September 22: Reinforcements
Rev. Martha Munson arrived Tuesday evening to begin to offer some pastoral care to the Gulf Coast congregation. Approximately one quarter of this fellowship lost their homes to Katrina and another quarter have family members who lost their homes. Although all but one of the members have been contacted and all are OK, some have left the area and it is uncertain if and when they will return. Efforts are continuing to find the one member the congregation has not been able to reach. Add this to the normal stressors of life, illness, marital problems, financial worries, etc., and you have one fragile congregation. One member aptly describes them as "hanging on by their fingernails."
While much of the media attention has focused on New Orleans, communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast such as Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pass Christian were equally impacted. In fact, many of these communities were wiped off of the map entirely. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to sticks and foundations. Members of this congregation describe turning down streets to check on a friend and finding nothing but rubble or going to a store and finding it gone. Their entire reality has shifted. One member described feeling like she was far away from home because nothing she sees is familiar to her anymore.
Martha and I hope to offer them some support over the next couple of weeks. And although it will be a long time before life returns to any semblance of normal, we hope to be able to offer them a listening ear and a helping hand.
People are now leaving the shelter every day. Most are going to FEMA trailer parks, some have moved in with families, and some are returning to their homes in the hopes of finding something there. Fears of what Hurricane Rita will bring are keeping some people from moving anywhere. They don't want to have to be evacuated again. At this point, the shelter is scheduled to close by Tuesday but the Red Cross is uncertain about naming an exact closing date until they know what resources have to mobilized to handle Rita. They are stretched so thin that it is increasingly difficult to respond to all the needs.
The two FEMA trailer parks close to Hattiesburg are both rural settings quite a distance from any large cities. I hope to visit the parks this weekend to assess for myself if what I'm hearing about the lack of food and support is true. People who were not on food stamps before the storm are eligible for short-term emergency food stamps but many don't know that. Getting the word out about available resources and how to access them continues to be a major problem.
I'll write more about the trailer parks later because I think UU congregations might be able to help with long-term support for these displaced families. The folks in the trailer parks have up to 18 months before they will be forced to move again – so anything we do would require a long-term commitment. Donating money is a short-term aid but not a long-term solution. I encourage you all to begin thinking about how your congregations might help these families with the tools they need to break out the cycle of poverty. As I learn more about the needs, I'll pass it on.