The Rebuilding Lives Coalition (and the Unified New Orleans Plan) is an exemplar of Round River Consulting’s ability to powerfully engage a wide range of constituent groups in a way that positively impacts thousands of lives. Following Hurricane Katrina, AmericaSpeaks (AS) managed and produced two 21st Century Town Hall Meetings, held simultaneously in 5 diaspora cities, to develop priorities for the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). As a result, thousands of voices that would not have been represented in meetings held in New Orleans were included in plans submitted to the federal government to rebuild the city. Residents sustained their efforts to engage hundreds of people to attend hearings to support the plan.
The Round River Consulting team managed the Houston UNOP site, new home to 120,000 displaced New Orleanians, where they identified and supervised the work of Katrina evacuees and survivors to conduct a successful outreach strategy. They initiated strong relationships with Houston’s mayor and congressional delegation, key HUD and FEMA officials, the newly created Louisiana Recovery Authority, and dozens of social service, faith, and community organizations.
With AmericaSpeaks’s support, the RRC team continued its work beyond UNOP to launch and manage a project with residents from across southern Louisiana displaced by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. The newly created Rebuilding Lives Coalition impacted housing policy that was keeping residents trapped in FEMA trailer parks, homeless shelters, and on the streets. The coalition was also instrumental in efforts to secure additional resources to make homeownership possible and to preserve case management, public transportation, and rental assistance.
RRC led a weekend retreat designed to help build capacity among Katrina evacuees and survivors in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Baton Rouge to address priority issues in their recovery. Several retreat participants lived in the largest FEMA trailer park in Louisiana - Renaissance Village. Along with several Katrina survivors who served on the Houston outreach team, RRC worked with these trailer park residents to organize a meeting that drew over 350 trailer park residents to present a transition to permanent housing plan to two dozen local, state and federal officials. RRC concentrated its efforts on building the capacity of the newly created Renaissance Village Leadership Team to share their experiences in trying to navigate a system of agencies that were not coordinated. They helped residents shape proposals that would address the roadblocks and deficiencies they were experiencing in the recovery system. Round River helped them identify the right decision-makers to contact and facilitated a strategy to engage them. They also prepared the resident team to develop and present the plan in a series of strategic sessions to encourage interagency coordination and case management (between HUD and FEMA).
As a result, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) also initiated a process to coordinate the actions of state agencies. (Note: LRA staff, charged with managing the recovery process for the state, had never visited a FEMA trailer park before the Renaissance Village Leadership Team invited them to the first meeting following the large meeting of 350 residents which was held at City Hall in Baker, LA)
The LRA requested replication of this innovative strategy in other trailer parks, but before this expanded strategy could be implemented, two hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast in 2008 – Gustav and Ike. Immediately, the Rebuilding Lives Coalition organizers comprised of Katrina survivors and led by the RRC team, expanded their outreach efforts to to southern bayou regions, throughout the river parishes north to Baton Rouge and west to Lake Charles. A new leadership team consisting of teams of leaders from 4 regions of the state began to collaborate.
In late 2008, RRC worked with residents to organize eight focus groups across the state to identify the most important priorities for rebuilding lives. The results of these conversations were submitted to PolicyLink and State Senator Cheryl Gray who introduced a set of housing bills to strengthen public policy and raise additional resources. In early 2009, 250 Gulf coast residents from vastly diverse backgrounds united for a day in Lake Charles to create a Rebuilding Lives Agenda. The executive director of the LRA and other policy-makers committed to work with the coalition to advance its agenda.
Round River Consulting (RRC) saw a need and a responsibility to continue to empower residents impacted by Hurricane Katrina and later Hurricanes Gustav and Ike to act collectively beyond the Unified New Orleans Project (UNOP) town hall meetings. Specifically, evacuees and survivors living in FEMA trailer parks were virtually powerless to impact the process to move into permanent affordable housing. Critical services including case management and public transportation were also needed. The goal of this project was to build the capacity of the people themselves to articulate their concerns, develop proposals for action and public policy and build working relationships with decision-makers that resulted in meaningful action.