By Sheli Denola
For Simone Cisfuentes, a spread of sunflowers gave solace and support during a stay in the devastated city of New Orleans.
The recent college graduate from the Bay Area went to New Orleans to lend a hand in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, where change is not forthcoming as many are finding New Orleans recovery efforts to be much more difficult.
“There was an influx of young urban professionals after Katrina,” Cisfuentes said.
The non-profit sector exploded in New Orleans after Katrina. Like Cisfuentes, many dedicated themselves to not only rebuilding houses and city blocks, but also the community. Many saw this as an opportunity to create a more egalitarian city.
However, the local authorities did not appreciate the sunflowers and have been slow to aid in the recovery efforts. The devastation wrought by Katrina remains an all-too-vivid reality for the citizens of New Orleans.
According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which reported over 61,386 houses were damaged in New Orleans alone, rebuilding will require extensive and wide-ranging action. Among the volunteer and non-profit recovery work are the sunflowers that an organization called Common Ground has been planting throughout the city.
Common Ground found sunflowers to be an effective and ecologically beneficial way of bioremediation used to cleanse the soil from toxins and chemicals left in the wake of Hurricane Katria. The local authorities, however, disregarded the importance of such an act.
Many who have contributed to the recovery efforts have said that actions like this, as well as the work done by government agencies, has still not yet been enough.
Sam Offenberg, a UC Santa Cruz community studies major who has served as volunteer coordinator at Common Ground as part of a six month field study, has been in New Orleans for the last few months.
“I’m an outsider here, geographically and socially” Offenberg said about his role in reconstruction efforts. Projects like the sunflowers are great, he explains, but all too often people are called away and “as a result that work is abandoned and more messes are left for others to clean up.”
Offenberg now plans to spend his remaining time in New Orleans making amends “for the damage [he has] done,” explaining that he learned an important lesson—change must be community initiated or it won’t last.
Sakura Kone, the media coordinator for Breaking Ground, stressed the need for action as there are still over 200,000 evacuees. Steve Bradberry, pet organizer for the local non-profit Acorn, has lived in New Orleans for over 20 years, he returned to the city two days after Katrina to help in the rescue efforts, that are not only directed at humans, but also at the scores of animals left homeless and injured.
As for the people alone, devastation is still an every-day reality, Bradberry said.
“These people have lost so much more than their houses. Not only have they experienced the trauma of the storm, but of the evacuation, and displacement as well,” he said. “They are under the constant threat of homelessness, and are now beginning to experience hostility from their host states. That’s not even taking into account the impact on family structure.”