Staffers Find Ways To Help

Posted September 13, 2005 at 4:36pm

For Ellery Gould, spokesman for Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), it is going to be tough to readjust to the pace of Capitol Hill. In Washington, D.C., there aren’t food shortages or massive failures in communications and logistics at every turn. There aren’t dozens of displaced individuals and families asking you where they should go, what they should do. You don’t see staff members here taking breaks to go outside and cry for a few minutes before returning to their jobs.

Gould just got back from Louisiana on Friday, and he’s already feeling antsy.

“Being down there on the ground in the middle of the disaster puts what goes on in the Capitol in perspective,” Gould said. “It’s honestly a jolt being back.”

Gould’s experience in Louisiana is just one of numerous instances of offices and their staffers on Capitol Hill, as well as in their districts, providing personal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Gould, like many other Capitol Hill staffers, was back in his boss’s home district during the August recess, doing his normal work: scheduling and planning press conferences and events for his boss, talking with press and developing strategy and message for when Congress reconvened in September.

Days later, he was in the emergency operation center in Baton Rouge with his boss dealing hands-on with the aftermath of Katrina. Instead of returning to D.C., where he probably could have best fulfilled his duties as press secretary, he chose to stay in Louisiana where he thought he could be of more help. So for the next two weeks, his day job of communicating with press folks took a back seat to a new, improvised role of trying to provide as much relief support on the ground as possible.

Using a slab of concrete in a parking lot as his work space when he wasn’t touring the state with his boss, Gould spent the majority of his time coordinating private relief efforts, working to match resources directly with needs.

“I’m sure there were reporters from all over the country that were aggravated with me because I wasn’t able to return their calls,” Gould said. “But I was trying to help figure out if we had enough tetanus shots, or how we were going to ship a 50-gallon drum of diesel to run the generators, or whether the people were getting the food and resources they needed. It’s definitely not what I was trained for, but it’s what I wound up doing.”

In the District, on the Ground

The stories are different, but all share in the common drive to try to help in a crisis that seems to grow larger by the day. Some staffers raise money, while others collect essential goods for victims; Congressional offices organize volunteer services set up to assist overwhelmed staff in those offices now inundated with concerned phone calls and piling case studies; offices in unaffected districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama step up to help out their counterparts in damaged areas.

In one case, four out of nine staffers in Rep. Robert Aderholt’s (R-Ala.) district offices, largely unaffected by the storm, used vacation time to head to Mississippi to help out in some way at the urging of their boss.

Jennifer Taylor, director of constituent services for Aderholt, accompanied a set of 18-wheelers provided by McGriff Industries that were bringing food and water to people in the affected areas of Rep. Chip Pickering’s (R-Miss.) district.

Both District Field Representative Jason Harper and Field Director Paul Housel rented U-Haul trucks and spread the word that they would be driving to Christ Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss., which was being used as a staging ground for goods being moved to overcrowded shelters throughout the area. They asked people to donate paper goods, plastic utensils, diapers, baby wipes and any other items that might be of use.

“At nine in the morning we started out with nothing,” Housel said. “We were worried that we weren’t going to come even close to filling up the truck.”

But by nightfall, through the efforts of Housel’s church and word of mouth, Housel and Harper were both driving south in trucks completely filled with donated goods heading to where they were needed the most.

District Field Representative John Ross, the only staffer in Aderholt’s Decatur office, left his office empty for days to drive to his in-laws’ house in Pascagoula, Miss., with his wife to assist her parents and brother in salvaging what they could from their houses, which were destroyed. Even though he had to return soon after, the experience left a definite impact.

“It was a personal relief effort that has motivated me to help with the effort as a whole,” Ross said. “The pictures don’t do it justice, I wasn’t prepared for the extent of the damage; it just goes on and on and on. My wife and I will definitely go back in the next few weeks to continue to help.”

Getting Personal on the Hill
Back on Capitol Hill, the relief efforts don’t end at the aid packages recently adopted by Congress; offices and staffers are reaching out and helping on a personal level as well.

Bret Coulson, budget analyst with the House Budget Committee majority staff, has so far sent tens of thousands of dollars via Fed-Ex to his uncle, the Right Rev. D. Bruce MacPherson, Episcopal Bishop of Western Louisiana, where most of the refugees from Southeastern Louisiana and parts of Mississippi fled to following the hurricane.

