From its headquarters in sedate Southwest Portland, the international relief agency Mercy Corps runs humanitarian operations in some of the world's nastiest hellholes. Darfur, Kosovo, Aceh, North Korea, Iraq-a list of the nonprofit's major projects reads like a guide to modern misery.
So when Mercy Corps scrambled to set up its first full-scale relief operation within the United States, the move showed just how devastating Hurricane Katrina was. By the end of last week, a dozen Corps staffers shared a single Baton Rouge hotel room 80 miles outside New Orleans. Their ranks included veterans of exotic catastrophes, from Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean tsunami zone.
For one team member, the chaotic Gulf Coast scene echoed disasters abroad and packed personal anguish. Diane Johnson splits her time among Brussels, Belgium; Mercy Corps' Portland base; and nightmare spots like Kabul, Afghanistan. But she and her sister also own an antiquated home in New Orleans' Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, which is adjacent to the French Quarter.
So even as she applied lessons learned in Indonesia after last December's tsunami to the wreckage in the Gulf, Johnson also had to figure out what to do about a small subset of the region's evacuees: her family.
"I think I'm going to drive into New Orleans tomorrow," Johnson said last Friday, as relief helicopters buzzed above Baton Rouge, where traffic increased fivefold after the hurricane and phone service was intermittent at best. "Our house wasn't flooded, but my sister, brother and mother were all displaced. I'm basically spending one day on work stuff, the next day on personal stuff. It's disconcerting and humbling."
(Johnson couldn't be reached Monday-MC staff says cell service in the Gulf is worse than in Indonesia-but reportedly could not enter the city.)
Beyond her own trials, Johnson sees many parallels between the U.S. calamity and Indonesia's tsunami disaster. In particular, she says bulky central government threaten to stifle grassroots recovery efforts. She worries that on top of what many see as a botched response to the initial tragedy, inertia from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could slow recovery.
"I think what this country discovered over the last couple of weeks is that we had a false confidence," she says. "We assumed that a system existed that could cope. What we need to realize-and this was the case in Indonesia-is that people have more local capability than they get credit for. In a lot of places, people will be able to re-establish schools, start a lot of rebuilding and accomplish a lot, if FEMA will let them."
Mercy Corps' Gulf effort, like its projects in countries more often associated with societal meltdown, aims to kick-start local assets. The Corps plans a "cash-for-work" system to reward volunteer recovery workers with small stipends. A similar program, agency officials say, helped spur reconstruction in Indonesia. Mini-grants to local organizations and purchasing policies designed to benefit area businesses will also help stoke the shattered economy.
With $3 million in donations already banked, Mercy Corps' Gulf deployment could run as long as six months. In the immediate future, the incredible force of Katrina is likely to force long-term revitalization to the back burner.
"People are coming in from the field with their minds blown," says Eric Block, a Portland-based Mercy Corps communications officer (and occasional WW music writer) deployed to Baton Rouge. "They're seeing houses blown off their foundations and cars wrapped around trees."
Here's a sampling of local places helping with Katrina relief:
From Sept. 18 to 20, Il Piatto (2348 SE Ankeny St.) will donate 25 percent of its total sales to either Mercy Corps or American Red Cross, depending on the wishes of the customer.
North Star Coffeehouse (7540 N Interstate Ave.) will be having a Septemberfest event for Katrina victims featuring a barbecue and live music from noon to 7 pm on Sept. 17 with all profits being donated.
Donations raised by fans attending the Trail Blazers' Wells Fargo Fan Fest on Oct. 9 will be matched by the team, up to $15,000. Tickets will be available for a $1 suggested donation at Portland and Vancouver Wells Fargo locations beginning Sept. 19.
Sweet Tomatoes locations will be collecting donations for the American Red Cross until Sept. 23, which they will match up to $10,000.
On Sept. 14 at 7 pm, Pasha (19 NW 5th Ave.) is hosting a New Orleans Disaster Relief Benefit featuring Leil Awalim, Urban Berber, Auracle, Bruce Beaton, Darshan and Friends.
Mississippi Pizza (3552 N Mississippi Ave.) will be hosting a Hurricane Relief Benefit on Sept. 15 beginning at 5 pm featuring Anne Weiss, Joe McMurrian, Dylan-Thomas Vance, Jeff Rosenberg, Miriam German, Connie Cohen, The Djangophiles and guests.
Portland Roasting (340 SE 7th Ave.) will donate all profits made until the end of September on the sale of coffee at any New Seasons grocery stores to the local Red Cross for direct relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
For the last two weeks in September, the Melody Ballroom (615 SE Alder St.) will be hosting nightly concerts and southern-style buffet dinners Tuesday through Saturday to benefit Katrina relief efforts. Admission is $10 for dinner, $10 for the show.
The spa at the Waldorf Center for Plastic Surgery (12400 NW Cornell Road) is donating 10 percent of its profits during September to the American Red Cross.
The Goodfoot lounge (2845 SE Stark St.) is hosting a Katrina Benefit show and art auction on Sept. 15 at 8 pm. Music provided by the Dickel Brothers and other members of Portland's old-time/acoustic community. Cover is $5-$10.
For more on Mercy Corps and how you can help, go online to www.mercycorps.org
Also, check out www.wweek.com for local fundraisers.