Monday, January 23, 2017

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Katie Mears

Gutting/Rebuilding Program Coordinator: Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana

Katie Mears was the Gutting/Rebuilding Program coordinator with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, which acted entrepreneurially by identifying and serving a particular group of people—those who had fallen through the cracks of other programs.

Katie coordinated the work of hundreds of volunteers and leveraged the organization of the Episcopal Church to connect volunteers from across the country with Louisianans most in need. As a result, the diocese gutted about 900 houses and has rebuilt 50 houses by the end of 2008.

How did you come to volunteer after Hurricane Katrina?
I actually came down with an Episcopal volunteer group
….I had been trying to figure out what I was going to do that fall. Lots of the big organizations didn’t have the capacity to take people yet because everything was so in flux. And my aunt’s church in DC happened to be sending a trip. So I tagged along with them, which is the only way this all would’ve been possible.

They had a place to stay because they had an unflooded church. They had the infrastructure. And so I just started out gutting with them. There was a church that wasn’t flooded all the way up on the lakefront, and [they] knew people that needed help. And so I worked with them, and then when that group left, I stayed behind because projects weren’t finished. So picking up people along the way, we just kept going.

[The group] was a bunch of mostly former New Orleanians [who] formed a group up in DC called Washington Episcopalians Respond to Katrina because they realized that interest in each individual parish wouldn’t be enough to sustain a pretty massive effort. But if they had just a couple of people from each place, they could do something together. And so they were the ones that were running the trips.

They would run trips in the beginning almost every month; they would have people coming down. And so I latched on to one of those trips, which was actually great because it meant it was easy for outsiders to tag along because they didn’t all know each other super well.

How did you become an employee of the diocese?
When I got here that December, everything was still in so much chaos. The whole diocese had evacuated to Baton Rouge and so there weren’t any full-time staff from the diocese side here in New Orleans. And so all the volunteer efforts were being directed either from afar or by local clergy, and local clergy just didn’t have the resources, the time to do anything.

We were partnered with Holy Comforter, and the priest up there had lost his house and was staying at the church. So I just started showing up there and helping him. And other volunteers started showing up, staying where I was staying at the same church. That was easy to just convince them to come help me after they finished whatever they’d been assigned.

Then the folks in Baton Rouge realized it was easy to have a person on the ground. They would coordinate it. They would schedule them and then figure out the broad picture of what they were doing, and then it was up to me to actually make their time when they were here work.

By late February 2006, that was actually a job, so I got hired after Mardi Gras to keep what I had been doing with volunteers, which was finding work sites, coordinating work projects, making sure it was safe, finding homeowners, all that stuff.

What sort of clients do you serve?
The clients we serve have changed a lot over the course of the last couple of years. The first days in 2006 primarily, the gutting demand was just so much bigger than anything we could ever possibly imagine and could ever serve. We got so many more calls than we could ever actually help. At our height, we were running maybe 10 volunteer crews, tops 15 through the day. And we’re getting more than that in terms of calls every day.

And so we had to pick a niche….It turned out a lot of their churches had rules about who they would work with. They wanted to work with people that were [sure to] rebuild [and] could get here to be with the volunteers. So we ended up working with people that didn’t meet anybody else’s criteria.

That meant that we worked with a lot of elderly people that couldn’t either economically, or physically, or emotionally handle getting back to New Orleans from wherever they had evacuated; a lot of people that couldn’t even think about whether they were rebuilding. So gutting was more about finding their little china figurines and then figuring out what they were gonna do after that.

We were working with the most desperate cases, oftentimes acknowledging the gutting wasn’t about reconstruction. It was about closure for the pre-Katrina life. And then as time went on and those folks actually got finished, which was the miracle in all this, we actually got done with gutting. We ended up moving into rebuilding, which is obviously more rational.

At this point, they’re mostly rebuilding for people that, again through all the other systems, have fallen through the cracks because we often had more resources to work with than other organizations. They’re people whose Road Home money got stolen, who didn’t qualify for Road Home—which means they’re often elderly, elderly raising kids, [people] with some mental health problems, [people with] physical health problems. They’re just spread too thin, and then they’re easy to be victims of fraud.

Why did the Episcopal Diocese carve out this niche of working with populations that weren’t being served by other groups?
I felt like it. One thing that was really great about the organization was that I had supervisors that handled all this stuff, but to a big extent, they allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. And they recognized that the bishop had talked a lot about the idea that what the New Testament’s calling us to do is to serve those that are not being served, the least of these. That made a lot of sense to him.

And so [instead of] saying, “We’re only going to work with people that can help themselves,” he . . . was willing to go with me, [understanding] that wasn’t what we were going to be doing. That wasn’t what we were about.

How does a client get referred to you?
In gutting it was just random, especially early on….We would always call them drive-bys because people would drive by and stop say, “Can you help my mom?” “Can you help my aunt?” And so we would just take phone numbers. And then do that intake process to find out how they were doing emotionally, what sorts of other options they had to help with the house, basically, how overwhelmed they were—and then we tried to put the most overwhelmed first.

At this point, a lot of times, it’s friends and neighbors of people that we’re working with. Again, when you’re looking for the folks that are in the worst positions, they don’t always find you. So you have to be constantly looking.

We work with a lot of people that have mental health problems and have physical health problems that keep them isolated, which means they don’t call. That’s the point. And so you have to be constantly asking, “Do you know a neighbor who’s in their trailer and has no plan on how to get out?”—that kind of stuff.

What was the intake process like for potential clients?
The intake process has never been particularly formal and part of what we were always going for was to seem as far away from the government as possible. So if the government process is really depersonalizing, and paperwork-obsessed, and all about proof, what we were trying to be was the opposite of that in every way.

A big thing that people complained about was how invasive and how distrustful all of the FEMA processes seemed. You had to prove that you didn’t spend too much money on groceries last month and you had to prove that you had actually traveled to Atlanta. And maybe you couldn’t prove that you had; you just had gone.

And so…we tried to do it all as just conversations. And to the point like our intake forms, the questions are things like, “How are you doing?” “How is your health?” “Where are you staying?” Because are those the questions—if the person burst into tears, then we know. That gives us more information than, “What was your last month’s budget on clothing?” That doesn’t help.

What is the role in a future disaster that nonprofits, either religious or secular, play in the recovery and rebuilding efforts?
I hope it’s to fill in the gaps. What depresses me here and what I hope doesn’t happen in the future is how big the gaps have gotten. We’re filling in the gaps, but the gaps were everything. Every house that got gutted is because a nonprofit gutted it or a family, but there wasn’t a state solution to that. With rebuilding, again, it’s only possible for a lot of people because they had a nonprofit do it for them.

On the other hand, there will always be people who fall through the gaps. I don’t think [ill of] the folks that we’re working with who didn’t apply for the Road Home program because they were in the hospital and missed the deadline and don’t have any of the paperwork, etc. Some of those folks, in any disaster, will never meet the criteria. And that’s who the nonprofits should be helping. I hope [the] swath of folks that we’re serving is a little bit narrower; that would be nice.

Why are you getting people back in their homes faster than the government?
I feel like we do really well with the specific folks we serve…mentally ill, recluse folks with a lot of physical health problems living in trailers with limited communication abilities. I’m sure we’re getting those folks back in their houses faster than the government could. I think in terms of big population—I’m not sure that’s true.

But I think the reason we’re able to do that is because we don’t care that much about fraud and we don’t care that much about proof. In a post-disaster context, getting faxes back and forth about rental applications and any kind of paperwork, that’s complicated. And if we don’t need it, that just saves a lot of effort for everybody.