Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Our New Neighbors

On Labor Day, following the annual mass at the Cathedral Center, I sat down with the mayor, fellow councilmembers, and other city staff to help coordinate some of the city response to Hurricane Katrina. State officials recognized the City of Los Angeles for its emergency preparedness and there has been a quick response to Katrina from Mayor Villaraigosa and a number of councilmembers, notably Jan Perry and Bernard Parks, who represent many residents with families in the areas hit by the devastation.

In Council District 13, people have opened up their hearts, wallets, and their doors to hurricane survivors. The first large group of displaced persons to arrive in Los Angeles is staying in Echo Park, in the old Queen of Angels Hospital that is now the Dream Center, a church and social services complex affiliated with Angelus Temple.

Earlier in the day, I had spoken on the phone with my friends Pastor Matthew Barnett and Associate Pastor Aaron Jayne, who run the Dream Center and minister at Angelus Temple. I spoke to Aaron on the ground with a team in Baton Rouge, LA, where he is working with local churches to identify Katrina survivors that can be brought to Los Angeles. In LA, Matthew, local residents, and Dream Center staff are working around the clock to house, feed, and provide some calm for dozens of displaced families coming from Mississippi and Louisiana.

I went by the Dream Center in the afternoon, where spirits were weary but uplifted. Most of the staff had only slept a few hours in the last three days, and cars full of donations had been rolling into the parking lot, sometimes in lines three cars wide.

CD13 Deputy Chief of Staff Ana Guerrero and I began helping to coordinate with the Dream Center to provide for our new neighbors in Echo Park. The new residents included a baby who needed prescription medicine. Despite having the prescription, no local pharmacy would take the baby's medical card from Louisiana. Carol Meyer from the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency had also stopped by the Dream Center and she said that she would do what she could to take care of this.

I made calls to help locate more planes to bring the remaining folks in Louisiana to Los Angeles and to help connect services, food, and hopefully jobs to the new residents. After about an hour, the Dream Center asked if Ana and I would join some staff on a bus going out to the nearby airport where the latest planeload was landing. Since donated private jets are ferrying the displaced persons, about a dozen come on any plane. We stopped to get some Krispy Kreme donuts on the way and were soon at the terminal parking lot where we saw the 13 arrivals. They were mostly children and women, from both Mississippi and Louisiana, black and white, single and in families. Some were excited to be in Los Angeles, others pretty dazed still. There were smiles, tears, and disbelief as we talked on the way back from the airport. One woman I talked to had been in the Superdome for a number of days and had seen horrible things that made it difficult to sleep. Another two passengers on the bus were from Gulfport, Mississippi, and could not believe that they were in Los Angeles. Kids, as kids do, ran up and down the aisles or slept in their mothers' arms.

Soon, we drove into the Dream Center, where a huge greeting line of cheers awaited us and many of the arrivals began to cry. Some spoke to the press that was there so that they could get the word out about what was happening on the ground in Louisiana. We immediately moved them into their rooms with what belongings they had with them. On their doors were welcome signs with their names on them. After about thirty minutes of helping settle them in, I spent some time with Pastor Matthew and we agreed to coordinate local efforts in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area to help support the new arrivals (more on this to come in a special e*news appeal in the next couple of days).

On the way out of the building, a woman came up to me to thank me for helping her baby get some medicine. We hugged and she told me that Carol Meyer from the county was able to call an ambulance, which picked up the prescription, took it to County-USC Hospital, got it filled, and got the baby a Medical card as well. It was a small act of extraordinary kindness by

She also pointed out that the baby's cousin, Christopher, who also made it to Echo Park, is a 15 year-old resident of New Orleans who has not seen his mother in more than a week, so I got a television camera to come tape his plea to his mother with the hope that she or someone might recognize him and help him. Like any 15 year-old boy, he acted tough, but was on the verge of tears as he spoke.

Half a million lives ripped apart had been a difficult number to wrap my head around--it is almost too big to comprehend. But thirteen people later, through the joy, the continuing agony, and the courage of our new neighbors, I could begin to see sinews of a fragile hope that remains with us in Katrina's aftermath.