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Recovery and relationships

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, PDA documentary airing on NBC explores stories of homeowners, volunteers

September 3, 2010

ABIQUIU, N.M.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the process of recovery is ongoing. Volunteers and organizations are still working to bring residents home and revitalize destroyed neighborhoods.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is a key organization that continues to work in the area, housing volunteers from across the country, working with local partners and providing building materials and support.

But PDA hasn't built only houses — over the years, volunteers and homeowners have built relationships that remain strong and life-changing.

Those relationships are the focus of a PDA documentary,­ "Coming Home: Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later." Directed by PDA videographer David Barnhart, the documentary will air on NBC affiliate stations between now and March 13. It first aired in some cities August 29, the anniversary of when Katrina first made landfall in south Louisiana.

Barnhart went to the Gulf to film every few months during the past five years. In talking to homeowners, he found that they weren’t talking as much about bricks and ceilings as they were about the volunteers who came to give their time, skills and support.

"They kept talking about what it meant to have someone be there with you to take that first step," Barnhart said.

More than 50,000 PDA volunteers have assisted in recovery in the Gulf in the five years since Katrina.

Many homeowners have walked a hard road to get back home. Contractor fraud, unpaid insurance claims and burdensome rent and mortgage payments have added many layers to recovery, and Presbyterians have really filled a void, Barnhart said.

The ministry of accompaniment has been invaluable, and it’s important for homeowners to have support when confronting the psychological trauma that comes with rebuilding after a disaster, Barnhart said.

"Groups came and said, 'We're here for you,'" he said. “Many groups said, 'We'll help you take the first step."

And the relationships work both ways. Coming to the Gulf has had a profound impact on volunteers and in the documentary they speak eloquently about why they came and how they were impacted.

"It all comes back to stories," he said.

Volunteers meet homeowners and build relationships, returning home to share these stories with their friends and congregations. One man in the documentary was inspired by the story of a homeowner with no furniture that he organized the Western Pennsylvania Table Project, which makes and delivers kitchen tables to homeowners.

Barnhart said he's always been drawn to people who have experienced trauma. He served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Argentina, working with street kids and organizing community gardens and theater groups. He's also worked with PDA as Latin America liaison, working with communities in Mexico, Central America and Venezuela recovering from disasters.

He studied broadcast journalism in college, and it was while working with communities after Hurricane Mitch that he decided to bring his camera and have people tell their stories in their own words. He then started integrating film into recovery efforts.

"Their stories can be a part of the healing process," Barnhart said. "It's important to humanize recoveries. It’s important to tell that human story in their words … because then people can have a connection. It’s universal."

He directed another PDA-produced documentary following the lives of three Indonesian survivors of the 2004 tsunami. "Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami" will be aired on ABC affiliates from November to January.

In "Kepulihan," the three subjects are followed for several years. Barnhart talked with them about what they wanted to share and what shots or locations they could use. He traveled to Indonesia every year and was able to show the subjects their film from the year before so they could see how far they'd come. They'd view the film as a community and then reflect on the next step.

"I wanted it to be part of recovery," Barnhart said.

With both documentaries, Barnhart focused on relationships first. He sees his work as a ministry and acknowledged that he wouldn't be able to meet or work so closely with survivors if it weren't for the long-standing relationships the PC(USA) has around the world and across the country. In order to really hear their stories, he has to build trust and relationships with his subjects.

"Our partnerships and the way we work in ministry with folks is just awesome," he said.

But Barnhart also acknowledged that seeing tragedy this closely can be emotionally draining. Forming these close relationships allows him to see the full spectrum of a story, which means seeing the tragedy alongside the hope.

"It’s hard to be there and walk with someone through recovery and maintain that distance," he said. "It's impossible."

Barnhart said he hopes "Coming Home" will make people realize that disaster recovery is a long-term effort and will be motivated to help out.

"When you do come and volunteer for a week or a day, you are part of a process that enables people to come home," he said. "I want Presbyterians to see this and feel good about that work that we’re doing."

For a list of the NBC affiliates scheduled to air "Coming Home," click here.

PDA has materials to help congregations campaign for their local affiliates to air the documentaries. Both documentaries will be available on DVD after they've aired.

Barnhart traveled to New Orleans to watch that city’s airing of the documentary Aug. 29. Scores of people — homeowners, volunteers, local congregations and staff from the Presbytery of South Louisiana — gathered at Lakeview Presbyterian Church to watch "Coming Home" on the local NBC affiliate.

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