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Vermonters rallied for storm victims - did those efforts pay off?


Published August 22, 2006 at 1:15 p.m.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last summer, Vermonters rallied to help people affected by the storm. Dozens of fundraisers occurred in the weeks after those first horrific broadcasts from Mississippi and Louisiana towns, particularly New Orleans.

Large organizations such as the American Red Cross collected money for hurricane relief - the Northern Vermont chapter alone raised $1.8 million. But lots of smaller groups pitched in, too - members of 10 local 4H clubs gathered $1331.62 in a bottle drive. And there were countless in-kind contributions, such as the 70 trucks of goods the state sent to Mississippi.

It's impossible to assess the total value of everything Vermonters sent south, but it clearly was significant. But what happened to all the money and stuff? Did it get where it was supposed to go? Did the contributions make a difference? Nearly one year after Katrina, Seven Days contacted a handful of fundraising organizers to find out. A flurry of phone calls revealed that the answers don't come easy.

Some cases are clearer than others. Rob Levine, executive director of the Northern Vermont chapter of the Red Cross, says the money his organization raised helped support the very visible Red Cross disaster efforts. "That was spent on the delivery of Red Cross goods and services to the clients in the hurricane zone," he says of Vermonters' $1.8 mil. "I could get more specific, but I can tell you: shelter, food, emergency and immediate needs of folks who were displaced by the hurricane."

Rose Garritano, Chittenden County 4H educator for the University of Vermont Extension 4H program, says the group's bottle drive benefitted 4H foundations in Mississippi and Louisiana. "It was earmarked to help 4H families," Garritano says. The clubs also helped animals affected by the storm, sending some funds to the Mississippi and Louisiana ASPCA and to state veterinary associations.

It was more difficult to uncover what happened to the money raised at the "Dance for the Delta," a Montpelier concert on September 30, 2005, featuring Yankee Chank, Mango Jam and the Vermont Jazz Ensemble. The show's $10 admission was intended to benefit music-education programs in New Orleans-area schools, in particular the band program at Boothville-Venice High School in Plaquemines Parish.

The Vermont Arts Council and the Montpelier Downtown Community Association, which cosponsored the event, chose the beneficiary at the suggestion of Stephen Weibust, a music teacher who taught for 30 years at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington. Last summer, Weibust moved to New Orleans to work on a book about obscure jazz musicians. He took a job teaching music and band at BVHS in a Crescent City suburb.

Three weeks into the school year, the storm hit, flooding the building and destroying classrooms and supplies. Weibust, who has since returned to Burlington, conceived the fundraiser as a way to help the high school get its music back.

According to VAC Development Director Diane Manion Scolaro, the Dance for the Delta raised $2022.10. A check in that amount from the Montpelier association to the Plaquemines Parish School Board was sent on December 21; both Scolaro and Weibust say they received thank-you letters. The organizations also sent six musical instruments along with the check.

But when Seven Days contacted Debra Lee, staff development and donations coordinator for the Plaquemines Parish School Board, she couldn't recall the donation.

Lee explained that six of the parish's nine schools were severely damaged in Katrina and remained closed for the entire school year; Boothville-Venice was one of them. It reopened a few weeks ago, but now serves students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade and does not have a band program. Two of the parish's schools do offer band, though only one - Belle-Chasse High School - currently has an active program with a director.

After phone calls to the principals of Boothville-Venice High School and Belle-Chasse middle and high schools, as well as to the head of the Belle-Chasse band boosters and the school board's financial office, Lee finally ascertained that the Montpelier money was deposited into the school board's general Katrina relief fund. The six horns were sent to the band at Belle-Chasse High School.

But the money has not yet been used, Lee discovered. For some reason, it wasn't designated for any particular program when it was deposited.

Would the money have ever helped fund a band program if a reporter hadn't called to inquire about it?

"No, I don't think so," Lee admitted. "I'm not saying it wouldn't have been spent on a relief effort, but I don't think it would have necessarily gone to the band department.

"I hate to sound like we're negligent," she added apologetically, "but it's just been crazy." Lee listed the difficulties - cleanup, staff turnover, a deluge of donations, the scramble to reopen. In fact, Boothville-Venice just got its phones replaced last week. Its voicemail hasn't been turned on yet, and the school's website hasn't been updated since before the storm.

Lee said she hopes the school board will be able to apply the Vermont donation to a music program at South Plaquemines High School, where most of the Boothville-Venice kids have gone.

"This will be significant in helping them establish a band program," she predicted hopefully. But, Lee added, "It may not happen this year."