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August 05 2015

Operation HOPE: A Reflection on Hurricane Katrina 10th Anniversary

This month we turn our attention to the Gulf Coast, more specifically Louisiana and Mississippi, to reflect on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This disaster was like no other disaster in U.S. history.  It taught us the importance of staying prepared to dispense the recovery services we were trained to provide.  It also proved that individuals that followed our disaster preparedness and recovery blueprint recovered from disaster more fully than did their neighbors without our services, and in the shortest time possible.

HOPE Coalition America (HCA), the emergency financial disaster preparedness and recovery division of Operation HOPE, responded to the Presidential Declaration of a disaster by launching Project Restore HOPE-Hurricane Katrina.  Under the leadership of HOPE Founder, Chairman and CEO John Hope Bryant and HCA President Fred D. Smith, HOPE opened five offices in the Gulf – two in Louisiana (New Orleans and Houma), and three in Mississippi (Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula). We also deployed on-the-ground staff in the disaster areas to provide emergency financial triage and financial rebuilding services for individuals, families and small businesses in all states affected by Hurricane Katrina. 

On June 1, 2006, I was hired as Regional Director of HOPE Coalition America.  My first order of business was staffing the two offices in Louisiana, housing the regional office in New Orleans, and then staffing the three Mississippi offices.  With a staff of nine, we provided free financial empowerment programs to individuals, families, small businesses, entrepreneurs and non-profits affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Individuals and small businesses were provided budget counseling, cash flow management, accounting/financial guidance, credit counseling, mortgage and business lending restructuring, document recovery assistance, insurance guidance and guidance on the best utilization of all recovery resources and funding. Through the use of HOPE’s two main disaster preparedness tools, the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK) and the Personal Disaster Preparedness Guide (PDPG), citizens in the Gulf States are now better prepared for future disasters, and with increased recovery resiliency.

Our standard engagement procedure of hiring local residents from the disaster area and using trained volunteers from financial service industries allowed HCA to work within community, city and state structures to integrate our services into all available recovery resources.  HOPE’s response to Hurricane Katrina, managed by HCA and using both employees and volunteers from Los Angeles, Louisiana and Mississippi, began with core groups in Louisiana and Mississippi shortly following the storm and continued to expand each month.  The HCA staff and volunteers assisted more than 150,000 individuals and small businesses through seminars and by attending community groups, city council meetings and one-on-one counseling sessions in the years after Katrina. Through our efforts, those affected by the hurricanes received free income tax services, resulting in the return of nearly $12 million in tax refunds, of which, $6.9 million was Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  The size of the EITC Tax Credit return was the direct result of our awareness campaign with partners William J. Clinton Foundation and H&R Block.

Our success in servicing hurricane survivors can be attributed to the generosity of our partners.  Many thanks to our supporters: FEMA; the American Red Cross; the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund; Mississippi Development Authority; Louisiana Economic Development; the City of New Orleans; Project Restore Faith 360 Initiative; Catholic Charities; Louisiana Disaster Recovery Authority; E*Trade; Bank of America; TransUnion; Bank of the West; Capital One Bank; Louisiana Office of Community Development; Peoples Bank; Bancorp South Bank; Hancock Bank; Mid-South Bank; Alabama Society of CPAs; North Carolina Association of CPAs; Mississippi Society of CPAs; Louisiana Society of CPAs;  Illinois Society of CPAs; First American Title Company; H & R Block; National Organization of Negro Women; the Houma Nation of Louisiana; and more than 3,000 volunteers assisted in the recovery of individuals and small businesses.

Our funders and collaborative supporters allowed us to overcome all challenges and continue to help us. Through the kind support of our current supporters the City of New Orleans, Freeport McMoran Foundation; Entergy Charitable Foundation, Iberia Bank, Regions Bank, Capital One Bank, and Whitney Bank, we now have the HOPE Financial Empowerment Center and HOPE Inside Office in New Orleans.

Operation HOPE’s mission to deliver “silver rights” empowerment, making free enterprise work for all, is accomplished through our work as the nonprofit private banker for the working poor, the underserved and struggling middle class.  In addition to our financial and economic recovery services, Operation HOPE has provided Gulf States communities a keen awareness of the importance of disaster preparedness and the key role adequate preparation plays in recovery.

My question to you:  ARE YOU PREPARED TODAY?  Go to DFRScore.org to quickly test your current disaster preparedness status, and get fast answer on how to improve your standing.

Oliver Bell, currently serves as Director of HOPE Coalition America.