Nearly 2 years later, some Katrina volunteers find their help is no longer welcome

Published 4:31 pm Friday, July 20, 2007

They gave Greg Porter the key to the city for his volunteer work after Hurricane Katrina. Then, he says, they showed him the door.

Porter received widespread acclaim, including an award from the White House, for founding God’s Katrina Kitchen, a faith-based relief operation that has served more than 1 million meals to the storm’s victims and the volunteers who helped them.

The roadside-tent operation has been forced to move for the second time since September, because of what officials say were neighborhood complaints. Unable to find a new home, Porter expects to close God’s Katrina Kitchen at the end of the month.

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With the government overwhelmed in Katrina’s immediate aftermath, tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country poured into Mississippi and Louisiana and performed heroic service. Now, some are finding their help is no longer welcome.

Porter said he suspects officials in this casino resort town regard his soup kitchen as an eyesore and an uncomfortable reminder that the Gulf Coast is far from whole nearly two years after the storm.

“I think it bothers them to face the fact that for a lot of people, it’s not over yet,” he said.

Mark Weiner, executive director of Emergency Communities, said the organization served meals to Katrina victims in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish until local officials raised objections. Feeling unwelcome, the group moved to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in January.

Weiner blames the group’s departure on a culture clash between parish officials and the many “hippie-type” volunteers. “I think they had an easier time working with Christian organizations than secular groups,” he said.

Similarly, free medical clinics staffed by volunteer doctors have run into resistance from local physicians struggling to resuscitate their practices.

Jennifer Knight operated a clinic in Long Beach, Miss., that treated more than 22,000 patients with the assistance of roughly 500 volunteer doctors before she closed it last year. Knight worried about siphoning away patients from local doctors.

“We’ve got to figure out how the community can help itself,” she said.

Last week, the state Medical Licensure Board’s executive committee voted to allow Mississippi’s two remaining volunteer clinics staffed by out-of-state doctors to remain open as long as Mississippi remains under a state of emergency.

Many volunteers say they have met with nothing but gratitude from those they have helped. Mark Jones, director of Biloxi operations for Urban Life Ministries Relief, said he has not heard complaints from neighbors. His group is feeding only volunteers at its camp in a sparsely populated neighborhood.

God’s Katrina Kitchen is one of the few still regularly serving free meals to residents.

Porter, 48, of Penrod, Ky., drove to Mississippi after the storm hit, and started grilling hamburgers in Pass Christian. The one-man operation quickly grew into a bustling food distribution center. At its peak, in March 2006, the kitchen was serving 3,500 meals a day.

Before long, however, neighbors started to complain about noise from the group’s religious services, while restaurant owners saw it as competition for their customer-starved businesses.

Last year, Porter had to move from Pass Christian to nearby Gulfport to make room for a condominium project. Pass Christian gave him a symbolic key to the city but made only a “halfhearted” effort to keep him, Porter said.

Then, Gulfport officials recently denied the group’s request to stay at its current site for another year, citing complaints that the free meals were attracting vagrants. Porter must move by the end of July.

Jesse Lewis, 81, of Gulfport, eats there several times a week on the folding tables set up under a red-and-white striped tent. The retired Los Angeles Police Department employee owes $287 a month on a federal disaster loan.

“I could probably still make it” without the kitchen, he said, “but it’s a really big help.”

Some of the kitchen’s visitors were not directly affected by Katrina and were just looking for handouts, Porter conceded. Now, he says, the kitchen serve meals only to residents who can prove they registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That hasn’t satisfied his neighbors.

“The kitchen brought nothing but trashy people from across the tracks,” said James Hebert, 68. “We need to get these people out of here so we can get back to normal.”

City Councilman Neil Resh said: “They’re doing fine work, and I appreciate what they do, but they had a year to find somewhere else to relocate.”

Porter thought he found a new home for his operation, at a church in Long Beach, but city officials rejected that plan on Tuesday, citing complaints from residents who didn’t want the food kitchen near a day-care center.

“The disappointment for me is that so many families still need our help and we’re not going to be able to give it to them,” he said.