Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Notes from a volunteer in Pass Christian, Mississippi

(this is an excerpt from a longer article)

Driving across the southern United States in United Peace Relief’s ’84 Ford Econoline motor home with three “20 something” companions gives one a new appreciation for the vastness of this country and its varied terrain. Our route took us through California’s Central Valley, and swung us eastward, avoiding LA and hitting two out of four from the Grateful Dead song: Tucumcari and Tehachapi. Outside Flagstaff, we got out of the RV long enough to gaze down into the depths of Walnut Canyon, home to many native Americans for hundreds of years before the white man came. Unfortunately, hiking from the rim to the bottom required more time than we had. All of us would like to return to see the timeworn native houses and storerooms that are laid into the cliffs.

On Wednesday morning we passed sleepy eyed through the Oz-like city of Dallas, and that afternoon approached Louisiana at Shreveport. It didn’t seem that much longer till we were closing in on Baton Rouge, then New Orleans. In the dark it was impossible for Amethyst, Lucas, and Bill to know just how much Katrina damage we were passing without seeing. But crossing the Mississippi state line brought cheers from all of us, and we all got up and stayed awake as we passed road signs for Slidell and Bay St. Louis, finally getting to the exit to Pass Christian.

At 11:00pm we rolled up to the house in Timber Ridge. The entry foyer is awash with flyers, maps, inspirational signs, Katrina storm statistics, and tool boxes. Fourteen months ago the floor we stood on as we entered was 12 feet underwater from storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. This location will be the new resting place for Big Boy , or Brian as we renamed him on the trip, the RV generously donated to UPR by Randy Dorn. Brian has turned out to be too big and too gasoline drinking for us to use very well. Restoration Point has told us they would be very happy to have it there to use as overflow or family or couple housing when volunteers arrive with those needs.

Prior to our arrival, volunteer groups from Virginia and Atlanta had framed and roofed two houses in Pass Christian. One house is for Florence Dedeaux, a 94 year old black woman whose house sustained some damage from the storm, but whose nine adult children in the Pass and outlying communities all lost their homes to the storm. Six months later a granddaughter in her 40’s died from breast cancer. In the midst of trying to rebuild their homes and lives, the adult children are visiting their elderly mother daily, making sure that the rotten floor in Florence’s humble home is not falling away in new places that allow more snakes, rats, mice and other vermin to enter. These daughters and sons in law sit and visit with Florence, cook with her, and attempt to keep their family intact using Florence’s falling apart home as their only base. Florence’s new house stands not ten feet away from her old one, with ramps leading up to two of the doorways to accommodate Florence’s wheelchair. Florence is astute, enjoyable to talk with, and marvels at the flurry of activity taking place just outside her window. Her many grandchildren and great grandchildren make daily visits and check on the progress of the house, and the adults make cakes and food for the volunteers to take with them.

A second house stands framed and waiting for plumbing for a single mother, Stacy, and her two children, Drew, and Alyssa. A third house is for a woman named Tracy, whose house has been worked on but who needs a laundry area added somewhere. It has been decided to combine a laundry area with an enclosed front porch/entry, and Lucas and Mickey and Micah go to work at Tracy’s on the second day. They remove an old, rotten porch, tackle rotten rim joists and siding, and begin the foundation for the new porch. They also tackle an intense cloud of mosquitos in the back yard (where the building materials lay). Several types of mosquito repellent are in any given room at the volunteer house, they also ride in Micah’s truck and are stuck into some tool kits. They are used often and liberally.

On the third day (Saturday), a large group of Air Force Reserves arrives, enthusiastic and ready to do anything asked of them. Jim has one of the nastiest jobs ready for them – sanding mud joints on drywall - and they tackle it and get it done. It also helped so much to have good friends Mike and Carol Stachurski arrive from United Peace Relief east (Tallahassee) early on Saturday morning. Carol came to Pass Christian to remove supplies from the free clinic that UPR ran in the Pass for over a year. Mike has carpentry skills (and mechanical skills) and worked for two days on the patio enclosure. It was great to work with Mike, and later in the day Mickey and Lucas also arrived to work on the project. Amethyst had Stacey’s daughter, Alyssa, help her with the hearth mortar, and Stacey and Drew tackled some difficult toe nailing in the walls we were framing.

