In Gulf Spill, Heed the Lessons of Katrina

August 26th, 2010, by LORI R. WEST

It looks like the end of the beginning of the Gulf oil disaster is at hand. The well has been “killed,” and new oil no longer flows into the water and onto our shores. But this catastrophe is far from over. Entire communities have been deprived of reliable sources of income and production and distribution systems developed over decades have been fundamentally disrupted.

But hope emanates from an unlikely source: Hurricane Katrina. Or, more precisely, the response to that disaster. A number of relief and development groups, including ours, have been working in the region since 2005. Together with federal and state government agencies and private businesses, these groups have implemented successful programs that have made a real impact in the lives of Katrina survivors in Louisiana and Mississippi. The lessons these private groups have learned can and should be applied to those harmed by the oil spill.

Put Income First. A lack of income is a devastating blow and a main source of stress for people suffering from disaster. Timely claims payments and aggressive efforts by governments and private entities to provide alternative sources of income are the best way to avoid depression, substance abuse, and similar negative outcomes. As part of this, it is critical to recognize the large number of affected people who will never file claims because they cannot document their income due to their participation in the cash economy. These citizens must not be allowed to fall through the cracks. To reach and assist them requires aggressive outreach by community-based organizations. 

Help People Plan. BP will pay claims to affected individuals and businesses for a long time to come. Every claim center should include certified financial advisers with knowledge of the needs of the Gulf region. They can advise claimants on the best way to use the payments to not only survive, but to improve their condition. For instance, payments might be best used to start a new business, or receive training for a new job. Advisers who have worked in the region for years assisting Katrina survivors would be invaluable resources to help people use claims money productively.

Engage the Community. There are numerous local, state, federal, and private services available for those impacted by the spill. Having never used them, most people have no idea how to access these services. South Mississippi Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (SMVOAD) has helped thousands of Katrina survivors obtain housing, job training, and other assistance. Volunteers go out into neighborhoods and provide people with lists of service providers, types of services available, and eligibility requirements. At the same time, through their conversations, they obtain data on community needs to inform public and private decision makers as they fashion relief and development programs.

Another example of a successful post-Katrina community-based initiative is YouthBuild. Managed by the U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies, this is a comprehensive program for vocational development, workforce training, and career counseling for Gulf Coast youth. At-risk high school students are trained on how to assist in rebuilding homes. At the same time, trainers assist them to obtain their GED. Thousands of young people have received constructions skills and a high school diploma that makes them attractive to potential employers. This kind of training, geared to the needs and potential of particular Gulf communities, should be a key part of any long-term post-spill strategy.

The Gulf Coast has been pummeled by disasters of natural and human provenance. The response to Katrina was never what it could or should have been. But there are success stories. These community-based initiatives, combined with real resources from the federal government to help rebuild the Gulf, can help residents maintain and even improve a way of life we cherish.

Lori R. West is Gulf Region Director for International Relief & Development, which runs U.S. Gulf Coast Community Resource Centers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 10:52 am