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LaToya Cantrell, President of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, on the anniversary of the levees flooding New Orleans in 2005, shares with NENtv an update on the process of restoring her community and the Andrew H. Wilson School. Specifically she thanks the City and County of San Francisco for all of its support in helping secure funds and resources for her neighborhood.

See more images from the NEN’s trip(s) to New Orleans here.

Daniel Homsey, Director, Neighborhood Empowerment Network

I had the honor of being in New Orleans during the days that led up to the 5th anniversary of one of America’s great man-made disasters.

It’s important to know that folks in this great town don’t blame the hurricane that struck with such vengeance, but rather the under-engineered levees that ringed the neighborhoods that buckled in response to the surge of water they were designed to handle.

Out of that tragic event came a million stories and lessons. Some highlight the very best of what humans are capable, others elevate where we still have work to do. In many instances the record shows that people came together during the hours and weeks after the levees failed. They looked beyond their differences, social and economic, and literally lifted each other out of the mud and saved thousands of lives.  Sadly, the record also shows that years of failed governance and leadership yielded a city vulnerable to responding to such challenges and the outcome is a national tragedy.

My visit started with a day-long summit on resiliency hosted by the Salvation Army and FedEx.  The Salvation Army is managing one of the largest private funds to build housing in the City at this time and FedEx has fine tuned its logistics infrastructure to be the “go to” platform for getting essential resources into any disaster zone. The Summit allowed me to share the work we have done with the NEN, as well as to meet amazing people and hear their stories .

Timolynn Sams of the Neighborhood Partnership Network was stunning in sharing her passion for her organization’s mission, and David Gershon inspired everyone with his proven track record of empowering communities. In the following days, I had the pleasure of meeting with The Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Mayor’s Environmental Policy Advisor, both providing an institutional narrative to the work that is happening to this day.

My visit to the newly renovated Andrew Wilson Elementary School yielded two powerful experiences. The first was on Friday, when I checked in on the Envirenew Broadmoor Sustainable Housing competition.  A jury of architects and engineers from all over the US met to review designs submitted by teams from every corner of Earth to build a sustainable home for under X.  The panel included Cameron Sinclair of Archtitecture for Humanity, Liz Ogbu of Public Architecture and Envirenew’s Lindsay Jonker .  Four designs were chosen and will be built for families with a few blocks of the school.

The Andrew Wilson Elementry School after a thorough remodelingThe school was a story in itself. In 2007 I was sent to New Orleans as a member of a delegation that included City Administrator Ed Lee, Tony Irons of the PUC and Sarah Dennis of the Planning Dept. Our goal was to see how we could help this great town recover from the devastation of the floods. The tour was led by Hal Rourk and LaToya Cantrell of the Broadmoor Neighborhoods Improvement Association (BNIA). Needless to say, the scene we encountered was overwhelming (see photos). In the following year the City of San Francisco collaborated with the BNIA to write a proposal to a grant opportunity that the State had made available. By having a lot of the City’s key economic partners provide their voice of support, their proposal was one of five selected. Construction soon begun and we were overwhelmed by the new LEED standard building that greeted us on Friday. (To hear LaToya Cantrell’s own account of the last five years in Broadmoor please visit the video below.)

On Sunday we returned to the school for the Community Voices event that was hosted by the BNIA. It was a powerful experience that featured an open mic environment allowing people to share how they felt five years after the storm. There were poems, raps, eulogies and statements of joy that collectively framed the way the neighborhood felt about what they had, and are still going through. Everyone was impacted by the display of drawings that the children who had survived the actual floods made of their experience. LaToya Cantrell facilitated the whole event which culminated with the children all planting an orange tree.

