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Two True American Heroes
[Photo 2: William Ward]
Ray Richardson, HUD Economic Development Specialist, Los Angeles

 

In September 2005, Ray Richardson, Economic Development Specialist, and William Ward, Community Planning and Development Representative from the Los Angeles Field Office, volunteered to assist victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Ray served for nearly six weeks. William served for seven. For them, volunteering was nothing new. Both served in a similar capacity in 2004 when hurricanes devastated Florida.

Nothing could have prepared them for what they found in Louisiana during this tour of duty. For Florida, the needs of the people could be addressed fairly quickly. People's houses were damaged but the basic infrastructure was still there. Temporary housing could be moved onto people's property while the rehabilitation work was underway. Children were able attend their own schools. People were able to return to their jobs.

Louisiana was different primarily because of the long-term flooding. People were unable to get back to their properties. Major, long-term relocation was the rule rather than the exception. Lives were totally disrupted.

It was William's responsibility to work with a strike team made up of several federal agencies to identify sites for housing displaced persons. His particular strike force was directed toward the rural areas of southwestern Louisiana. This was a good match for a person who grew up in Mississippi.

William's team had to meet with small rural town officials to find solutions to the need for temporary housing. This involved not only housing, but also the physical infrastructure, schools and transportation systems. Often he had to ease the community's fears and overcome their reluctance to receive major influxes of dislocated persons. Many times it was because the people needing housing and services would overcrowd local schools, overburden water and sewer systems and stretch local resources to their limits.

[Photo 2: William Ward]
William Ward, Community Planning and Development Representative, Los Angeles

 

With the people came the need for local jobs, which often were not there. Unemployment, poverty and mental trauma also brought local concerns about providing adequate police and mental health services. The challenges for the strike team were staggering. They had to provide the right balance between meeting the needs of the displaced families and their adopted community. Once sites could be identified, William had to secure leases, contracts and necessary rights of entry.

Ray was part of a team in Baton Rouge that looked at addressing the damage to the social structure. His team's focus was primarily getting the people back to work. "Employment is the lifeblood of the community," Ray explained. He had to assess the damage done and recommend what was needed to return a community to some state of normalcy. Every community had its own economic base and power structure. Like William, Ray had to continually balance the needs of the community with the needs of the families being relocated. Ray felt like a bilingual interpreter with government on one side and the people they were trying to help on the other side.

Fourteen-hour days, seven days a week were the common work schedules for both of them. For the entire time in Louisiana, there was no time off to regroup and dissipate the job stress. At the end of the day, all they could do was hit their beds and try to fall asleep. In the morning, they again had to cope with the same frustrations and challenges.

William was able to stay in a hotel during his duration. Ray, however, had to sleep on a cot in large communal tent the size of a football field. For Ray, his life was a little like those whom he was there to help. Both had to be concerned about good drinking water. Transportation to job sites was at times challenging. Living conditions were often primitive. They had to deal with the stench of corpses and dead animals. William said that they felt like they were always in a survival mode, in a real war zone. The difference between them and the hurricane victims was that William and Ray had homes, families and jobs when they returned to Los Angeles.

Both men were often surprised how much they had to give. They understood the system that was trying to help the disaster victims.

Both were deeply moved by the experience. Would they do it again? They said in unison, "In a heartbeat!!!"

In our opinion, we recognize these people, and other volunteers like them, as true American heroes.