From Nadja Hogg, Community Partnership Coordinator in Macalester's Community Service Office
On Wednesday, the staff leader of the camp where we are staying gave us an in-depth tour of sites in Biloxi with particularly profound Hurricane stories. We first visited the Seashore Mission, a homeless shelter two blocks from the Gulf Coast. This is the story of the Seashore Mission, as told to us.
The Seashore Mission had a long history in its Biloxi neighborhood. For over 50 years, it served the homeless in the Biloxi area. It was known for never closing its doors, even during Hurricanes. A three-story brick building, it had survived Hurricane Camille, the category five storm that served as the benchmark for the most severe hurricane to ever hit the Gulf Coast. When news of Hurricane Katrina came, the pastor of the mission decided this hurricane was too dangerous to ride out. He asked anyone staying there to evacuate and find higher ground. However, 12 men decided to stay in the mission during the storm. They called the pastor to let him know they were going to stay with the building--the only home they knew. They wanted to be there to protect it and help clean it up as soon as the storm passed. In their phone call to the pastor, the men let him know they had made camp on the third floor, and they had enough food and water to last several days. Though the pastor told them that this storm was worse than Camille and begged them to seek shelter elsewhere, they refused to go. They promised to stay in phone contact with the pastor throughout the night.
Several times during the storm, the pastor called to check on the men. Just before daybreak, the pastor received a call from the men that the building had filled through the second story with water, but they were ok. This was the last call the pastor received. When Katrina came ashore with her 30 ft. storm surge, the Seashore Mission was right in its path. Water flooded in from the Gulf side of Biloxi, as well as from the Back Bay, and the waves created a washing machine-like churning. The Seashore Mission began to collapse.
Each of the twelve men inside had to decide what to do next. One man, known only by the name of “L.A.” decided to “swim for it.” He made it out of the collapsing structure and managed to grab onto the roof of a house floating by. He climbed atop the roof in the midst of the height of the storm. Once on the roof, he realized he was not alone--on the other side of the roof, there was a water moccasin, an aggressive, deadly snake. L.A. said that he and the water moccasin sized each other up and in a moment came to a mutual agreement that they would share the roof for the moment, and when another house floated by, L.A. swam for it again to find a roof of his own. He hung onto the two roofs of floating homes for 6 hours until the winds stopped howling and the water slowly receded back into the Gulf.
When he was able to climb down from the roof onto solid ground, he found the bodies of six of his friends who had stayed with him in the trees surrounding the mission. Five others survived, but had nothing left. L.A. was found living in a tent near the mission when volunteers came to clean up debris from the Mission, and he told his story to them there.
On Friday, the group had the opportunity to visit with two Mac alums from New Orleans. They gave us a sense of how New Orleans has been affected in very different ways from the Gulf Coast where we worked. We were able to take a few hours to tour around New Orleans, where the majority of the city feels like a ghost town. The only life is in the French Quarter, the segment of town that did not take on floodwater.
On Monday of this week (Martin Luther King, Jr., Day) the city of Biloxi held a parade down the main street of the destructed city. The Macalester group watched from the street corners, standing among residents and cheering on the parade route. For the first time since we arrived, we saw life and energy in the city. The children of Biloxi, all displaced because there are no schools open in the city, rode bikes down the streets and called greetings to each other. Cars rode up and down the main street, honking at people they knew. During our evening group meeting with the 100+ volunteers at the camp, members of the Macalester group shared thoughts on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., through spoken word, readings, and singing "Amazing Grace."
The destruction on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina covers a geographical area approximately the size of Great Britain. (WOW! You don't hear that on the news.)
The long-term disaster assistance organizations on the ground have developed a five-year rebuilding plan, which gives an idea of the level of destruction and need. There are many, many, many areas that look like the storms happened yesterday--it is hard to believe 5 months have passed. There are miles upon miles of destruction.
We drove for nearly an hour along I-90 yesterday (the highway that runs along the coast) after our workday, and we didn't see a single habitable house. In
fact, we saw few structures that hadn't been completely destroyed.
So far, we have done all of our work in Biloxi, Miss., where groups have been tearing
down drywall in houses that had up to 10 feet of water in them, preparing them for mold abatement, cleaning up yard debris, and preparing houses that have been "mucked out" for new sheetrock.
We spend evenings reflecting on the day's work, listening to the experiences and stories of other groups, discussing our questions, venting our frustration, grief, or anger with the disaster, and exploring ways we might continue action to aid this area once
We have talked a lot about the psychological effects of disaster on the survivors and the volunteers who come and witness it. One of the most important ways we have spent our time is simply listening to people tell their stories. One man we worked with yesterday lives a half-mile from the coast--he, his wife, and his two dogs rode out the storm. Within about five minutes, they had ten feet of water in their home. His wife climbed up to the carport roof, while the man stood on the stove with the two dogs before they were rescued.
This next week, we will spend time in Perlington, La., which has not received any disaster assistance to date. On Thursday, we plan to go to New Orleans for the evening and have dinner with Macalester alumni there. There have already been too many stories to write here in the little time I have.
More to come...