A southern Mississippi style barbecue was scheduled for that evening, courtesy of Leonard and Patsy of Pass Christian. The Jordan’s will soon move into their home that has been rebuilt by volunteers organized through Restoration Point. In May, I was happy to have the opportunity to work with the Virginia crew on the Jordan’s home. Seeing them again felt so good. Leonard and Patsy looked well and are proud new grandparents.

Along with Leonard and Patsy came a relative named Jim, who swam for hours in the 30’ storm surge in Pass Christian while trying to save himself and a cousin who could not swim. He told a riveting tale of drowning three times, almost dying each time, being saved by hauling themselves up out of the water using electrical wires flailing from power poles, swimming to trees, etc. It is so impossible to comprehend what that experience must have been like.

We devoured ribs, chicken, catfish, coleslaw, and potato salad and had a nice evening relaxing, groaning over our full bellies, and talking with each other.

The Restoration Point Foundation makes it clear that their mission in the gulf is two fold:
to help those who cannot otherwise rebuild due to their limited resources, and to lend emotional support to people who have been shattered psychologically by their experience in the storm. Jim specifically asked us to go and talk to Florence each day that we worked on her house, to ask her how she was doing, to tell her about how her new home was coming along. He asked us to spend time talking with Stacey and her son Drew and her daughter Alyssa when they came to help that Saturday, just letting them tell their stories. On my last day in Pass Christian, he gave me a list of three things he hoped I could accomplish. Two were building tasks, but at the top of the list was “ Go to see the Jordans and visit with them.” So that evening, I drove good old RV Brian to gather my tools from the various job sites, and stopped at the Jordan’s FEMA trailer parked beside their almost completed home. Patsy welcomed me in and we spent a half hour gazing at her new granddaughter, sleeping on the bench seat by the little kitchen. Leonard arrived shortly after and we talked about their son, who was due to arrive that evening. Then I asked them to please visit me in California so I could cook them a California barbecue.

The Mississippi Gulf coast is obviously still very much a disaster site. Some businesses have resurrected themselves in hurriedly built metal buildings or mobile homes. The Pass Christian bank and building department are in mobile homes across the street from each other on Second Street at Fleitas. There is a street sign at Fleitas Street. Many other street signs are still not up. Most businesses are still not back. No one has anything resembling landscaping on their property. The forest is a bunch of broken matchstick trees or denuded tree trunks and bare branches snagged here and there with clothing, plastic, or debris from the storm. The soil is struggling to recover from millions of gallons of salt sea water that soaked into it in the storm. Many houses beyond repair have been bulldozed and removed. The driveways that lead to empty lots are testimony to the loss. Yet many irreparable homes still stand, too. I drove past one subdivision where every brick house had windows, doors, and roofing torn off, and a giant pile of debris lay in front of every house waiting to be carted off. It looked like pictures of the aftermath of a bombing. Many of the wealthy have completed their rebuilding. Some will not be returning. But what I have learned from my two trips thus far is the answer to the chief question I had before going: “Why would anyone choose to stay living in an area so vulnerable to hurricanes?” The answer is pretty simply put: “Because it is home, because this is where my family is, this is what I know.” It is definitely a worthwhile experience to travel to the area and help these people get back on their feet.

Potter Valley, CA

Transformation of Houses and Hearts

Our fifteen member mission team from Laurel, Maryland truly experienced God's grace in Pass Christian, Mississippi. During our five days working with Restoration Point, we were able to help in the building process of many devastated homes. We did some drywall, we sanded, and we painted. We repaired broken windows and damaged roofs. It was so rewarding to see the progress in our work projects by the end of the week. Families were just one step closer to moving back into their homes. We were able to see tangible results.

Not only did we witness transformation in the houses but also in our hearts. Getting to know families in the community and listening to their stories was what we cherished the most on our trip. Survivor after survivor shared their stories of God's blessing and provision. We witnessed ways that the community of Pass Christian was struggling to rebuild together. Their hope and perseverance in the midst of devastation strengthened our faith even more.

