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A Katrina diary

Two AASU rebuilding trips in Pearlington and Kiln, Miss.

By Leigh E. Rich

In March and May, AASU’s ongoing Give for the Gulf campaign and Savannah-based Pickin’ Up the Pieces sent volunteers to Hancock County, Miss., to help rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. What follows are excerpts from the personal journal of L.E. Rich, an assistant professor of public health in the Department of Health Sciences.

Saturday, March 11, 2006
Camp Coastal Outpost
Kiln, Miss.

We are in Mississippi, and I have slithered into my sleeping bag for the night. Horizontal feels good, especially after the 10-hour drive in the jalopy-esque AASU bus. I am showered, I am fed, I am warm. And, yet, I cannot sleep. Inside the makeshift Camp Coastal bunkhouse we are to call home for the week, the world seems right. Outside, however, there is nothing but piles of pieces—of trees and buildings, of furniture and futures.

Houses have imploded and folded in on themselves, sometimes crushing cars (and what else?) underneath. Or they have vanished, leaving floating front stoops gravely marking all that once was. One red structure stands upturned on edge, like a die balanced on its corner refusing to settle one way or the other. The buildings made of brick seem strangely untouched, but they are merely shells, molded and rotting on an invisible level. They will have to be gutted and cleaned of every impurity—irradiated like a cancer patient—before life can begin again.

People point to water lines as they would scars from illness or war. In this part of the Gulf, it was the storm surge, as much as Katrina herself, that is to blame. Estimates top 30 feet in some places. Residents recall climbing to second stories, attics, and even roofs to escape the swells. Stopped clocks in the local elementary school—12 to 14 cinderblocks high—mark both elevation and event for posterity.

Is it really six months later?

The initial panic has dissipated, as have the interim communities that served basic necessities in strip mall parking lots. Where once bustle and commotion marked the months after Katrina’s landfall in late August, there is now little more than mirage.

Otherworldly desertion overshadows the modest progress that’s been made in Waveland, Kiln, Pass Christian, and Pearlington. It was dusk when we first drove through these small Mississippi towns, the pall of night and an impending storm softening the destruction. Even with this natural pink gel, as if Hancock County were a vintage Hollywood production, my initial thought was that pictures don’t do it justice. Neither do words.

Like my co-team leaders and the 18 students with us on this trip, silence has washed over me. And I’m certain it will leave a residue when it recedes.

Monday, March 13, 2006
Jesse Dickens’ Home
Pearlington, Miss.

We left Savannah with many expectations but few answers. In the Gulf, one learns quickly to embrace flexibility as friend and not foe. Rarely do things go according to plan and there’s always a deficit of tools, time, and skill. If any one individual can be said to be in charge, it must be Murphy of “Murphy’s Law” fame.

Regardless, two days into our spring break trip, we have settled into what amounts for routine: Arise around six, rouse late-sleeping students by seven, eat breakfast in the Camp Coastal dining tent, pack a sack lunch for the day. In between, wash face, brush teeth, throw on clothes—likely the ones from the day before—and await marching orders the team leaders scrape together last minute. Today, we are headed to Pearlington, a small town about 20 miles from Kiln and 10 miles from the coast. We are going to gut a house and, as usual, that’s about all we know. Details will come into focus only when there’s no turning back. Still, the students are boisterous and spirits are high.

But morning conversations halt when we reach the job site.

This phenomenon is one that, despite its arrival at the inauguration of every project, will never feel familiar. An overwhelming rush of doubt dampens even the most positive among us. In addition to the disgusting and dismal conditions, our task seems insurmountable, and I think of eating an elephant with a spoon.

The trick is not addressing the looming pachyderm in the middle of the room, but merely finding a job and focusing in. Our heartier students don masks and goggles and other protective gear and head inside the house to sledgehammer walls and scoop out insulation. The toxicity of the structure demands frequent breaks—though the open air offers nothing but steamy temperatures and swarms of sand gnats. Those of us working outside swat feverishly and ineffectually, as we pile rotting furniture and other debris into trucks and salvage wood and windows from the exterior.

I long for a long-sleeved shirt even as I mop buckets of sweat from my brow.

And, yet, this very well may be the greatest show on earth. By all accounts, it’s a three-ring circus. Our Armstrong Atlantic team works despite aptitude and language barriers alongside a group from Texas and another from South Korea. Strangers coordinate efforts and smoothly swap tasks and tools as if on the trapeze. And slowly, but steadily, the elephant is tamed.

At the center of it all is ringmaster Ken Short, a man who lost everything in the storm. Though he and wife Cathi are in the midst of rebuilding their own house in the lot next door, Ken directs us as we gut the home of their 87-year-old neighbor, Jesse Dickens.

“Not everybody knows how to build a house,” Ken tells me in an effort to explain why he’s working on Mr. Dickens’ home instead of his own. Many of the residents in Pearlington are elderly and still living in FEMA trailers.

Mr. Dickens fits this bill. Retired from NASA, he stayed in a tent for three weeks after Katrina and now lives part-time with neighbors and part-time in the trailer.

“That will sleep eight,” Mr. Dickensquietly points to the white vehicle parked on his lawn. And counting him, his neighbors and their five children, it sometimes does.

