A Story of Two Oregon Katrina Relief Teams
Hurricane Katrina has dominated the news stories of the nation and the lives of the residence of the Gulf Coast area since late August 2005. From the forecasting of the approaching storm, to the landfall on August 29, to the devastation, to the rescues and delays in relief, to the recovery and questions how and if to rebuild.
While national news focused on New Orleans where surprise flooding lasted long beyond the immediate hurricane winds and the number of persons affected was the greatest, the eye of the hurricane hit land east of New Orleans with the stronger winds to the east of the eye along the Mississippi coast. This is a region of small low-lying coastal towns. This is the region where the mission teams from the Monmouth, Oregon area focused their efforts.
The idea of a mission trip evolved in Christ's Church Methodist and Presbyterian United, in Monmouth, because its pastor was from New Orleans, and he and his wife were married in that region. Secondly, the church has a history of supporting mission trips to places like Alaska; Tijuana, Mexico; San Francisco; Ukraine and several communities within an hours drive.
The idea was shared around the community, throughout the Presbytery of the Cascades, and on the campus of Western Oregon University where eight students all girls signed on. Later two boys from the University of Oregon signed up as well for the team of the first week, December 9-16th. A second team evolved from a couple Boy Scouts, some parents and other adults for the week of December 17-25th. The leaders for both teams were Denvy and Gail Saxowsky.
After a couple pre-trip meetings to prepare themselves for the situations they may face, the first team headed south to Jackson, Mississippi, on four different airlines to maximize savings on fares. An Oregonian, Wes Carter from McMinnville, already in Mississippi picked up half the first team armed with hammers, sleeping bags and high expectations. The other half rented a minvan and arrived in camp at 3:00 AM. The camp manager, George was working on his computer in a travel trailer along side a boardwalk of old pallets.
The tents, preferably called huts but the manufacturer's representative were a corrugated plastic, much like a cardboard box, fan-folded for strength, and furnished with two cots which didn't allow shape for a third. After a quick check in with the port-a-potties we rolled out the sleeping bags and slept.
When we awoke we found that this camp was the middle ball field of three fields and that the other two housed FEMA tents on one side and FEMA trailers on the other. We were asked to stay in our space and not to eat in the mess tent providing meals for the displaced persons and families. Our camp potentially could house up to about 100 persons although certainly details hadn't been completed on some of the tents.
Breakfast was typically furnished by vets under one of four gazebos at a ball field about a mile away from where we actually slept. The cooking was done in the park's concession stand. They fed volunteers who came to work in D'Iberville and displaced persons who had no other way to acquire or prepare food. Meals were also provided at noon and in the evening and were quite basic with essentially no options. The providers were always friendly, welcoming and generous with what they had. Within days they were like family. Admittedly there were slim days like the day we arrived late and the menu was red beans on rice and they had run out of rice. However beans at the end of a long day tasted very good.
While we slept and ate at the D'Iberville facilities, we actually were assigned to the Gautier (pronounced Go-chay, with both a long "o" and long "a") camp. Our camp manager was Steve, a delightful 21-year old man who had been working in the area since after the hurricane and when the Gautier camp lost it manager, he agreed to coordinate the work assignments for the teams of volunteers. However, the powers-that-be decided to move the Gautier camp to a cattle pasture and so his added responsibilities were to setup this camp. The tasks were beyond the scope of most persons and Steve showed signs of fatigue.
After breakfast we were to meet Steve at the Gautier Presbyterian Church where the first Gautier camp had resided and he would direct us to our day's work. At the church members were preparing for a celebration that afternoon and one gentleman was cleaning around the outside. So we joined in as we waited. We picked up garbage from the ditch around the back of the church. When we asked where to put the garbage, we were told to put it in the ditch. We all appeared stunned with that direction, but we learned that the system was to pile things in the ditches and FEMA would come by and pick it up with a loader. Now what we picked up was very little compared to what the initial teams picked up immediately after the hurricane. After this encounter we realized we were in a different culture, mostly because the hurricane cleanup required special accomodations.