The Andrew Wilson Elementry School after a thorough remodeling

Sunday culminated in the official City commemoration at a local theatre. The event started off with a joyous display of culture with over a dozen lead dancers in full costume from the legendary mardi gras crews.  The whole building danced, including their new mayor, Mitch Landreau, for 15 minutes.  As the program unfolded, spoken word and music filled the room.  The Mayor took the stage and delivered perhaps the perfect speech that summed up the emotions and dreams in the room.  It seemed like he had been waiting for five years to give it. The night ended with an all star jam that of course ended with the “When the Saints go Marching In” with the new “Who Dat?” ending that saluted the victory of the City’s NFL franchise earlier this year.

Flying home I had a lot of time to process everything I had seen and heard. I am in awe of the people who every day wake up and fight for their city despite what seems to be an unrelenting wave of challenges, and new disasters. I also have hope that they’ll be able to rebuild their city to be one that was better than the one hurricane Katrina blew through five years ago. The phrase that I think will stick with me as I look to the opportunity of preparing our City for future challenges is remember, mother nature always bats last.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the visit for me came from the local folks who are working at the community level who had seen the NEN presentation and said “that program is awesome. It’s what every neighborhood needs.”

Anyone will tell you who has been there, you won’t be the same person once you’ve experienced the work of the people of New Orleans. You’ll be a better one.

Check out more photos from New Orleans on Facebook

Watch the interview with Broadmoor Improvement Association President, LaToya Cantrell

Documentary filmmaker S. Leo Chiang discusses the role of community in a post disaster environment and his experience in filming his latest documentary; A Village Called Versailles. The film chronicles the Vietnamese communities struggle in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had devastated their homes. Their story shows the strength and importance of community in the effort to rebuild after a disaster.


Download this episode (right click and save)

Show Information

Guest: S. Leo Chiang, Walking Iris Films
Related Organizations: A village called Versailles
Host: Michael Pawluk
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


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Daniel Homsey, Director, Neighborhood Empowerment Network

The Neighborhood Empowerment Network has been invited to back to New Orleans to present its multi-sector collaborative approach to building stronger communities at the Recovery to Resilience Conference on August 26th, the eve of Katrina’s 5th anniversary. It’s fitting that we make our first presentation abroad in the Big Easy since in many respects the NEN would not be the initiative it is if it weren’t for the incredible people of New Orleans.

In Spring 2007, the City & County of San Francisco sent a delegation to New Orleans to see how we could help them recover from the devastating impact of the levee failures post Katrina. The team included SF City Administrator Ed Lee, Tony Irons of the SF Public Utilities Commission, Sarah Dennis of the SF Planning Department, and myself (then director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services aka MONS). For three days we toured the entire city and saw devastation reminiscent of war zones (see more photos from our visit here).

The main part of our visit was the Broadmoor neighborhood which had been immersed as far as the eye could see. Every home had the tell-tale sign of water damage: “a brown line five feet high on ever surface imaginable.” Our visit was guided by community leader LaToya Cantrell who stepped up post-Katrina to lead her community to recovery. LaToya briefed us on the work they had done to engage national entities such as Harvard Kennedy School and the Carnegie Foundation to help – in ways their local government couldn’t – the community recover. It was a life-changing experience.

We sat at the airport on our way home, reflecting on our work in New Orleans. For example, we’d helped restore the local library and elementary school. However, while we had come to assist New Orleans, New Orleans had actually helped us too. We realized that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in San Francisco at all levels, from City Hall to the neighborhoods. We must not only ensure that our City survives the inevitable earthquake, but to also recover stronger than ever as a community.

Since then we have paid close attention to the work going on in the neighborhoods of New Orleans. The NEN is committed to doing everything it can to support San Franciscans as they do the work that will ensure that what happened to the 9th ward won’t happen here.

It’s an honor to be invited to present at this conference at such an important time. We hope to return to New Orleans with evidence that their hardships were not overlooked by us, but rather leveraged to ensure that such an experience won’t happen again when it’s San Francisco’s turn to face the challenge.

Daniel Homsey is Director of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network. He can be contacted at daniel.homsey@sfgov.org.

