Emergency Team Undeterred by Islamophobia in Louisiana Flood Relief

“Destroyed.”

That was the rating the Islamic Relief USA team gave to his house.

The man was probably in his late 60s, said Disaster Relief Manager Hani Hamwi. The Disaster Relief Team visited him in late March during its work to provide relief after the Louisiana floods. When he opened the door, Hamwi was shocked.

“I could smell the stench of wet carpet and mold,” he said. “It was very strong.”

But the man was living there in his destroyed home—and breathing in the mold day and night. He was wheezing. When Hamwi asked him why he didn’t leave, he said, “I don’t have anyone I can stay with.”

Hamwi was in Louisiana last week with a team of 11 volunteers to work alongside the American Red Cross. By middle of last week, they had worked at a shelter and then assessed damage levels on close to 2,500 homes. These assessments then qualify residents—like the man with the wet, moldy carpet—to receive aid from the Red Cross and cash assistance from IRUSA.

Almost everyone was happy to see Islamic Relief USA’s team, Hamwi said, but for the first time in the team’s five-year history, their help was rejected in one county.

‘A Punch in the Gut’

Whenever IRUSA begins working in an area, the team leader registers the group with the local authorities. In Louisiana, as usual, Hamwi registered the group with the sheriff’s offices in each county, or parish as they’re known there.

In one of the counties, Hamwi said, not long after he registered, the sheriff called the Red Cross command center and said, “Islamic Relief needs to leave this county immediately or they will be arrested.”

“Oh man, it felt like a punch in the gut,” Hamwi said. “That’s really what it felt like. For a few seconds after that, it’s hard to breathe.”

The Red Cross responded by pulling out of that county, although if individuals reach out for help, the Red Cross will help them. “They basically said that if you don’t want our partner working there, then you don’t want us working there,” Hamwi said.

“The support that we received from our partner was outstanding. The Red Cross works very hard to work with all facets of the community—they’re very inclusive. I truly believe that the Red Cross works by that value—I’ve seen that first-hand, and I saw it here in Louisiana. It’s much easier to deal with a situation like this when you have a strong partner standing with you.”

In another county, an official recommended that Islamic Relief USA not work there, for the team’s own safety.

Hamwi has served as disaster response manager only for a couple of months, but before that he was a regional coordinator and a volunteer. He has deployed with IRUSA in eight to 10 emergencies, and this was the first time he’s seen this reaction.

He said he worries for his team, but work is continuing without any interruption. They’re wrapping up the disaster assessments and moving on to working at a resource center and distributing cash assistance.

“We are continuing our work, and we are working by our mission statement, to provide relief and development in a dignified manner regardless of gender, race or religion,” he said. “That is our mission, that is what drives us and that’s why we’re here. And I can tell you that the negativity or the issues that we have had has not slowed down our work has not impacted our morale. There are so many people who need assistance here in Louisiana, and we are here to assist.”

Help Desperately Needed

Hani said the flooding in Louisiana is the worst he’s ever seen.

“There is flooding all over northern and central part of the state. This is the first disaster I’ve ever experienced in the United States where so many people were affected and so many people were in need. Based on my conversations with the Red Cross, they feel the same way. Certain rivers and lakes surged over 20 feet.”

More than 5,000 houses were damaged, along with sheds, cars—everything.

Volunteer Nour Zein said, “There were areas in which blocks of homes were completely destroyed. It was truly heartbreaking.”

Hamwi said the damage is often much more extensive than it looks at first glance. “What happens in a flood—even if 2 inches of water got into your house for 12 hours, you need to take out all the cabinets, all the drywall, all the carpet and insulation,” he said. “You need to basically take the lower level of the house back to the bare bones and allow the wooden beams to dry. If that does not happen, people will have major issues with mold and bacteria growing in their house, which later could lead to health issues.”

It was already affecting the man with the wet, moldy carpet, Hamwi said. The team assessed his home, and he qualified him to receive assistance from IRUSA and the Red Cross.
“What I loved about the opportunity I had deploying with IRUSA was being able to see the impact you are able to make in the community,” volunteer Nour Zein said. “Since many families had lost everything, organizations coming in to assist the affected community gave them a sense of hope as they begin the process of rebuilding and restarting their lives.

But it was also inspirational to witness people from all across the nation, from different faiths and backgrounds, coming together to assist them. You could tell the community was grateful beyond measure.”