a wind inside a letter-box

restless thoughts

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gulfport RePost- Union Weekly Article: "We Are Still Here"

The article I wrote for The Union Weekly can be read online, with photos and formatting in-tact, at http://issuu.com/theunionweekly/docs/60.01/7

The text is here:

"We Are Still Here"

It’s not that anyone could forget the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It’s not like we weren’t all glued to the television sets on that horrible day in August of 2005 watching in disbelief as the rain and wind became epic, as hours passed and things got more surreal. Numbers and dollar amounts and racial demographics scrolled across our screens for weeks after, but they made no more sense than the footage of roofs just barely breaking over the top of filthy gray water, silent and vast. From our homes in Southern California, where rain is a rare but polite visitor that almost never overstays its welcome, it was hard to even imagine that kind of devastation.

Nonetheless, we did what we could, as well as we could. Many of us donated money to charities for disaster relief, whether directly or as part of the dozens of partnership programs that between charities and other organizations. Our dollars bought food, clothing, and medical supplies for a region torn apart. But we did not stop with just our monetary donations. Blood banks after the storm were filled with people wanting to give life in an even more direct way. And the Gulf Coast itself was overwhelmed with volunteers who wanted to make their muscles their donations. The national and international response to an historic disaster was beautiful and immediate.

No, we didn’t forget the storm. How could we? But as the months wore on, the stories on the news were about politics and bureaucracies: what went wrong? The storm cost $80 billion and two thousand human lives. Who was to blame? There were questions of embezzlement, of misuse of federally granted and donated funds, and of preferential treatment of certain areas over others based on race. And, though we didn’t forget the Gulf Coast or the horror of those first days after the storm, we began to think about other things. Blood banks dried up. Churches and other sites that opened their doors to so many volunteers that their housing was becoming a whole new problem relaxed as thousands became hundreds and then dozens. Slowly government help started to trickle in, but it has proven again and again to be simply not enough to replace whole neighborhoods, to say nothing of the other, less tangible but more profound devastation.

I decided to spend the week before Christmas in Gulfport, Mississippi. In our new apartment, my fiancĂ© and I were lining walls with bookshelves and hanging up pictures, moving furniture around to fit our first tree and buying hooks for our stockings. I had a lot to be thankful for. And, during a season when the good things in life seem so much better, pain and loss are just that much harder to bear. Money won’t cure despair, and I don’t have much of it anyway. But I could pack a suitcase and spend a week proving that, though it’s been over a year and new tragedies and scandals have taken over our front pages, we haven’t forgotten. And, since I could, I did.

Arrival: “There were houses here.”

Our team was a dozen strong: six college-aged kids and six adults. Almost immediately after the storm, Grace First pledged $1 million for relief in the area. One of the first major purchases was the Grace First Mission House, a two-story building in Gulfport that’s housed hundreds of volunteers since its dedication. During our week in Mississippi, we’d be staying there.

On December 17th, as we took an alarmingly steep ascent out of John Wayne Airport, I was amazed at how quickly we were out of the Southern California metropolitan area. Looking out the window of the plane, I could see patches of partitioned land beyond the heavy cloud cover, but within an hour of take-off I had no idea where I was. Somewhere above the southwestern portion of America, between Irvine and Gulfport. Somewhere far enough above that borders and cities and townships couldn’t be distinguished, and everything just looked like land. Watching fifteen hundred nameless miles crawl far beneath you has a way of reminding you just how artificial Southern California’s sense of isolation is. From tens of thousands of miles above ground, it was easy to see that it really is just one country. With no lines except the lazy meandering of rivers, it was easy to see that the storm hadn’t hit as far away from us as it’d seemed.

We were met at the Biloxi/Gulfport airport by a charming lady named Martha Lee, leader of the youth group for Westminster Presbyterian Church, with whom Grace First had partnered in the months after the storm. Before we headed to the house for the night, Martha Lee took us on a drive down the coastline. I don’t know what I was expecting. Something that looked more like the loud violence of an earthquake, maybe. Instead there were skeleton houses standing silent and stoic in the waning light. More often, there were just empty lots or broken foundations. “There were houses here,” said Martha Lee. “Anywhere you see nothing, it’s because there used to be something there.”

