Friday, Aug. 29, marks the third year since Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape " physical and cultural " of the Gulf Coast. It also marks an anniversary for a new breed of nonprofit organizations which hit the ground running shortly after the storm's impact became apparent. Many groups of musician-aid resource providers either formed or reorganized themselves after the hurricane to serve and repatriate the population of New Orleans musicians whose lives were upended by Katrina's aftermath. This week and next week, Sweet Home New Orleans " an umbrella organization that links musicians to the many groups that provide aid " plans to release a report on its findings over the past three years that will hopefully help detail how far we've come, and how far we have left to go in terms of restoring that treasured cultural resource.
Jordan Hirsch has served at the helm of several musicians' charities since the storm, eventually becoming executive director of Sweet Home New Orleans. Sweet Home, which recently joined forces with the Renew Our Music Fund, works with several other charities, including the New Orleans' Musicians Clinic and the Tipitina's Foundation, to effectively identify needs and distribute aid to musicians, from health care to legal aid to housing assistance. Handling musicians on a case-by-case basis, Sweet Home tries to record as much information about them as possible in a shared database, so they can be dealt with, as efficiently as possible, by the organization best equipped to handle particular needs. Over the past three years, that method has had the lagniappe side effect of building an extraordinarily comprehensive body of information about the state of New Orleans' population of musicians post-Katrina. The anniversary report will compile that information into a detailed document that Sweet Home " which has distributed $2 million in cash grants to 2,000 individual musicians over the past three years " hopes will assist other groups, local and national, in targeting their own plans for assistance.
'As of last year, we estimated that two-thirds of the community was back in town," Hirsch says. 'The numbers suggest a significant improvement, but there's still work to be done." Subsidies will still be necessary for several years, he estimates, to keep musicians afloat while New Orleans waits for tourism to return to a level that will create enough demand for a robust schedule of regular live gigs that keep musicians in business. 'Live performance is the crux of that community's livelihood," he says. 'The financial recovery of this community will be years in the making." The report Sweet Home compiled will include detailed maps and tables explaining who's back, where they live and work, and will pinpoint the most immediate and significant areas of need.
The case management model that Sweet Home uses is not a new one on the national level for nonprofit organizations, Hirsch says, though he believes this is the first time it's been used to deal with this particular population. So far, he's found the method to be extremely effective for dealing with local musicians, who can be difficult to document in traditional ways.
'It's particularly useful for this community, because everyone's more comfortable talking to an individual one-on-one in the old WWOZ office in Tremé, as opposed to the experience they may have had with FEMA, or the Road Home, or their insurance carrier, where the bureaucracy can be frustrating," he says. 'Here, there's a level of trust, and they can come with their dignity intact." Information about Sweet Home's services are often passed along by word of mouth from band member to band member, and those testimonials go a long way towards raising the nonprofit's stock in the community.
'There's a level of trust," Hirsch says. '[They] often disclose things that wouldn't be documented otherwise. So they'll get assistance that they might not have gotten."
At press time, Sweet Home New Orleans planned to release a preliminary document to the media early this week, briefly summarizing the data its collected. The full document will be available to the public, in hard copy and electronic form, on Sept. 2. Dr. Rick Weil, an LSU sociologist who also is a partner in Rebirth Brass Band drummer Derrick Tabb's music education program Roots of Music, will present a report on the findings at the Contemporary Arts Center that afternoon. Hirsch hopes to book the venerable Olympia Brass Band to follow the presentation, in what he believes will be its first New Orleans gig since Hurricane Katrina. Bandleader Ernest 'Doc" Watson returned to New Orleans with the help of the Sweet Home partner organizations this week.
Readers can contact Alison Fensterstock at email@example.com
- Sweet Home New Orleans helped Big Chief Iron Horse (front left) return to New Orleans.