The directions to Vanessa's house were to go east on 90 and turn left just over the bridge. Little did we know when looking for a bridge that the top of the bridge offered a scenic view of the entire countryside. After a couple alternative routes having taken the other fork in the road, we arrived at Vanessa's. Vanessa's son, Alex, a middle high student, met us in the yard moments before his mother. Courtney, the high-school daughter was off taking her ACT tests. They were living in a FEMA trailer in the back yard. The house was brick and the roof had already been replaced so it didn't look too bad until we entered through the back door.
Workers had already helped her for most of the walls were insulated,
most of the flooring removed and some sheetrock had been hung. Later in the week some of the team confessed that when they walked in that room they thought to themselves, "how can we help? We have no building skills." While some visited with Vanessa, as soon as the OK signal was given, tools were distributed and we started scrapping up flooring in tedious half-inch crunches,
applying mud to the sheetrock in the bedrooms
and measuring sheetrock for the dining area.
Vanessa had a new washer and dryer but her story was that they stayed in the house during the hurricane. Her street dead-ended up against Interstate 10 which was an identifying point as to how far one needed to evacuate to avoid trouble. That night all three slept in Alex's room which seemed safest in the house. In the morning after weathering the wind, she heard running water and found it to be coming in the front door. They moved things to higher locations and climbed onto the washer and dryer to watch. The water rose to the top of the washer and dryer and continued to rise with no indication where it would stop. For several hours they stood in ankle deep water until it started to recede. The washer and dryer were located under a trap door to the attic.
Everyday that week some of the team returned to the house. On Thursday, the day before returning to Oregon, the team hung Christmas stockings filled with goodies on the incomplete sheetrocked walls. All walls were sheetrocked including the closets and utility nook, all walls were mudded at least once and some were done with the final coat, the toilets had been removed for sheetrocking the bathrooms and one was reinstalled with a new flooring. The team was ecstatic with joy. They had improved the condition of the house, encouraged Vanessa who worked side by side with the team learning to mud the walls, helped Vanessa design her new kitchen cupboards, played ball with Alex and given her some hugs personally and through Teddy bears that each of the team hugged for her.
Vanessa is a survivor who is working in the imaging department in a local hospital. When she was contacted the second week she said that under the circumstances they had decided to not do much for Christmas, but after finding the wreath and ribbon on the doors and the stockings and quilts in the house, they changed their minds and decorated their temporary trailer.
The second home of the first week was that of the Fudges, Tom and Linda, retired. The first time there the team leaders and four girls went and there was a feeling that not much could be done with such a crew. Little did they know for an hour later (we were on a tight schedule that day) the garage had been sheetrocked and the Fudges were pleased and surprised.
The Fudges were not far from the ocean but their house withstood the wind and surge of water. They evacuated but returned to find everything damaged up to about five feet. They had been working on the house for over two months and were tired of the slow progress. An earlier team had come and sheetrocked much of the house. On our second day with all twelve of us we finished sheetrocking the utility room and mudding three of the major rooms. While the Fudges had some resources to rebuild their house, fatigue and disappointment was taking it toll. However, after having twelve college students buzz through the house with full energy and advance their efforts tremendously, they were energized and ready to move forward.
Since Fudges were not far from the ocean, the team took a side trip to get a first hand look at the damage. The houses were right on the beach and what remained were bend pillars (on which the houses sat) and empty swimming pools. One person indicated that a wave of 35 feet simple went over the tops of the houses. On one concrete pad the ceramic tiles from the kitchen partially remained. That made us realize that these were homes that were completely destroyed. Lives were completely changed. What was routine didn't even exist anymore. We stood and cried.
One the day we first headed to Fudges', we stopped by the Gautier camp to gather additional tools and supplies. When we arrived George, manager of the D'Iberville camp was trying to tie things down and cover the supplies from the impending wind and rain. It was quite an exciting thrill to be putting things in place and covering them as the wind tugged in the other direction and the raindrops randomly came here and there.
Our daily routine included breakfast at eight, lunch of sandwiches out of the back of the vans, supper back at the ball field in D'Iberville and showers at the local World Gym. During this week a group of 30 or more persons from Pennsylvania were also in the camp working elsewhere but sharing the same meals and showers.
