Storm Relief Surge | Pittsburgh City Paper

Storm Relief Surge

Free spirits and the faithful continue to outpace official Katrina relief



In November, when a small group of Pittsburghers joined Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans and Waveland, Miss., they found a unique collaboration between the Rainbow Tribe and evangelical churches -- polar opposites joining to aid survivors where FEMA had failed to tread (see City Paper main feature, Dec. 21, "Wholly Spirited").



Their collaboration, the large New Waveland Café, fed thousands a day at its peak and included medical tents and free goods for locals. On Dec. 1, the federal government forced the Café to vacate its shopping center parking lot. The lot was still empty, and the destruction around it still untouched, as of mid-February.


According to a fresh contingent of Pittsburghers who traveled to both cities last month, the private relief effort is taking new shape among true believers of both volunteer camps.


In Waveland, the Christian-based Morrell Foundation set up a village of semi-permanent tent buildings for church-based relief groups, run locally by Steve Morrell, whose family made its money running U.S. military dining halls during the current Iraq War. At its highest point the dormitory-style facility -- complete with showers, a laundromat and trailer hookups -- hosted more than 300 people in one day, but in mid-February housed only 30.


The Rainbow contingent has partnered with the just-out-of-college crowd and moved their efforts to Chalmette, La., next to New Orleans' 9th Ward, building the "Made With Love" kitchen complete with geodesic-domed dining area and circus tents. Mark Weiner, who had quit his New York City law-firm post to help the New Waveland Café, spearheads this project through a new non-profit group, Emergency Communities. The kitchen serves 1,500 meals a day, and business is actually increasing, while the "magic donations," as Weiner calls the truckloads of food once sent to relief efforts from all over the country, grow fewer.


Lawrenceville's Cleo Zell, who organizes Pittsburgh events, was inspired enough by seeing (and helping) Emergency Communities to set a March 16 "ReNew Orleans" fundraiser at Brillobox to benefit the group.


Ben Sota, who lives on the South Side and founded the local Zany Umbrella Circus, took his act to the food line at Chalmette and to two Waveland elementary schools, some of whom were still holding classes in Quonset huts.


"The conditions looked worse than I expected, and the frustration level was really high, months and months later," says Sota. "A lot of what the government is doing is patching, and patches break.


 "I didn't know if anyone would want to see a circus show, if this was a good way of volunteering," he adds. But school officials "were just floored, [asking] 'Can you come tomorrow?' You don't know how you would be helping. You just had to pay attention and people would tell you how you were needed."