The families welcomed us into their lives for the short time we were there. One family brought us snow cones for a work break. Moreover on our last day, several families prepared us a feast of shrimp and jambalaya to thank us for our hard work. That is the kind of hospitality that changes lives for good. It was such a great experience, we're coming back!


Laurel, MD

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Rebuilding Lives After Katrina

Written for the Roanoke Times Summer 2006 (some parts have been cut for this posting)

It will soon be one year since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Most of us will take a moment out of our busy lives to look or listen to one of the many follow up stories now in the news. But for the victims of Katrina the thought of that day has never gone away. Until you see the devastation with your own eyes you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the damage and the effect it has had on the lives of its victims. I would never have understood this situation if had not been for the persistence of two of my friends.

This adventure began with a phone call from a friend in Staunton, Janet. She told me that she was getting a group of people together to go to Mississippi "to rebuild houses" and that I "just had to go". After I got off the phone my wife asked me who had called. I explained that it was Janet and that she wanted me to go to Mississippi to rebuild houses. My wife then asked what I had told her. I said that I would try to go but that I was really busy with two houses. Several weeks went by and I had all but forgotten Janet's call until one Saturday morning there was a knock at my door. It was Doug, Janet's husband, stopping by to try and talk me into going on their trip. He explained that since losing their home in a fire, they truly understood what it was like to lost everything you own. He said it was an experience I would never forget. How could I say no to a couple that were without their own home but still willing to find time to help others. I started packing that night and my life will never be the same.

Our trip was to take us to Pass Christian, a small coast town located in Harrison County, Mississippi. It had the misfortune of being in the direct path of the two most intense hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Hurricane Camille had hit in 1969 and Katrina on August 29, 2005. Both storms caused the near total destruction of the city. To save time, I decided to fly into Gulfport, Mississippi. As I drove my rental van down Route 90 to Pass Christian, I could not believe the devastation. With tears in my eyes, I drove through 15 miles of land devoid of all buildings. What had been several beach side communities was now a ghost town. Where shopping centers, stores, restaurants, and homes had stood, only concrete slabs remained. The only hint of what had been there was a McDonald's sign that had somehow survived. The rest of the group arrived and we began to get organized. Jim explained what we would be doing the rest of the week and told us about the family we would be helping. His main point was that just being there to help the family and show we cared was much more important than how much work we would get done.

The house we were to work on had been covered by the storm surge, estimated to be 31 feet. The efforts of our small group would be a family we worked with purchased most of the materials [with FEMA and insurance money] and we supplied the labor. After hearing what was expected of us during our short visit I looked around at our collection of volunteers and said to myself "what have I gotten myself into". Here I was with a dozen men and women, non of which had any construction experience. This group was supposed to help rebuild someones home. All I could do was act positive and pray for a miracle. All team members were eager to work in the ninety-degree heat and willing to learn.

Our project was with Mr. and Mrs. Jordan. They are a working class couple with several grown children and their youngest son in college. They greeted us warmly and supported us at all times. They opened the door to their temporary FEMA trailer as a place for us to cool off or to use the restroom. They would clean up after us every evening and be waiting on us they next morning with a smile. They Jordan's made every effort to make us feel appreciated and wanted. Soon, I was called the "boss man" and they would come to me with questions or comments. Our goal for the week was to replace all the windows and exterior doors, repair the vinyl siding, install insulation, hang & finish drywall, install the interior doors, and rebuild the bathroom. We somehow divided into specialty groups. None of the team members had much experience in what they were attempting but with some coaching and additional guidance, took complete ownership of the work and saw it to completion. By the end of the first day, for the first time I began to think we might make it.

On the third day, God showed his light on us again. Janet had made a supply run back to Restoration Point when she saw someone with a tool belt standing in the driveway. It turned out to be Wendy from California, a volunteer with over thirty years of carpentry experience. She was looking to join up with a group and was drafted by Janet and on her way to our project. Wendy turned out to be an angel in disguise with many skills and a get it done attitude. Since we didn't need a carpenter she became our plumber doing a great job of rebuilding the bathroom. Within an hour, Wendy had become a key member of our team.

