I met her at about 8:15 in the morning as I stopped by her home to deliver a receipt. She handles the accounting for the volunteer program. With little more than the exchange of our names, as I stood just inside the entryway of her home, she began to recount her experience of Hurricane Katrina. As she spoke in that moment, nearly three years after the fact, she had a look of shock, of being dumbfounded by the force and quickness of the storm.
"We rode out Camille in 1969," she told me. "We didn't think this could be worse. It was."
She described to me how she and her husband, both in their mid-60's, were driven from their home by the rising waters. "The water was up to here," she said, gesturing to a point high on her neck. They fought through the rising waters to her sister's house a couple of blocks away. The sister lived on slightly higher ground and had a second story. It was on the second floor that they survived the storm and then waited out the immediate aftermath. The 90 degree temperatures, no electricity, and no easy exit made the stay more than difficult.
"I wouldn't have re-built if I were a younger woman. I'm 67," she said. "I don't know anything else but here in Waveland."
And so went part of the story of just one woman from Waveland, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi where the eye of Hurricane Katrina hit land and moved north. Waveland was essentially washed away, washed off its foundations and stilts. Initially, piles of rubble and indistinguishable parts of houses were everywhere. A city of over 7000 people was nearly completely destroyed. No homes, no public buildings, and little to no infrastructure remained.
Nearly three years later the rubble is gone. Basically, the city looks clean and relatively organized. But, there is something missing. While many businesses are rebuilt, or well on their way to being so, there are slabs of concrete (house foundations), or the remnants of stilts upon which buildings once stood throughout the city. These are the signs that families have not yet been able to come back and rebuild, or have chosen not to. The FEMA trailers are mostly gone except in some emergency cases, though I later discovered that 17,000 such trailers are still in use in Mississippi and Louisiana. Many have been replaced by so-called MEMA cottages, so named because they come from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. These, too, are temporary and must be vacated by March of 2009.
Many life-long coastal residents face the ongoing difficulty of obtaining an equitable insurance settlement. Others just cannot afford to rebuild and yet do not know where to go. The remnants of homes not rebuilt also prove the dead and missing. Official reports put deaths in Hancock County, MS, at just under 30. However, more than 400 Social Security checks have not been claimed, nor an address change submitted. Where did these people go? The people of Waveland know they are dead, but they are not counted so. Who counts senior citizens with no other family? Apparently those who keep Hurricane Katrina statistics do not count them.
It is also important to note that volunteer coordinators are tiring and burning out, and volunteer sites are shutting down due to fewer volunteers and the inability to cover the minimal utility costs at these sites. We heard the story and saw the sadness in the eyes of a young 20-something who had given up several years of young adulthood to volunteer at her ministry site, Camp Coastal in Kiln, MS; it will be forced to close by August 31, 2008.
Most of the preceding stories and statistics became known to me when Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem., my brother Paul Cribben, retired postal worker Brian Holloway (nephew of the late Fr. Luke Dionne, O. Praem.), and Mary Asma and her husband Steve Asma, (parents of one St. Norbert College student and three Notre Dame Academy alumnae), went to Waveland for a week of work, June 21-29, 2008. We relied upon the coordinating efforts of "St. Clare Recovery." The mission of this organization is "to coordinate the skills and efforts of, and provide clean and affordable housing for volunteers who come to the Waveland/Bay St. Louis, MS area for the purpose of assisting residents of the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area to rebuild their homes and their lives spiritually, physically and emotionally following Hurricane Katrina." (www.stclarerecovery.com).
We had decent housing in the volunteer center located in the midst of a larger warehouse complex. Air conditioned kitchen, dining, and bedroom areas, plus shower facilities a short walk away, made the stay more than tolerable in the midst of the heat and humidity of the Gulf Coast summer. Not bad for $10 per day! We bought our own food and prepared adequate meals for ourselves.
Steve Herro did the group coordination in preparation for the trip. He had looked at several volunteer entities on the coast and in the New Orleans area and found this entity and its mission to be a good fit for our group. This was Steve's fourth trip to Katrina affected areas and Mary Asma's second. The rest of us were first-timers.
We drove a six passenger van, packed rather tightly, from De Pere to the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Raymond, MS, on the first day - about 1000 miles and 15 hours. We were welcomed by Abbot Tom DeWane, O. Praem., and the other confreres of the Priory. The next day I filled in as presider at Immaculate Conception parish in Raymond, MS, where Fr. Richard Chiles, O. Praem., normally ministers. As he was away and the other confreres were already occupied, it worked out well for everyone. The small, even tiny church building and typically southern parish community provided a unique experience for the group. We were warmly welcomed by the parishioners and I even met a co-worker from my days at Catholic Charities in Jackson in the mid-90's.
After Mass we drove the last 200 miles to Waveland where were met by Jane Crady, a volunteer coordinator who is originally from Indiana and has been ministering in Waveland, and remotely from Indiana, from the earliest days after Katrina. As we arrived Jane was preparing to return to her home in Indiana to help coordinate disaster relief efforts and volunteers in Indiana after the June 2008 floods there. Given her experience in Mississippi, she is uniquely qualified in both coordinating volunteers and in dealing with post-flood issues from drywall replacement to mold removal to government sponsored disaster relief relations.