Unlike Ken, who speaks in-depth about Katrina and her aftermath, Mr. Dickens says little, only that he wants “to forget it all, if I can.” I feel guilty for prodding him into an interview and stirring memories of surviving the storm, first in the attic and then on the roof.

By the end of the day, however, our efforts have not only transformed the house but Mr. Dickens as well. Stripped to a skeleton, the structure can be power washed and rebuilding can begin.

Hope appears in Mr. Dickens’ eyes. “I hadn’t been wanting to go in there at all.”

I absently scratch the myriad insect bites now swelling into pustules on my arms, but I already know: This is my best day in the Gulf.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Residential Lot (blocks from the beach)
Waveland, Miss.

Our last day here, but the disbelief arrives on schedule: Can we clear a residential lot with a hand truck, some shovels, two wheelbarrows, and our meager feminine muscles? We have only a fraction of our group. Most of the men are erecting a kitchen tent in Pearlington and others are working at a distribution center in North Hancock County. That leaves seven women, one working chainsaw and Toby Aldrich, a writer and Katrina survivor who had been living in Waveland. Toby has since moved to Savannah but returned with us to the region to help with the relief.

Like lots we can see in every direction, this one has no house or standing structure of any kind. Mere blocks from the coast, Waveland is leveled. Only debris, downed trees, and a post-apocalyptic ambiance remain. We are to clear the land of all three, so the owner—a man in his 70s—can finally receive a FEMA trailer. We have no idea where he’s been living or how he has survived.

I push this thought aside and begin moving dishes and tiles and plumbing and wire—and a whole host of unrecognizable fractions of things—to the street, where the Army Corps of Engineers eventually will pick them up. Toby sets about buzzing the chainsaw through portions of trees so large they span the spread of the lot and beyond. It’s slow going, but soon the students and Linda [Edwards, cofounder of Pickin’ Up the Pieces], Alice [Adams, health sciences, one of the trip organizers] and I develop a routine. A feminist by nature and training, I am quick to appreciate our teamwork and accomplishments—and the coastal breeze mercifully keeping the sand gnats in flight. We wrestle a cast-iron tub onto the hand truck and down into the street, silently praying the wheels (and our arms) hold out a few minutes more. We carry freshly cut stumps of trees as well as bricks, cinderblocks, and other debris to the mounds growing along the road.

The men are impressed when they arrive, though they, too, suffer the incipient shock, primarily because of the trees that remain. But they have brought a second chainsaw and a second wind. There may just be a cleared lot in sight.

When hopes diminish as the alternate chainsaw promptly poops out, we resort to handsaws and sheer will.

Still, our progress is incontestable, and perhaps another team—in the not-too distant future—will finish what we cannot.

Sunday, May 21, 2006
Camp Coastal Outpost
Kiln, Miss.

It is clear sheer will is what it will take to rebuild.

On my second trip to the Gulf, I quickly note progress is slow and bureaucracy’s setting in. Mr. Dickens’ house still stands in skeletal form—even when one can afford it, skilled labor is scarce—and two months later the Waveland lot has no trailer.

Even the distribution center, where residents come for donated food and household supplies, is defending itself from inaccurate press and political plots, and there are whispers the board of supervisors might shut it down.

Nevertheless, transformations (however tiny) are taking place, most notably at Camp Coastal.

It’s good to see the volunteer camp thriving, so the not-so-hearty like me can contribute without creating additional demands on the community. In the early days after Katrina, volunteers had to be self-sufficient.

“In the beginning, that was a reasonable approach,” Camp Coastal cofounder Mike Sweeney of Marietta, GA. explains. Eventually, however, many weren’t even given a place to pitch a tent. “That’s sort of what brought on Camp Coastal”—the brainchild of four individuals who self-dispatched to the disaster zone mere days after the storm.

What began as a “visualization of a need” and an “if you build it, they will come” mentality is now full-blown reality. The now air-conditioned bunkhouses, complete with indoor plumbing and hot showers, will serve a summer influx of 00 to 400 volunteers at a time. The camp also offers three squares a day—all for $15 a night. The fee helps pay for basic utilities, the camp’s recent expansion, and houses that will be built for residents in need.

When asked how long Camp Coastal’s pioneers will stay, Sweeney answers unequivocally: “for the duration.”

That’s easier said than done. Working in the Gulf (even for the invigorating two weeks I’ll have clocked in) is physically and emotionally draining.

But it’s leaving, as I know from the first trip, that’s the worst part of the week. Depression builds with each mile home and returning to day-to-day life requires mental and emotional gymnastics.

Fortunately, when the sadness subsides like surge waters seeking lower ground, there are lessons in selfless giving and opportunities to recreate one’s own community while rebuilding another. For all her horrific blustering, Katrina has offered both Armstrong Atlantic and me worthwhile causes, priceless connections, and new friends and neighbors, some several states away.

In times like these, “the doers meet each other,” as Sweeney puts it, and volunteers working in the Gulf always “find indefinable things.”

“And they take it back to where they came from. Life is a whole lot better that way.”

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Rich, L. E. (2006, August). A Katrina diary. Compass, pp. 3–7.

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