Group moves quickly to reconnect, organize Astrodome ‘residents’

The Houston Astrodome and the nearby Reliant Park arena — once shelter to thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors — are empty now. The media spotlight that once lent a sense of urgency to their plight is gone as well. Awakened from the shock of losing their homes, their jobs and their belongings, survivors continue to struggle to rebuild their lives. In Houston, they have help in the form of the Survivors Leadership Group, created just four days after the first refugees arrived in cooperation with The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), a Houston-based community organization of churches, schools, unions and other organizations.

Working hand-in-hand with local officials, TMO immediately set to work organizing a new community made up of displaced residents of various New Orleans neighborhoods.

Houston Astrodome

Perched high above the Houston Astrodome, a young Katrina evacuee surveys the crowd below.

“The mayor and our local government officials have been very responsive to our efforts,” said Renee Barrios, lead organizer for TMO. TMO initially was invited by Mayor Bill White to be part of the city’s “Katrina Working Group” and immediately set to work identifying “home-grown” leaders among the evacuees who could work with local, state and national nonprofit and government agencies to resettle the 25,000 men, women and children seeking shelter in Houston.

As soon as the first survivors arrived in Texas, TMO was on the scene at Reliant Park, meeting individually with people to learn about their most immediate needs and concerns and identify potential leaders who had the trust and credibility necessary to begin organizing the scattered survivors of New Orleans’ many neighborhoods and parishes. Amid the cacophony of individual and family needs, survivors also discovered the political power of speaking in unison to address the government and nonprofit agencies trying to help them.

The Survivors Leadership Group (SLG), which grew out of these efforts, has achieved many victories, including establishment of a child-care center and outdoor playground for children at the arena — necessities for exhausted parents attempting to work with Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials.

One of their biggest accomplishments impacts not only the Houston survivors but also everyone with cell phones from the 504 area code. TMO and SLG learned that services from that area code were being canceled by the phone companies, which would have destroyed the survivors’ efforts to reconnect with family members. Working with city officials and the area congressional delegation, the leadership team secured a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission prohibiting the cancellation.

“Our staff, our pastors and lay leaders have been energized by this effort,” Barrios said. “We’re in this for the long run. These individuals and families have lost their mediating institutions; their civic infrastructure has eroded. It’s important that they continue to have a relationship with one another. Over the long haul, they will need this collective political power.”

As an affiliate of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), TMO will continue to work with survivors on long-term recovery packages, including FEMA reimbursements, housing, food assistance, medical care and public-sector jobs. TMO leaders and organizers are also working with leaders and organizers of the Jeremiah Group, the IAF affiliate from New Orleans, to develop a Jeremiah in Exile Group in Houston and other Texas cities where survivors are located.

“We’re in this for the long run. These individuals and families have lost their mediating institutions; their civic infrastructure has eroded. Over the long haul, they will need this collective political power.”

Renee Barrios

TMO was established more than 20 years ago to negotiate issues across the racial, economic and religious lines that divided Houston. It is one of a network of community-based organizations in 12 cities organized by the IAF. TMO members are Hispanic, Anglo and African-American, and include Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Church of God in Christ congregations.

“We have up to 150,000 new residents, and Houston had its problems before they arrived,” Barrios said.

Still struggling to recover from two decades of job cuts in the energy industry, the city already was home to many unemployed and underemployed and has the highest number of uninsured residents in the country.

Since 1996, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided grant support for a number of initiatives undertaken by the Interfaith Education Fund, which assists organizations affiliated with the IAF by providing professional organizing, research and technical support for local affiliate organizations in seven states, including Texas.

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