Coulson received word from his uncle that the churches in his 40 parishes were housing thousands of evacuees. His uncle also was taking in hundreds of evacuee children and placing them within several of his diocese’s parochial schools. He desperately needed canned food, water, school supplies, clothing, toys — really anything that may be of use.

During workdays on the Hill, Coulson spent his free time e-mailing friends and family and calling business and corporate contacts for their help. Within two weeks, Coulson had amassed more than $35,000. MTSI, a defense contractor that employs his wife, has donated $25,000 alone.

“There’s no reason you can’t both work on legislative assistance as well as personal volunteering,” Coulson said. “Right now it’s more important than ever.”

Rep. Silvestre Reyes’ (D-Texas) chief of staff, Perry Finney Brody, learned through another Hill staffer’s wife about a church in Baton Rouge that was taking in pregnant women and recent mothers displaced by the storm.

She decided to help, so she e-mailed about 20 other mothers, many of whom worked on the Hill, asking them to donate items that may be of use to these current or soon-to-be mothers. The word spread and just Saturday, a truck left from Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in D.C. on its way to Baton Rouge with some 40,000 diapers, 20,000 articles of infant clothing, and 5,000 articles of maternity clothing, along with miscellaneous items such as strollers, car seats and breast pumps.

Brody is hesitant to take any credit for the highly successful aid drive.

“This is a collective effort. If everyone does a small piece, we can do so much,” she said. “You don’t have to stop your whole life and do everything all at once. You just do a piece here and a piece there and it adds up.”

Reyes’ office, along with the offices of Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.), also currently double as a drop-off site for goods that go to the 350 displaced veterans of the Armed Forces Retirement home in Gulfport, Miss., who are now being housed in Washington, D.C. Nearly all of the goods Reyes’ office has collected have been donated by other Hill staffers.

The Offer of Manpower
Congressional offices also have stepped up to the task of helping out the offices of those Representatives whose districts were most seriously affected by the hurricane.

Jennifer Walsh, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), took the lead in organizing volunteers from other offices to assist the staffs of Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and Melancon, whose districts were severely damaged in the hurricane. She was looking primarily for staffers with experience dealing with similar disasters or working with FEMA and other relief agencies. She sent out an e-mail and quickly received an overwhelming number of responses, Republican and Democratic alike. So far, only Taylor’s staff has taken in volunteers from the program.

“I am absolutely thrilled, but not surprised at all with the response,” Walsh said. “It is important that both of their offices know that we have staffers ready and willing to help.”

Many offices have additionally expressed their willingness to send staffers to the affected areas if the need arises, while some offices have already sent staffers with particular backgrounds that make them useful to the efforts on the ground.

Yet perhaps the most pressing need going forward will be assisting with the overwhelming number of case studies currently being processed by affected offices. In response, Congressional offices throughout the country have offered to send caseworkers to help ease the workload of those staff working on the ground and in shelters.

In Rep. Richard Baker’s (D-La.) 6th district, this need may come sooner rather than later. With a current residing population that has more than doubled in the weeks following Katrina, the evacuees are not the only people looking for assistance from Baker’s office with questions about housing, health care and basic services. Schools are crowded, municipal services designed for half the current population are now overstretched, and bumper-to-bumper traffic rules the day.

“States and parishes usually do 30-year plans to decide what kind of infrastructure might be needed far down the road,” said Baker spokesman Michael DiResto, who is currently in Baton Rouge. “Well, 30 years later is suddenly here now, so we obviously have a lot to deal with.”

DiResto said that his office has hired local help on a short-term basis to man the phones and that they have not yet taken up any offers for caseworker help, but that doesn’t rule anything out.

“We’d like to get back to some sense of normalcy before we make any decisions,” he said. But, when that will be, no one really knows.

Even with the current finger-pointing regarding blame for the slow response and with partisan controversy surrounding the shape and scope of the imminent Katrina panel, the kind of action taking place within Capitol Hill and in the affected areas between staffers and offices underscores uncharacteristic cooperation in what is usually a highly partisan and divided environment. Whether it will last, it’s hard to tell.

“When you are working with staff from other affected areas, there is a solidarity that exists there and you hope that extends beyond the crisis,” Gould said. “Everyone who has been there and who has directly felt that impact has that overriding sense of personal perspective. I think people here are cautiously optimistic. But it remains to be seen.”

To help the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, call (202) 226-0426 or e-mail bret.coulson@mail.house.gov.