Monday, October 17, 2005

Pascagoula vs. Katrina

I'm back in town. Been in Mississippi for days.

My church sent a relief crew to Pascagoula this past week. We've got ties to a church down there and sent a team to assist the sister church its members recover.

We thirteen showed up early in the parking lot to meet and hook up with our rides. It was cool in Atlanta and still dark when we left. By the time we got to the edges of Atlanta, we were swallowed by a deep fog that carried us deep into Alabama.

We arrive at lunchtime and are taken on a tour of Pascagoula. We head straight to the 'beachfront'. The local attraction, Senator Lott's "lot" has a trailer on it. His house was obliterated and its mass paid a very unwelcome visit to the house behind it. Every house up and down the sea wall was hard hit. Columns were all that remained on one lot. The next looked okay from a distance, except as you get closer, you realize it was moved off its foundation. Another house, closer to the shipyard was lifted off its foundation and wedged under a tree and the massive limbs, preventing the structure from being swept into the bay.

What did survive on the waterfront were the trees. Their roots exposed due to the rushing water undercutting the soil beneath, but still hanging on, much like the citizens of this town. Flying high from the limbs of the arboreal survivors are loads of unclaimed laundry and reams of personal papers. Littering the ground, you’ll find Legos, records, downed tree limbs and even a crate of carefully stored china with just three cracked plates.

The citizens have been trying to clean up. Further inland, head high debris is piled up on the curb in front of almost every house. The sanitation infrastructure is overwhelmed, the only time I saw them in action was to deliver new ‘Herbie Curbies’ that were likely swept or blown away. These ‘lucky’ houses, like the sister church, were soaked to the waist, requiring removal of sheetrock and fiberglass from the waist down. Some folks have removed all walls completely, leaving a skeleton of home inside.

We get right to work. Our team is split up into squads. We have a chainsaw platoon that makes quick work of landscaping nightmares. Another group salvages items from a matriarch’s house and carefully treads over the warped wooden floors and surrounding grounds being cleared of shattered glass picture windows. The third group begins the process of replacing the fiberglass insulation and sheetrock. Yet another cadre tackles the needs of another domicile.

We work ‘till sunset at which point we visit the chow hall of different local church. Salisbury steak, bean medley, peaches are on the menu. In addition to the local volunteers, we see other citizen teams from Indiana, Nebraska, Georgia, and Virginia. Most wear T-shirts of the same color and marked with their affiliation. Some folks lack my iron stomach and instead bolt for the familiarity of their preferred fast food franchises.

We finish and make our way back to the church and finish setting up our base camp. We unroll our sleeping bags and place them on the now inflated air mattresses. We have no laundry facilities so we hang our shirts out to dry in the stairwells and on the back of chairs. Our musk mingles with the smell of the church’s new sheetrock and paint as we await one of the two impromptu showers installed in the bathrooms downstairs.

The next day, more houses are attacked by swarms of marauding volunteers and the former residents as bemused and awed neighbors look on. More lawns are rediscovered beneath the debris and fallen trees. More sheetrock is cut and hung into place. Gutted houses are triple sprayed with bleach to fight the mold. Owners come home from work to be stunned by the progress of what they thought was a hopeless or slow process. Trying their best to thank us, one offers us his FEMA trailer to stay in, another offers an almost frozen cold pack of beer.

Nicknames are given by fellow team members and emblazoned in permanent marker on the backs of our impromptu team T-shirts. Names like ‘Wild Bill’, ‘Brine’, ‘Ski-Rock’, ‘The Professional’, ‘Bosley’, ‘Chainsaw Charlie’ and ‘Just Wright’. We are still learning each other’s names and bonding as a team. I only knew one other team member prior this trip. I needed those names and welcomed their creation. We’ve got pilots, programmers, real estate agents, house moms, sales agents, retired veterans, an ex-DJ, and a former stand up comedian turned staffing corporation owner.