This generated some friendly competition in our team to see if we could get to the meals first and more importantly to the showers to get some hot showers. After 30 plus showers the water wasn't always warm. Of course, there were always the outside showers at the camp with only cold water and black plastic curtains. That alternative never tempted us as evening and night temperatures often dipped to freezing or below.
The Pennsylvania group was actually on the third trip from the central part of the state. A bus company years ago started a process of transporting volunteers to areas where help was needed as a part of their business. They called it Lend a Hand. Their leaders were a brother and sister team who were very intent on their roles. One could appreciate their effort to manage a team of 30 plus and that was apparent as they scurried about.
Another routine of the day was to identify the Special Person of the Day. Actually there were one or two per day. As a Special Person of the Day, the individuals were granted special privileges for that day, like sitting in the front seat of the van and selecting the radio station, being first in line for showers and meals, receiving a box of chocolates which was always shared with everyone else. There also were little written notes of encouragement and appreciation from other members of the team.
One afternoon the clouds gathered dark in the west and the radio forecast rain and possible tornadoes. There were cheers of delight to hear thunder and even a call for seeking out tornadoes. We didn't, of course, track tornadoes but that night it rained. It poured. It came down in buckets but in was dark and we couldn't see it. We only heard it like being in a snare drum.
There had been little damp puddles on the plastic floors of some of our huts and we had encouraged each other to put everything on the cots where we slept. During this downpour we flicked on the flashlight to check on the puddles. Actually one pair of shoes was floating, the tennis balls that served as protection between the cots' feet and the floor were under water, and one could see the water swirling in through the heat ducts. We encouraged each other to recall a game we played as children where the floor was water and you had to climb from one piece of furniture to another. This was for real.
A glance out the door where the water was as deep as in the hut convinced us that there wasn't much to do but go back to sleep. So we did, however one team member said that periodically his arm would slip off the cot into the water and it would wake him up. During the peak of the rain a small desperate voice outside our tent asked if it was OK to use the port-a-potty. With all the lightning and thunder and water everywhere that was a reasonable question, but the mood of the time (only laughter would suffice) it was tempting to suggest that peeing anywhere was OK.
That morning comfort was a higher priority than work and so we had breakfast in the local Waffle House and dried clothing at the only laundry we could find. The cafe was very busy and several day workers weren't coming in, so the night shift was still working despite their fatigue. As one waitress turned to get the coffee pot she started singing, "I wanta go home, oh, how I wanta go home." That morning was a great lesson in southern culture, hospitality and lingo.
The camp trailer had been donated by some persons who saw the need and it served a great number of purposes. First and foremost it gave the camp manager some semblance of order with regards to all the coordinating that was necessary to the completion of the job. It provided a place for persons to recharge batteries in cell phones, tools, cameras and other electrical devices. It served as a meeting place for morning assignments and briefings. This convenience which was practically a necessity is so needed at the the other camps, especially Gautier which is in what weeks ago was a cattle pasture. There is absolutely no permanent structure to retreat to for anyone.
During the first week George had been the camp manager. During the second week it was Bill, Dr Bill Cadwallader, a veterinarian from upstate New York. He gave out pure maple syrup candies during the morning briefings. Bill has traveled the world extensively dong mission work and sharing the cultures of the world with his grandchildren. Currently he's headed to Nigeria to develop a program to reduce AIDS and HIV infections among the people of that nation.
One evening as we were laying plans for the next day, one of the displaced gentlemen from the tent camp next door knocked and came in with a look of complete defeat. He asked for $25 for gas to his friend's car who was going to take him to Pascagoula where his daughter had just been killed in a car accident. The next day he found us in the parking lot and greeted us with big hugs and endless thank-yous. It's hard to imagine the pain of another loss when you've just lost everything. We also helped him with the funeral expenses later that week. His name was Herman.
Visits to the meal gazebo were very interesting as it was an opportunity to met locals who didn't have homes, volunteers from around the country and the workers. One couple who caught our eye were living in their car, gathering recyclable metals during the day and getting meals at the shelter. They were noticeably thin and the team's heart went out to them. The team decided to give them a WalMart card for Christmas. These small acts of encouragement and support were very meaningful to the team.