Work: Tearing Down & Rebuilding

Early Monday morning, we set out for our worksite. On the way to the house we would be working on, we passed more devastation. Along the coast houses had been ripped from their foundations. Further inland, there had been the quick and deadly flooding and the torrential rains. Everywhere there was damage, and everywhere there was construction. So long after the storm, there were many buildings that had been restored or rebuilt. There were signs on lampposts and fences selling lumber and other building supplies. But next door to the new houses were those empty lots, those classic Southern mansions, in families for generations, that would never be houses again.

Our worksite was a white house with a FEMA trailer on its front lawn. Between 20 and 30 feet long, these trailers are meant to be replacements for the homes of whole families. They are tiny, and they reek of temporariness. The owner of the house, Margaret, had lived in this one with her daughter for about a year. They are lucky: FEMA doesn’t provide trailers unless the site has working gas and water hook-ups. Many families who need shelter were left with less than that.

Sometime after the storm, someone had laid a beautiful roof of new shingles on Margaret’s house. A few weeks before our team got to Mississippi, another team working with Westminster had gone to hang dry wall inside. The next day, a heavy rain had revealed that the roof was leaking like a sieve. The first roofers, whoever they were, had used shingles to cover wet and rotten baseboards. An aesthetic, surface-level fix that was nothing but a lie.

We climbed up on the roof and, working with another team from Tennessee, we got to work. We spent the first day demolishing the beautiful roof and revealing the ugliness underneath. Holes in the soggy baseboard. Broken rafters. Rats living (and dying) in the insulation. And, inside, the new drywall had been compromised. Wasted money, wasted time.

I am one for symbols and metaphors. There was something poignant about wielding shovels and hammer-claws and crowbars for monotonous and neck-wrenching hours in order to end up with more holes that when we’d started. Frustrating as it was to spend a full day of work tearing down what we wanted to rebuild, this was a part of the process. Nothing lasts long if it’s built on a rotten foundation.

Over the next two days, we laid the new roof. New baseboards cut to size and tar paper unrolled and stapled down in the surprising heat. I become a nail-gun virtuoso: exactly six nails in each sheet of shingles aligned and positioned just so. Working furiously, filling our hands with splinters and covering our clothes with tar, we were racing every day against time. There were no street lights, and, on our third day of work, as the sun started sinking into the horizon and the shadows started inching towards just being dusk, it became obvious that we were going to have to leave the roof unfinished, trusting that the team from Tennessee would be able to finish alone what we’d started together.

As we drove back from the worksite on Wednesday, after packing up all our tools and preparing the site for the rain that was forcasted to begin that night, I stared, frustrated, out the window at the houses as we passed. In all fairness, after three full days of work, with all that needed to be done, we should have been able to at least roof one house. But, then again, in all fairness, a lot of things would have been different.

Leaving: “We are still here.”

Ultimately, the point of my trip to Mississippi was to show the residents there that they had not been forgotten. One night, we delivered cookies to several Gulfport families. On another, we helped wrap Christmas presents for children at a battered women’s shelter in the area. Just our being there, walking down the street or the aisles of the supermarket, brought grins to people’s faces.

Since the storm, reports of domestic violence have tripled in number as people are forced into tiny trailers with their families and frustrations and pain. Many familes are paying mortgages on empty lots that they can neither live on nor sell. Sometimes new roofs still leak. And insurance companies are audacious in their estimates of the monetary value of a life, a history, a home. Every day, life finds new ways to grind down hope.

Martha Lee said: “It’s the second Christmas since the storm, and people are starting to wonder if things will ever get better.” As we drive down the coast for the last time before heading back to California, we see new houses and damaged houses and even FEMA trailers decked out for the holidays, ready to celebrate. And, on a lonely wall in the middle of an empty lot, the spraypaint says: “We are still here.” Still in pain, still in need. But still here.

Joggers pick their way down the beach. In an abandoned shopping center, a mom-and-pop pizza joint is open for business. Students are in school plays, and people are getting married. We are still here.

What you can do.

What’s left to do on the Gulf Coast? It’s complicated and it’s varied. In places like Gulfport, there are roofs to be laid. There are also museums to reopen and a long beach to make safe again. The city of New Orleans is only about 15% rebuilt and, though the famous French Quarter is just about picture-perfect, the poverty-stricken Ninth Ward is still in shambles. And that’s just one city in what was a federal disaster area of 90 thousand square miles. The Gulf Coast needs money, teachers for its schools, and people with hammers and shovels. And, when the past year and a half has seen alarming rises in suicide rates and cases of serious mental illness, it needs hope.