Michael G. Pappas, M. Div; Executive Director, San Francisco Interfaith

Given the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s (SFIC) extensive work in disaster preparedness, I felt that firsthand experience on the ground would be rewarding for myself and SFIC. My name was put on a waiting list for a Dickinson College student/alumni Katrina rebuild-mission trip to New Orleans and, this May, I got the call and went into action.

Flying above the Gulf Coast, the darkness of the oil-polluted waters from the recent uncontrollable BP spill was my welcome mat to New Orleans. For the duration of the stay, newspaper front pages were dominated by stories of the spill and frustration at the slow and ineffective response.

From May 24-29th, home was NOLA’s Trinity Methodist Church. Post Katrina, this water-damaged religious facility was converted into a recovery station. The sanctuary, filled with building supplies, became a makeshift Home Depot. Classrooms were crammed with bunk beds and the kitchen became ground zero for chow and fellowship.

Three teams of nine, each led by a “Bonner” Student Leader, were assigned cooking and cleanup duty and were the cogs that made life in this spartan setting work. Participants brought their own mess kits and an assigned kitchen supply, so as to minimize unnecessary refuse. Vans driven in from Dickinson carted teams to and from the jobsites. 

Rising with the chickens, after a quick breakfast, we made sack lunches then loaded coolers and building supplies onto the vans. Thanks to the portable GPS we were able to reach our destinations. With the common bond of our alma mater, we put the best that Dickinson taught us into action.

Team spirit emerged organically and instantaneously. What we lacked in construction experience, we compensated in zeal, creativity and sweat! The roller coaster days spanned from watching paint dry to surges of energy, as seemingly impossible time sensitive tasks demanded every bit of adrenaline we could muster.  Trying to conquer the logistics and execution of dry-walling a small bathroom, exercising muscles I didn’t know I had and inhaling work dust, were all firsts for this neophyte “Bob the Builder!”

What kept us grounded and on track was interaction with the homeowners and neighbors. Their remarkable stories of perseverance five years after Katrina, living in these flood-damaged dwellings without working plumbing and electricity, losing loved ones and community, was the sobering reality which recalled us to our mission. Intermittently, children would appear wanting to help or distract us from the tasks at hand with invitations to toss a football. Elderly neighbors, sympathetic with our heat fatigue would offer cold bottles of water. All the time, these Katrina victims never lost hope or humor.

Our routine wrapped up after dinner in the sanctuary with reflections of the day’s highs and lows.  It’s been 27 years since graduating from Dickinson. With that perspective I was amazed at the intellectual caliber, social conscience, and selfless desire to serve engrained in the undergrads I dubbed, “Bright Young Things.” An unexpected surprise was meeting four alums from San Francisco, who’ve become instant chums.

In addition to the workdays, we spent our last afternoon touring the hardest hit “Lower 9th Ward.” Perched on the site of the levy break and looking at the slabs where humble homes once stood before being washed away, countless folk had waited for rescue on top roofs, and numerous lives had perished, I could not help but feel that I was standing on sacred ground. The few Brad Pitt “Make It Right Foundation” eco-friendly homes, slow to rise, made one wonder if the rest of the country had all but forgotten about the plight of these struggling souls.

Greatest hope came when hearing from a “Teach For America” faculty member, who walked us through the labyrinth of module classrooms at the nearby G.W. Carver High School. It was then and there that the resilience of NOLA teachers and students became most apparent.

No trip to NOLA is complete without wandering the French Quarter and taking a trolley ride through the Garden District. Strangely, visiting those places, seemingly unharmed by Katrina, was a stark reminder of the racial and economic inequity of New Orleans. The opening lines of the Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” seemed best to characterize that demographic divide.

As my plane touched down at SFO, I wondered whether we San Franciscans, living at the precipice of an earthquake, would endure a like disaster with the fortitude, patience and grace of the folk I’d met in New Orleans. If nothing else, this trip inspired hope in the potential of the human spirit to meet any challenge. Likewise, as in other philanthropic endeavors, this well-intentioned volunteer left enriched and touched by the souls he came to help.

Michael G. Pappas, M.Div. is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and member of the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement’s Complete Count Committee.

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