How was your week?
(June 19-23, 2006)
After they hear that I had the opportunity to spend some time volunteering in Bay St Louis
and Waveland, Mississippi, the very epicenter of Katrina's wrath, interested friends
always ask, "How was your week?"
The question is nearly impossible to answer in a single sentence, let alone in the single
word they're looking for.
Was it fun? Well, yes, there were moments of fun. Unavoidable, really, when you're
working with such a fascinating, dynamic, diverse group of individuals. Ages ranged fro
17 to 67, with professions including high school and college students, retirees, school
teachers and staff, suburban moms, construction managers, and a rocket scientist. We
made memories of Pine-Sol in the bathroom, Chicks and Dudes at Clyde's, and stopping
the car in the road to take photos of the Home Depot in a storage shed (yes, really) and
all still make me smile weeks later.
Was it sad? Well, yes, there were sad moments, such as when Susan, our homeowner,
shared her story of seven hours spent in a tiny attic, praying the water wouldn't come any
higher, and the loss of her dear friend and her father-in law, and the desperate panic of
not knowing what had happened to her sister. How many more people would have died
had the water risen another 1'? 2'? 3'? Or, how many more people might have lived had
it risen 1' less? 2' less? 3' less? Other sad moments were seeing a hurricane-swept
foundation, cleared except for the small figurines carefully placed around its perimeter.
They were all that was left of a now empty lot where a determined resident searched
through the debris to find what was left of his/her home. And, the sign that said "Please
protect tree planted by grandson" may have been the most heartbreaking of all, a
desperate attempt to salvage something from the overwhelming destruction.
Was it happy? Yes, when 2-1/2 year old Patrick saw the cool SpongeBob characters in
his brand new room that Susan and her sister Debbie made for him. And our being able
to support Houseleader Mark in his passionate determination to get this house built with
and for Susan and Billy and Patrick. And walking away on Friday knowing we had made
real progress since Monday morning. And seeing the appreciation in Lowell's eyes when
he received his "birthday 2x4" from people he hadn't known even existed three days
earlier. And Mark was touched when the "saw women" cut an intricate symbol out of
Pergo that we all signed as a parting gift.
Was it infuriating? Again, yes, when you saw the signs expressing the residents'
frustration with the insurance companies. They (and I) have paid premiums to these
blood-sucking leeches for years. State Farm, use some of your billions in reserve and
PAY UP NOW!!
Was it inspiring? Yes. Susan's stories about waiting for her FEMA trailer and electricity
(for a month) were horrifying, yet she ended each story with "But that's OK; we're still
here." Pretty good mantra for getting through life, with or without a hurricane, isn't it?
And nature's own determination to continue living was embodied in the brilliantly blooming
hibiscus bush, the sole living thing in a dead landscape, now decorating nothing but the
lonely pilings that once supprted a family's shelter and retreat.
Was it uncomfortable? Well, when you've got 48 people living in what is basically a
storage shed with two small AC units and eating in a hurricane damaged pre-engineered
building that leaks like a sieve when it rains (and boy, does it rain in southern Mississippi),
you can get a little uncomfortable. But our quarters would've seemed to be a palace to
the folks who were calling one of the ubiquitous FEMA trailers home.
Was it hot? Um, yes. It IS southern Mississippi in June. On the construction site, the
temperature soared into the 90's with humidity to match. But it gave us a tiny glimpse of
what it must have been like during the month following Katrina's landfall. When we got
hot and thirsty, we walked over to the cooler and grabbed a cold bottle of water and
tucked ice into our hats. That was not an option for Katrina survivors. They were dealing
with extreme heat, sticky mud in their homes, and puddles of foul water everywhere after
the storm surge retreated, with no place to hide from the sun or rain, manifestations of
nature's mercurial moods. Add to those miseries the putrid stench of rotting food and
death, and utter devastation and chaos as far as the eye can see, all the while feeling the
sharp pangs of hunger and thirst, and those days is late August had to be as close to hell
on earth as one can experience in this lifetime.
Was it appalling? Oh yes. To put it in terms everyone can relate to, even a trip to
WalMart was like entering a third world country. This is the same WalMart, I learned later,
that on the day of the storm, threw open its doors and told people to come and get
whatever they needed. Ten months later, the re-built WalMart consisted of acres of store
space with no shelving, a reflection of the decreased population and therefore,
decreased demand, in the area. The shoe department was islands of shoes separated
by expanses of empty shelves. The automotive and home improvement aisles were well
stocked--you could even buy refrigerators and ranges. But you couldn't find a lamp or
decorative knick-knacks anywhere. This was a store focused on the necessities of life,
like food and homes and transportation. There was very little available that wouldn't fit in
a FEMA trailer. It is the ultimate symbol of the new reality on the gulf coast.
Was it humbling? Yes. We met the shopkeepers that were so grateful for customers
during a tourist season without tourists and the stranger who thanked us for coming to his
town to do our tiny part in rebuilding it. Kenny at the Wafflehouse stayed past the end of
his overnight shift to make sure we got a good breakfast. Gratitude wasn't our motivation,
but to be on the receiving end of such heart-felt appreciation was humbling.
But if I had to sum the weeklong experience in a single word it would have to be...hopeful.
Pure, determined, hope is the choice the survivors of Katrina in Bay St Louis and
Waveland have made. They could have chosen defeat, complaint, retreat, or surrender,
and no one would have thought less of them for doing so. Instead, those hardy souls
have chosen to be hopeful for the future.
Their indomitable spirit will be an everlasting inspiration when I feel like whining or
complaining. These survivors, in the truest sense of the word, have picked themselves
up, dusted themselves off, and stepped out in faith to rebuild their community. They gave
me so much more than I gave them in that short week that felt like a lifetime . I shall
return to this place to see this community rise from the debris and live again.
|Susan and Billy and
what hope truly is.
|This paged updated July 2006. Copyright 2006 Charlene Stevenson.
Gulf Coast Katrina Relief
|Fun: Chicks vs the
|Susan and Debbie made a
beautiful room for
Susan's grandson, Patrick
|Photos from Bay
St Louis &
|Be the change that you want to see in the world.
from California, New
Texas, Florida, and
|Yes, 48 women lived
here for a week.
|Kenny was only one of the
local residents that made
us feel very welcome
|An amazingly common
sign along the Gulf Coast
|It was hot, humid,
muddy, and buggy--and
completely worth it.
|One of the saddest
sights all week