After Katrina: A new home in Atlanta
Across the United States, IRC resettlement offices, which have long helped refugees from war-torn countries rebuild their lives, extended aid to families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Photographer Jim Stawniak was on hand that fall when two families who lost homes to Katrina moved into the new apartments the IRC found for them in Atlanta.
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[[SLIDESHOW]] Only days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a swath of the Gulf Coast, the International Rescue Committee dispatched an emergency team of relief experts to Louisiana. For the first time in its 73-year history, the organization responded to a humanitarian crisis in the United States. “Normally, we respond to international crises caused by humans, not natural disasters in this country,” says George Rupp, the IRC’s president. “But when we received an urgent plea for help from people in Louisiana, we decided we had to act.” After Katrina hit, officials from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Louisiana’s largest community foundation, spent a futile 24 hours trying to contact federal and state officials for advice on how to cope with the growing number of people driven from their homes by the storm. They decided to call the IRC, says John Davies, the foundation’s president, because of its experience with similar situations around the world. “This was a Banda Aceh-type crisis,” Davies says. “We went and found the guys that did Banda Aceh.” What the IRC team found in Louisiana might have reminded them of Banda Aceh after the tsunami: mile after mile of devastated coastline, abandoned and destroyed homes, a breakdown in public order and health care. The team’s specialists, all of whom had worked in war zones or disaster areas, carried out a rapid assessment of the crisis and advised local officials on restoring critical services such as sanitation, water and emergency medical care. Meanwhile, as thousands of displaced hurricane victims began to overwhelm local authorities, the IRC stepped into the breach. Across the country, IRC resettlement offices,which have long assisted refugees from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe rebuild their lives, extended aid to families displaced by Katrina, helping people find food,housing, clothing, counseling—and each other, through a system that registered and tracked people uprooted by the storm. “The IRC has the capacity and the expertise to bring order and stability back to people’s lives,” says Bob Carey, the IRC’s vice president of resettlement. “From our experience aiding people suffering from conflict and upheaval, we know that integration into a community and the opportunity to be independent and self-sufficient is important.”