On Friday, the 16th, a week after arriving, the teams headed north to Jackson to catch planes back to Portland. Hearsay indicated that several flights were seriously delayed but all arrived home safely. They celebrated their week together with a dinner of shrimp and catfish.
Late in the week, Steve, the Gautier camp manager, told us that a group of five college were coming over the weekend and needed some supervision and guidance on some projects. We were without a team for 24 hours and so we gladly agreed. However, the five didn't show until later on Saturday. There was though a bus load of college students from Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina, who also could use some support and we ended up together trying to set up the second Gautier camp that afternoon.
There were more chiefs than Indians and so decisions either weren't made or were reversed by the next chief. This all resulted in confusion and frustration. We worked with the students encouraging them and reminding them that our best qualities had to continue to be patience and flexibility and patience and flexibility. Words didn't seem to be soothing enough, but the next day after they had left there was a note from the five with whom we had worked indicating that during their evening debriefing they had discussed and realized the importance of patience and flexibility.
As the responsibilities of the Gautier camp manager increased, a camp manger assistant, or rescuer as Steve called her, came from Hillsboro, Oregon to support the process for several weeks. She certainly was a blessing in being there, being a delightful person and being very capable to benefit the camp. Everyone's on a first name basis and so we merely knew her as Phyllis. Since then we've learned that she is Phyllis Wright.
The five students did show the next day and we were with them setting up the Gautier camp on Sunday and Monday. By this time the second team from Oregon had arrived and were a part of this camp construction project. The "hut" manufacturer's representatives, Scott and Jan, were there and patiently instructed different teams how to rivet, tape, caulk and generally assemble the huts.
By the end of Monday all the tents were up and the finer details were being accomplished. The following Friday the electrical lights were installed as well as plumbing for showers, wash basins and the kitchen. Shelves were set up in the kitchen tent, supplies organized in the tool tent and office equipment and tables set up in the office tent. The camps was essentially ready for the 60-80 vounteers who would show up after Christmas.
The "five" college students were friends, all from North Carolina, who just decided to come help and got in their car and drove to Mississippi. Four were first generation born Americans from Poland, Viet Nam and Sri Lanke. Jason from Sri Lanke had spent the first days after the tsunami burying the dead in Sri Lanke. Later this spring he's headed to Austria for some volunteer work. There are those who take their volunteer work seriously.
The second team from Oregon arrived late Saturday night and Denvy met them at the airport. Because their flight was late they too ended up in camp about 3:00 in the morning. Water puddles were scattered throughout the ball field but by now the boardwalk of pallets extended to in front of each hut. Nothing was falling from the sky. The air was crisp, cool and clear. Frost is not unheard of in this area but not imagined by these northerners.
After two days of setting up huts, both large for general purposes and small for sleeping, Denvy and Gail headed overland to Atlanta for two days of early Christmas with their son and daughter-in-law.
During that time the remaining six accepted the responsibility of working on another new campsite in Pearlington, Mississippi, which sits essentially on the Mississippi/Louisiana border a bit south of Interstate 10. It was a 50-mile one-way drive each day. Not what we expected as we thought that we would be residing central to our work. So we tried some more flexibility and patience.
As leaders, we were concerned that by only being assigned to set up camps that the members of the team won't have much opportunity to mingle with the locals. On the contrary, the locals in this small almost forgotten town stopped by throughout the day and inquired about what they were building. It was some of the first hope that had come to this area where even the streets hadn't been completely cleared of debris. Not only did the locals express their appreciation which energized the volunteers, but the volunteers had a chance to witness to their motivation for volunteering. And while this witness may have varied from responding to God's call to serve, to caring for others as a humane thing to do, the results were the same--these were people who cared.