Jane told us that she expected many people in Indiana who had been directly impacted by the floods to have a response similar to those experienced by people after Katrina. Jane spoke of the "Katrina stare." This was the look of on-going shock and helplessness that she saw on the faces of so many after Katrina, where otherwise capable people had been rendered incapable by the profound destruction and the trauma experienced. Hancock County, MS, now carries the misfortune of having one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Included among the victims of suicide are health professionals and counselors who helped survivors after Katrina, but who were not helped with their own experiences of trauma and shock. Many were overwhelmed and subsequently took their own lives.
On Monday morning we began our work at the home of "Rose" in Bay St. Louis, MS. Her brick home had been flooded and the roof damaged, but the foundation and exterior walls remained intact. Like many, the holes in her roof were "fixed" with a blue tarp, but everything in the house had to be thrown out - appliances, furniture, personal items, etc. Her home was flooded both from the coastal waters blown in by the winds, but also from another direction by a canal which remained flooded even after the wind driven waters receded.
A relative of Rose made the initial fix of the house, replacing drywall, etc. He lived there for a time, but he did such a poor job of repair that it remained unlivable. He had never permanently fixed the roof and was still using the tarp which eventually leaked. Rose finally asked him to leave and sought the help of St. Clare Recovery. With volunteer help the house finally got the new roof it needed before other interior work could be done. The interior work was our task.
When we arrived we were directed in our work by Tony Dixon. Tony is a husband and father of five children whom he is home-schooling. Each day Tony would meet us at the volunteer center or at the house and make sure we had what we needed for the day. While he was instructing and guiding us, his five children were exceedingly calm in the minivan with the motor running and the air conditioner keeping them cool. This was their weekly experience. Tony visited us at our sight at least once, but as many as three times per day. The following week he had to supervise the work of 50 teenagers working at several sites. We could only imagine what this was like for Tony and his kids.
We met the homeowner, Rose, and Eddie, her husband, who expressed their deep gratitude for our efforts. They were a humble couple who spoke of how life was different now, and their perspective changed after Katrina. They were living in a FEMA trailer in Gulfport (40 miles east) while their house was being rehabbed.
During our five days we repaired and sanded drywall, primed and textured all of the walls, painted the ceiling, walls, and baseboard throughout the house. We also measured each room for the carpet layers and baseboard installers. Additionally, Paul and Brian installed seven ceiling fan-light fixtures. They worked so well together and with such efficiency that by Thursday they had to join the rest of us in the chore of painting. We worked hard in the hot humid weather, sweated profusely, stayed hydrated, rejoiced at a cooling thunderstorm, sang along with the "oldies station" on the radio, ate our bag lunches, and cooperated well-enough to depart on Friday, satisfied that we had done all we could in the time given and with our particular skills.
During our travels, before we began our work week, and then in the evenings after work our group engaged in both fun and serious conversations as we came to know each other. Deep theological discussions were coupled with questions about church practices, interspersed with jokes and humorous accounts of our life experiences. Processing and seeking to understand our daily experiences and encounters were enriching and powerful as well as nurturing for our own Christian faith development.
Additionally, those evenings gave us the chance to see a bit more of the coast, including St. Clare parish, after which the volunteer organization was named. Some may be familiar with this parish. The parish property is the location of the large, hand-painted, and often photographed and video-taped, sign reading: "Katrina was big, but God is bigger!" Near the sign is the quonset hut tent that serves as the worship space. The parish had broken ground just before we arrived in preparation for building a new church.
The beaches are once again rather beautiful to look at, though without the many piers that once jutted into the Gulf. We were told, however, to be aware that the beaches and the areas that appear inviting for a swim are still littered with refuse and objects hidden just below the surface that could be quite dangerous. One AmeriCorps volunteer had drowned while floating on a raft that became entangled with debris. We were told that about 150 cars had been located by their GPS devices below the surface of the Gulf. Imagine how many other cars without these rare devices there are in the Gulf!
That report was emblematic of the reality, that, what you saw on the Gulf Coast was not necessarily what you got. Newly constructed casinos open for business along the coast did not indicate that all was well, only that Mississippi was starving for the tax revenue they produced and so the state facilitated rebuilding the casinos as fast as they could. Cleaned up beach surfaces and beach front properties did not mean that life had returned to normal. Homes had been destroyed and totally removed and the people live in anticipation of the day they might rebuild, or in fear that they may never rebuild. Some people have been bought out by developers who bought the land cheaply and will wait for the time to build rental properties and the like.
Our relatively brief experience surely did not do justice for one who would like to understand how the situation has come to be as it is nearly three years after Katrina. "Wisconsin logic" does not suffice to critique and examine the status of the people and re-building. We do not have the experience of living on the Gulf Coast with its particular and often idyllic and/or catastrophic weather. We do not have the Mississippi experience of race, discrimination and poverty.
Many people with whom I have spoken did not know that Mississippi had a Gulf Coast. Many did not know that, other than the beach areas, the coast is significantly populated by Blacks. To say that race and the corruption of state and federal officials, as well as the nefarious activities of unscrupulous contractors in the aftermath of Katrina, have nothing to do with the present status, is to be unaware of Mississippi's and the United State's history and continuing struggles with racism and corruption.
In the end, we had a powerful experience of solidarity with a few people who continue to live and move forward in the aftermath of Katrina. The stories of generosity, new relationships, trauma, suffering, shock, transformation, etc., will remain with us. We were all further humbled by the gratitude of those who welcomed us and allowed us to do something. There was a mutual good shared during the week. It was not simply about what we did for them, but also about being affected by their reality and sharing that reality as best we could while we were there, and when we returned to home.