Saturday, September 24, 2005

Impressions of a catastrophe

I'm back from Mississippi. Just to recap -- I left Monday morning with a group from my church and community to take some relief supplies to Mississippi. We drove through Monday and arrived south of Jackson, Miss., (where we met up with the semi full of stuff) by about 2 a.m. Tuesday. About 6 a.m. or so we headed on south and were in Bay St. Louis around 8:30 or so. We first went to Hancock Medical Center, the hospital in Bay St. Louis, where we unloaded about half the truck. We left lots of medical supplies as well as water, clothes, toys and personal care items. This hospital was pretty hard hit -- as were all the people who worked there. The marketing director there said that never in their wildest imaginings had they ever thought the hospital would flood. But it did (the first floor, where most of the medical services were located). But it was heartening to see the hospital staff working together to clean it up. There's still a lot to do, but they're determined to get it up and running again. On Wednesday, we went to Biloxi, and delivered the rest of the stuff we brought to the hospital there. It seems to have weathered the storm better, but Biloxi itself is still a mess. We started driving back Thursday and got home Friday about 4:30 p.m.

I'll probably have some pictures Monday, but for the time being, here are some initial impressions, in no particular order. I'm still processing what I saw and trying to make some sense of it.

• Water is terribly destructive. Bay St. Louis and Biloxi were flooded by a 27-foot storm surge. The force was enough to completely demolish homes along the waterfront, lift huge casino barges from their moorings and deposit them several blocks inland, snap the sections of a bridge from their pilings so it looked like dominos that had toppled, move houses off their foundations -- I could go on but I hope you're starting to get the picture. One woman we talked to in Biloxi said her husband broke out the windows of their house because the water was pushing in on the walls. By breaking the windows, it allowed the water to come in and equalized the pressure. Her house was still standing, while most of the houses in her neighborhood were demolished or completely missing.

• The scale of Hurricane Katrina's destruction is more than I had ever imagined. Even north of Jackson, you can see tree damage. South of Jackson, the highway is lined with piles of broken trees and brush. This is what had to be cleared off the roads before anyone could get to the coast. Once you get to the coastal towns, it's simply mind-numbing. Even three weeks later, power is not fully restored in places. Biloxi has running water, but it's not potable. The city is under a curfew. The houses that are less damaged still may not be livable for a while. An older woman and what I assumed was her granddaughter were cleaning out the older lady's house. It didn't look too bad, but it had been flooded. But they've discovered that the plumbing is ruined and the house will have to be rewired for electricity. Fortunately, this lady has been staying with family, so she didn't have to try to live under those conditions. She also said that as bad as it was for her, she knew there were others who had it a lot worse.

• We met a woman in Bay St. Louis who lived within sight of the bay. There used to be lots of beautiful homes on her street -- they're all gone now. In both towns we saw a number of places where there were foundations and front steps that led to nothing. Not even a stick. But the woman I just mentioned, her house was still standing, though it wasn't livable. She had evacuated, then had come back about 9 days before we met her. She was camping out in her yard and didn't want to go to a shelter because she couldn't take her dogs -- she had 4 Boston terriers. She was trying to salvage what she could of her antiques and fine glassware. She said people came by to check on her and the Army brought her water. We dressed a cut on her head -- she had been hit by something falling on her porch the day before and the cut still looked kind of bad. I wonder if she's been rained on by Hurricane Rita.

• We drove through several neighborhoods in Biloxi on Wednesday afternoon. We handed out cases of water, bags of personal care and first aid supplies and talked to people. A lot of people seemed happy to have someone to tell their stories to, and to say thank you to. On the one hand, I feel like what we did was just a drop in a very big bucket. But I know that we were able to touch specific lives and left much needed supplies. We were able to minister in a real way to the hospital employees at Bay St. Louis because we got to talk to some of them while we were unloading.

• We haven't really begun to grasp the human toll from Hurricane Katrina. People spoke of neighbors who died in the storm, a lifetime of memories washed away, landmarks vanished -- there's a lot of grieving that needs to happen and it's going to take time. This will not be something that can be fixed quickly. We must not forget.

• Disasters force us to reorder our priorities. Many people that we talked to in both towns lost all their possessions, but were thankful that they hadn't lost any family members. They were experiencing real hardship, but they knew they had what mattered most. Many people talked of a sustaining faith and that was heartening.

• On the other hand, some priorities don't seem to get reordered. I understand that it's important to get the economy moving again and businesses need to be reopened. We actually saw a lot of small businesses with signs prominently placed amid the rubble -- Now Open or We'll Be Back. But here's what bugged me. As we drove around Biloxi we passed through the Vietnamese section of town. I understand that a lot of Vietnamese people came here and were shrimp fisherman. I'm sure their lives are very hard now. We saw down a side street that a house was still sitting in the middle of the street. A whole house, right in the middle of the street. Debris removal has been slow -- it's a mammoth task. A couple of different guys we talked to said they'd had to do it themselves, or their neighbors had done it.

But back to the house in the middle of the street. A few blocks away from the Vietnamese neighborhood is the point where the casinos stand -- or what's left of the casinos. And they're positively bustling with workers cleaning up and clearing up and rebuilding. But there's still a house in the middle of the street a few blocks away. I know it's private industry that's working on the casinos (at least I hope so), but it still feels wrong to me. Why couldn't someone from the casinos send some work crews around the neighborhoods to help clean things up there, too? What about the mom & pop grocery stores and restaurants and hairdressers and gas stations? Those businesses are important for a local economy, too, and are less able to absorb the cost of rebuilding. I hope help comes to them, too.

I'm still trying to grasp what God is teaching me through this. I was very thankful last night to be home in my own bed, under my own roof, with my husband to hold me and my sons to make fart jokes. And I don't want to forget what I saw and heard on the Gulf coast of Mississippi.


Julana said...

Thank you for sharing this. It's hard to be up north and feel like you can't do much to help except give money.
I appreciate your comment about the amount of grieving that has to go on. I don't think I've heard much about that, and it's important.

Valerie Comer said...

Thanks for sharing this, Linda. It sounds as though (as with most missions-type trips) the folks who ministered were touched as much or more than the ones being ministered to. It is awesome that you were able to participate in this ministry.

Katy said...

Linda, what a great post. Thank you for giving us your first hand observations. And thank you for going.

MW Freeman said...

Fascinating and moving to read that post.