "I was so mad at her," Marschall said.

    A week later, she called to thank her mom. "I understand a lot more things about myself and about God. It was eye-opening," she said. Now she sees the mission work as a "privilege." The students don't have such opportunities to help others in their hometowns, which are among the wealthiest communities in Oregon. "It gave me a better grasp on reality," Bernal said. "Every time I go, it's a reality check."
  • As much as art can be therapy and reconnect a community to itself, this exhibit of Katrina-warped photography by Corbett artist Thomas Kieffer shows how even the expressions of disaster can create something beautiful. The chemicals in the toxic sludge that flooded the city altered Kieffer's finished photographs--but out of the destruction came something new.