There are countless charities still at work on the coast. In addition to those that you’d expect, like the American Red Cross, there are organizations working to reunite pets with their owners. There are groups at work to bring music and the arts back into the region by donating instruments and costumes and scripts. Faith-based groups are donating millions to the area and are able, in some cases, to avoid the political bureaucratic red-tape and work directly with the people. If you have extra cash, there are many people who can put it to good use.

But, if you can, you should go there yourself. Groups like Habitat for Humanity are bringing together people who can help and people who need it. It’s not just the pain of the Gulf Coast. It’s the pain of America. It’s all of our pain. And there’s absolutely nothing in the world like being a part of the healing.

Gulfport RePost- Epilogue: Two Months Later

When I woke up on our fourth day in Gulfport, our last day on the roof, I knew that there was really no way that we were going to finish it. I pulled on my favorite shirt, my lucky shirt, my Mammoth shirt that I've had since forever and have worn for almost all of my big tests and bad days. I pulled on my shirt without expecting a miracle: there was just too much to be done, and just not enough time in which to do it before the dusk brought the end of the workday and the promised rain. All day long that knowledge was over my shoulder, pushing me to work harder and faster and to become, at a few points, frantic and obsessive.

I fell in a hole.

Yes, in my hurry to clear the bare baseboards of scraps and equipment so I could begin shingling, I moved a piece of wood that had been covering a large hole so that no one would fall in. With the piece of wood in my hands, I couldn't see the hole it had concealed, and I fell in. Hard. I'm not sure the mechanics of what happened, since, as Karelyn said, "One second you were there, the next you weren't," but I do know that I ended up with a bump you could see through my jeans and a bruise covering half of my right thigh. If you were lucky enough to see me within the three weeks or so after I got back in Long Beach, I probably hiked up my skirt to show you. It was an impressive bruise. And perhaps it says something about my state of mind that I didn't stop to ponder the symbolism of the event. I was on the roof, I was through the roof, and then I was back on it, nail gun in hand. No pause to consider how my drive to accomplish my set goals had blinded me, made me unable to react to the truth of the situation. I didn't think about the difference between appearance and reality, between the roof that existed in my mind and the one that was actually supporting (or not supporting) my feet as I scrambled across it. I had other things to do.

I ruined my favorite shirt.

Yes, it was already well into dusk and we were already loading up the vans, but we still needed to put a seal of tar on the chimney so when the rains came (as they did, with impressive vigor) there wouldn't be any entrance for the moisture. I grabbed the tar and the trowel and started smearing and spreading. When my gloves got too sticky to use, I took them off. And, inevitably, I got covered in tar. We were going to dinner at Westminster Church that night (our dallying on the roof had already made us late), and I was utterly unpresentable, with tar coating my hands and arms, my pants, and my favorite shirt. After scrubbing with pumice soap and using some of the cheerfully offered home remedies from the Gulfport residents, I got my body clean. But my favorite shirt, my lucky shirt, my Mammoth shirt that reminds me of the Sierras every time I pull it on, is ruined.

I bring this up only because today I had a real desire to wear it. I woke up this morning feeling a little sick, and a little tired, and I could've used the extra boost. But I think I might like it better this way. It is, after all, only a shirt. It's a shirt that got me through my APs and my SAT and the grueling hike up to Duck Pass and my Random Voices audition, but it's just a shirt. And I'm not going to get so caught up in worrying about never wearing it again that I'm going to make it into something more important than that. One day it would have fallen apart and gotten ripped and I would've had to retire it anyway. It's just fabric and dye, and it wouldn't have lasted forever. And now it's got Mississippi tar on it. So that's kinda cool too.

