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

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