On Friday, our last day, the Jordan's had a big surprised for us. They and their extended family prepared one of the best meals I have ever had. They served barbecue ribs, shrimp, cat fish, red beans & rice, macaroni salad, potato salad, coleslaw, and cake all washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea. At the end of the meal, Mrs. Jordan gave us a hand written note which said it all: "On behalf of the Jordan family we would like to thank you for helping rebuild our home and lifting our spirits. May your life be as blessed as you have helped ours to be."

We had gone to Mississippi to rebuild a house but ended up helping to rebuild lives. Due to this experience, the story of Katrina will never be over for me.
Moneta, Virginia
May 2006

For my community service project I went on a mission trip to Pass Christian, Mississippi. Here I received memories that will last a lifetime and friendships that would last forever. Going to Mississippi greatly affected me and my output on life, and I will not tell you about the best trip I ever had.

We started off in the Marist parking lot getting pumped for an eight-hour car ride. When I first came off the bus I was friends with a couple of the girls on this trip, but after the trip I know almost everything about all six girls who came with me to Mississippi. After our eight-hour car drive, we started passing through the damaged areas. I hadn't really expected a lot. In fact I didn't really expect much at all because it was a year after Katrina, and I thought that things should be pretty much fixed up. Sadly they weren't. It was dark outside so we couldn't make out everything, but from what I could see I was appalled. I remembered passing by a church with only its steel pole structure left, and seeing a bank vault laying in the middle of a field. I could see a black darkness to the left of me with signs poking out from the sand saying, "Do not swim in this ocean." I could write a six page paper about all the devastation and destruction that I saw throughout this trip. We stayed at an AmeriCorps House along with about ten other adults. We bonded with these adults thoroughly even though we were thirteen and they were in their twenties and thirties. Also in the house was a thirteen-year-old boy who we were all thankful to have with us. He helped us on our missions and everyone on the trip began to become friends with him. I just don't know what I would do if I was ever put in the position he was in, yet he acted like a normal thirteen year old boy who hadn't had a hurricane demolish his house. During this trip we also did loads of work. I never knew that I could tear down around fifty wooden tents -along with the help of forty to sixty more people- before lunchtime! I was also astonished by the fact that we had painted a shed; help move electronics that were sixty pounds to one spot to the other, set up a clothes rack, organize a library in two hours. I must admit I was tired after all these jobs, but we still visited many people who had their house ripped apart by Katrina. They seemed like normal people who hadn't lost their homes and lived in a trailer for a year. I wish I had the strength and courage that every one of them possessed in them.

By the end of this trip I was a new person with new perspectives. I use to read articles about Katrina and think that's horrible for a second, and then I would flip the page. Now when I get the chance to see anything about Katrina, millions of memories flow to my head, and I remember the laughter, the devastation, the love, and the strength of this town. I could never sum my trip up into one and half page paper, but I can say that this trip left me with memories that will last a lifetime.

Atlanta, GA
October 2006

Help is Still Needed

For my service hours, I went on a Marist mission trip to Pass Christian, Mississippi. We helped many people physically and mentally. We saw much destruction and we realized that even though it has been a year since Hurricane Katrina hit, all the towns and cities on the coast still need tons of help. After the eight hour bus ride there, we saw our living place for the weekend. It was a house that looked fine on the outside, but on the inside, it had been completely gutted and was being rebuilt. The walls were still not painted and the countertops were not grouted yet. All the girls stayed in a small room with bunk beds. We met the team who we were living with, AmeriCorps. The next day, we all went to a big field where big wooden tents had been assembled last year for volunteers and victims of the hurricane. We helped to tear these down and put them into a large "burn pile". Even though these had been empty for a while, it would mentally help the victims see progress in the community. These were their kids' soccer fields. We then went and toured the area. The next day we worked at the library where we helped re-arrange books on the shelves. We really made the head librarian happy; in fact, she was so happy, she took our picture for the newspaper. The next day was our last workday and we painted a shed for a nice man named Mr. Skip. The shed was to hold his washer, dryer, and his refrigerator. We also help put up a shelf and blinds in Mr. and Mrs. Jordan's home. We visited an elder lady, Ms. Florence, and her daughter, Ms. Loren. They told us some sad stories of the hurricanes. I think it helped them to let out their feelings to new people. The whole experience was a blessing for it taught me that even some places in our own country are like third world countries, and they need our help.

Atlanta, GA
October 2006