Gulfport RePost- Day Five: I am singing in the rain


the rain was still beautiful when i woke up this morning to make pancakes for the group. and it was still beautiful as it turned into knee-deep flooding in New Orleans and ruined our plans for the day. we piled into our vans and drove up and down the beach before heading back to the house for lunch and an afternoon of hanging out instead.

buddhism loves its water metaphors, maybe second only to those about fire. a river will look the same at any two given moments, but the water in it is different, constantly changing. water is a lesson about constancy and impermanence. as we drove along the coast i was struck most deeply by the loss of history on each side of the highway. on one side, the boardwalk has been completely destroyed, leaving only lonely posts and tiny landings every couple of yards. on the other, huge estates and gorgeous homes reduced to rubble. we passed a graveyard and a memorial park. we passed the last house of Jefferson Davis. irreplaceable things with decades and generations of stories. no matter how much hard work and money is poured into rebuilding, these things will never be the same, lost to the winds and the water.

and we took a drive to the roof where we'd been working one last time. the other team (from Tennessee) had finished the last couple hours of work, and it looked amazing. and, in the balmy Mississippi downpour, it wasn't leaking a drop.

it's easy to get overwhelmed when you focus on all the things that have been lost. here on the gulf coast, it's been lives and property and a sense of logic in the world. since the storm, cases of domestic violence have risen 300% as people are forced into tiny FEMA trailers with their families and frustrations and pain. every day life finds a new way to grind down hope. there's something else taken away that we thought we couldn't live without. there's a new obstacle to our future, a new doubt, or a new pain.

the spraypaint on the houseless wall says: "We are still here."

now. here. there are things to remember and things that just need to be let go. and slowly, carefully, there will be healing. new life in scorched forests and out of fallen redwoods. where there is despair, there will be hope. where there is darkness, light. where there is sadness, light. soon. but for now, i will sit in the dark and listen to the beautiful rain and breathe in, and then out. "We are still here."

We are still here.

Gulfport RePost- Day Four: I am a tar-baby


as i write this, i'm sitting in the stairway just around the corner from where the girls are sleeping, typing in the dark so i don't wake them. through the window i can hear one of the most beautiful rains i've ever been in. big, heavy drops in a warm and still night. and i'm thinking about that roof that won't be finished tomorrow because of it, and i'm getting frustrated all over again.

it's been one of those days. we finished one of 5 flat sides of the roof, and it was one of the most satisfying things i've ever done. then we started on the next piece. and then, when that was done, the next one. so thrilling to be making such progress... but today was our last day working, and we didn't finish. i knew climbing up the ladder this morning that there was no way we would finish, but as the sun started sinking into the horizon and the shadows started inching towards just being dusk... no matter how quickly i worked the nail gun, and how much i tore up my knees moving across the shingles, there was nothing i could do but leave it unfinished. frustrating.

but, alternating with the frustration and gaining a lot of ground is the sense of satisfaction with a job well done, if not completely done. i was born to be a perfectionist (it's in the genes), and i can't seem to even make a peanut butter sandwich without smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing again. but, as i raced against the clock, i was forced to accept the limits of what was possible. at the end of the day, i had to hand the job over to the next group. i had no choice. and that was a little liberating. these aching arms and shoulders, these bruised knees and splintery fingers, and this huge and painful bruise on my upper thigh (there's and amusing story that goes with it) are all that i am able to give here and now.

driving back from the site, after packing up our tools and preparing the site for the eventual rain, i stared out the window at the houses as we passed. and perhaps the lesson in all of this is that making a difference doesn't mean fixing the problem. i can't be attached to that either. here's nothing i can do about the houses that are piles of rubble. there's nothing i can do about the FEMA trailers or the empty lots or the desperate spraypaint begging thieves and squatters to stay out of these places that once were homes. nothing i can do today, at least.

i feel like i'm missing something important here. there's a thought or a piece that i can't quite grasp...

tomorrow we take a final tour of Gulfport and then drive down the coast to New Orleans. once again, i don't know what to expect.

"she's my heart," said the grateful woman about her granddaughter, who was born two weeks after the storm. "she's just my heart."

Gulfport RePost- Day Three: I am a nail gun virtuoso


back at the same worksite today, the house of a woman named margaret. today we put down tar paper over the new osb boards on the roof. "boy," we said to each other at 9 am, after an hour of work. "it's getting hot."

after the tar paper, we started laying down shingles. i wielded a nail gun virtually nonstop for about 6 hours. "wow," we sighed as we wiped sweat from our eyes and hot tar from our knees. "the sun is melting everything."

after two solid days of work, we're almost done. my knees are tender and my hands can barely form the fists needed to shake in frustration at the aching in my back... but we are almost done building a new roof for a woman who has been living in her driveway since the storm. and! it looks amazing.

i like feeling useful. in general, my talents are not particularly practical. i'm good at making snarky comments and bad puns. i can amuse myself and sometimes others with an adequacy in drawring and writing. i can sing. but i'm not the missing piece in any puzzle, i'm not the crucial cog in any machine. but i've got energy and time, and i'm willing to give them to Gulfport, even if only for a short while (although i think i'm going to want to come back). i find it kind of hard to believe that the little i can do makes any difference in the world. but there is a roof on a house that says that even i can do something important.