By Friday night everyone was very exhausted. David's hands were so sore and swollen from pinching plastic corrugated hut components together that he couldn't close his hands. So the final day, Christmas Eve was set aside to do some minor maintenance around the D'Iberville camp and finalize some plumbing in the Gautier camp. At noon we showered (during this week we showered in the Ocean Springs YMCA and they closed at noon this day), ate some sandwiches out of the back of the van (not exactly a tailgate party) and did some shopping in downtown Ocean Springs. Apparently a part of downtown was high enough that the water didn't enter some stores and they were open to late minute Christmas shoppers.
The shopkeepers exemplified the attitude of almost everyone we met. "Thanks for coming all the way from Oregon. It's you, the volunteers, who have helped us get back on our feet." It was hard to see how there could be much business in a small community where most the residents were gone, tourists had no reason to stop by and those who were there didn't have excess money.
We returned to camp to take a tour of downtown Biloxi. In Biloxi there were complete blocks leveled where houses once stood; they were ready for new construction as soon as the governments decide how and if buildings should return. At the bay we stopped to view what was a bridge for highway 90 which crossed the bay. Now it resembled toppled dominoes with some piers still standing. Around the corner we passed a couple huge hotel like casino built on barge and formerly anchored off shore but now resting a blocks inland in parking lots. Complete sides were ripped off exposing a full view of the interior. Couple blocks in from the coastline was a fishing boat which with its captain and his dog drove the boat through the parking complex to its resting place during the peak of the storm. Devastation was massive and complete. Yet one casino had opened for the first time that week and another planned to open after Christmas. It was interesting to see the phrase that the opening of the casinos was the first step to recovery. I admit that I am concerned about a society that places a casino in front of all else.
That afternoon when we returned to camp, people with two U-Haul trucks were in the parking lot passing out Christmas to the children and families of the displaced persons. Later that evening a elderly woman drove and asked if they were still giving out toys. The trucks were gone so the answer was no. We asked what she was looking for and she said something for her three-year old granddaughter. We ran back to our camp and retrieved a Teddy bear we had brought from Oregon. She was so grateful.
That evening we attended a candlelight service at Gautier Presbyterian Church. The service included the reading of the Christmas story, carols, individuals candles and was accented with bolts of thunder and lightning that appeared to be in the building. Later we gathered in a restaurant sharing a Christmas evening meal; eleven of us around a round table. We had considered caroling among the brown tents but by this time the hour was late. Being the only crew in camp we gathered in the communal tent with a small Christmas tree on the table and the possibility of a campfire in front of us.
We shared our experiences of the week and expressed our desire, if possible, to return again. David had made a connection to come manage a camp next summer. Some of us discussed the possibility of another trip during spring break.
We shared a bag of newspaper wrapped token gifts which were distributed through a game of "white elephant." Later another bag of stockings from Santa was found in the corner and distributed among the team, including Phyllis, who by this time was a member of the Oregon time, a very brave giving member who will be in Gautier until January 4th.
We returned to our huts with the anticipation of Christmas morning knowing that Santa had already come and the day would give us a long journey home to Oregon. At the candlelight service, a lady had insisted that she bring us a warm Christmas breakfast, a gift in our location that was greatly appreciated.
The managers of the FEMA mess tent also invited us to a Christmas breakfast which we felt was also very important continue to develop a positive relation with these people. Christmas morning was a beautiful morning of great abundance.
As we packed the vans, cleaned the huts and waited for breakfast we met a young girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, riding her new bike that she had gotten from the U-Hauls the day before. She was so pleased and proud of her pink bike that still had the paperworks in the spokes that she rode by in front of us several times so we could say what a pretty bike it was. We learned later that she'd been riding the bike as early as 6:00 in her pajamas. All our gifts touch the people's hearts.
The ride to the Jackson airport was anti-climatic after a week or two among these delightful, giving, needy and grateful people. After a brief reprieve the task continues as PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance) plans to establish up to a dozen camps with up to a hundred volunteers each to last up to three years. The work has just begun and everyone can be a part of it either with their time, talents or treasure.
If you're interested in a week or a couple days helping, please contact us and we will help you make important connections. We must say that we are only one of many groups from Oregon that have helped in the Katrina relief process. We thank each and every one of them and all those who are planning future trips.
Denvy and Gail Saxowsky - Team Leaders
Last updated December 31, 2005