Around town, you see signs. Simple, improvised signs. Many of the business signs are damaged or nonexistent. Every residence has a sign displaying the name of the family in residence, the street number and the name of their insurance company. One owner felt the need to admonish his miniature Doberman’s frolicking in the storm surge by posting a large “Bad Dog” sign in the front yard. Other residents include instructions to the deliverers of FEMA trailers – important info regarding the preferred location and direction of the sewer/septic tank hook up. Paranoid business owners post signs like, “Store is watched, I will shoot!” Another establishment chose to reflect upon their uncertainty, posting “Closed Today” implying that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be different.

We’ve worked from sun up to sun down. At the end of the day, we wash the muck off and have dinner at a familiar franchise with a bar. We are looking to spend time with each other away from the front line, building relationships with our fellow volunteers who’ve done as much back breaking work as anyone else. I’ve worked so hard that I’ve rarely had or allowed a stray thought of my family. Instead I’ve resorted to calling home while waiting for my turn in the shower or while waiting for a table to open up at the restaurant.

We’ve seen little in the way of wildlife. I’m sure that it is around but I only remember seeing or hearing an occasional crow. No songbirds or raptors. Stray dogs are prevalent unlike the cats. Much of the vegetation has suffered from saltwater contamination, leaves looking like burnt brown. Broken limbs still dangle from trees.

The next morning, we mix up the squads somewhat because the projects have changed. One house, far enough away from the beachfront, had its entire first floor and split-level kitchen flooded. It hasn’t been touched yet. The family is afraid to begin work because their property is located within Flood Plain A. Laws require that the house be bulldozed if the cost of reconstruction exceeds 50% of its value. The family is tight lipped that morning, not sure that anything is worth undertaking to save the domicile.

As the day progresses, most of our team of volunteers are working on the house. Sheetrock is knocked down with hammers, crowbars and whatever else we have handy. In some places, the sheetrock crumbles at the first touch. We rip all the kitchen cabinets out, discovering a few pots and pans still full of Katrina’s fury. By lunch time, the family is moving more enthusiastically, and even opening up to these strange servants.

Behind the walls we find an overpowering smell of musty mold, making the crumbly gypsum boards look like blue cheese. It’s scooped and shoveled into a large metal trashcan along with the soaking wet fiberglass insulation. This family has received some quotes from the contractors and believe that due to our efforts, they’ll be allowed to rebuild. By the end of the day, they are effusive in their praise and have completely opened up to their temporary wrecking crew. We’re glad to help and ask that they let us take their picture. They happily oblige and you can see the hope in their faces when they think about the future. Together we’ve fought back the memories of Katrina and hope has taken deeper root in the hearts of Pascagoula residents.

We got high praise from our charges. We kept hearing how the religious organizations were the most welcome. The Red Cross and FEMA were very poorly thought of by the local denizens. In spite of the difficulties, the citizens are still trying to iron out their problems with organizational and bureaucratic snafus. When witnessing one family reclaiming their living space, one back-door neighbor half-heartedly asked what he had to do to get us to come help him with his place.

The days we’ve spent down there feel like months. I’ve become very attached to my team members and am sort of suffering a withdrawal of sorts. We’ve vowed to find each other on Sundays and accepted offers to drop by any time. I’ve returned home a changed man in many respects. The grind of my daily routine awaits and doesn’t seem quite as important as before. I’m definitely more thankful of what I do have and how little my family has suffered during its existence.

I’m glad I went. I needed to go. I felt an urge to serve. I can’t afford much monetarily, but I was able to give my sweat and blood to the renewal effort. I may go again. It’s what I can do. More people need help. Ninety percent of the congregation’s families of our sister church sustained significant losses. It felt good to help the more than a dozen projects before us. Much more needs to be done. Further West, in Ocean Springs there is a tent city. I don’t know how much rebuilding or even demolition that they’ve been allowed or able to do.

I hope to see some of you in the Gulf Coast or that you have been there.