"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 fiancé 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.