"it's important to remember," said gerald, "that while we're out here, real life is still going on." driving back to the house from the worksite, we see piles of rubble and empty foundations. we also see extravagant christmas displays and houses and trailers ready to celebrate. people are driving to and from work, and in the morning joggers pick their way across the beach.

"it's the second christmas since the storm," said martha lee, " and people are starting to wonder if things will ever get better." if not crucial, i am a cog in a machine that is making a positive change in people's lives. it feels good.

the nail gun explodes air from its end that sends dust and sawdust flying into my face. it's not a bad way to spend a day.

Gulfport RePost- Day Two: My new name is splinter-butt.


perhaps because the air is wet and gray

gulfport this morning

is lonely (sabishii)

woke up way too early this morning. my own fault. i overestimated how much time it was going to take everyone to get ready. that's ok... i got to see the grays of gulfport turn into smoky reds. and so quiet. i wonder if it was like this before the storm?

leaving the house this morning, julia and i thought it was raining. but it was only the huge oak tree in front dripping morning dew from its leaves. coming from the airport last night, i saw lots of young trees where there used to be... something else.

today was spent roofing. more specifically, we worked on the roof of a lady who is currently living in a FEMA trailer on her front lawn. someone came in after the storm to fix her roof, but they only put on new shingles, and didn't replace the soggy boards underneath. so we tore up the lovely new roof in order to get to the rot underneath.

i am one for symbols and metaphors. taking shovels and hammers and crowbars for monotonous and neck-wrenching hours was a meditation that gave me time to think about destruction as a step in rebuilding and renewal. forest fires. many many cultures use pain as a part of ceremonies for rebirth. perhaps the screams of pain at childbirth become linked to the act itself, until suffering and new life become completely entwined, unable to exist without each other. whoever first fixed this lady's roof slapped on a happy exterior and then moved on.

some rot is deeper than the surface. sometimes back-breaking work results in more holes than when you started. my muscles are crying out in pain...

"it was kinda eerie," said andrea. "all those staircases leading to nothing."

Gulfport RePost- Day One: "There were houses here."


our plane left the john wayne airport at an alarmingly steep incline at 8:30 this morning, careful not to awaken or otherwise disturb our orange county neighbors. the flight was generally quiet and comfortable as we made our way from southern california to the houston stop-over, but i was anxious. partly because i'd only slept about a half hour before leaving for the airport, but i think mostly because i was anticipating something i had no notion of. what, exactly, do i think i'm doing?

looking out the window of the plane (past robyn, who had gotten no sleep the night before and was making up for it with open-mouthed enthusiasm) i could see patches of partitioned land beyond the heavy cloud cover, but i had no idea where i was. somewhere between irvine and houston, i knew... somewhere over the southwestern portion of America. somewhere far enough over that the borders and cities and townships couldn't be distinguished, and everything just looked like land.

i started thinking about Om, the sacred syllable which both Buddhism and Hinduism recognize as the essential and universal sound of life. Supposedly, if you stand in the middle of a bustling crowd of thousands and pull back enough that you're hearing, not words, but just a collection of sounds, the sound you'll hear will be Om. is this because all the world, all of consciousness, sings Om whether they know it or not? or is it because Om describes this sound? which came first? from tens of thousands of miles above ground, i could imagine that the whole country was one entity, if not vibrating on one wavelength, at least singing in harmony. no lines except for the streets and the lazy meandering of rivers. we landed in houston (aka the George H. W. Bush Airport), and the first airport store we passed was the Fox News Store. awesome.

an hour later, we were in Gulfport, Miss. we were greeted by a charming lady named Martha Lee (!) who took us on a tour of the shoreline before we got settled in for the night. "There were houses here," she said. "Anywhere you see nothing, it's because there used to be something there."