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This story is typical of the thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of
stories that, along with the silt and the mud, now permeate the Gulf Coast
region. Everyone has a story and many of these people need someone who will
listen to their story. As time passes for the people in the Red Cross Shelter in
Hattiesburg, telling their stories seems like the only thing they have control
of. There is no question that help has been pouring into the region—help from
the federal government, from state government, from the Red Cross, from local
charities, from churches, from businesses, from individuals, and from loosely
organized groups. However, a system to access this help is sorely lacking. Every
day the radio, television, and newspapers are filled with phone numbers and
addresses where a specific kind of help is available. If you need a tarp for
your roof, go to one of these four locations; if you need cash assistance, go to
one of these Red Cross locations to register; if you need food, go to this
location tomorrow; if you need emergency food stamps, call this number; if you
need a prescription refilled, go to one of these pharmacies; if you need
clothing, visit this church; if you need … if you need… if you need…, and the
list goes on and on and on. Even the most experienced human services worker
would have trouble navigating through the maze of available assistance. It's a
disaster in and of itself.
The good news is that property owners who have cars are starting to get
trailers from FEMA. The first trailer park that was set up for people at the
Hattiesburg shelter is at a county park about 20 miles away. Although they are
only one bedroom trailers, the people I've talked to are quite happy with them
and with the location. A few people have turned them down because they are city
people who are afraid of living so far out in the country. They are hopeful
another park will be set up closer to town.
For the most part, however, the people who are left at the shelter now are
the people without cars, people with disabilities, and people who didn't own
property to begin with. These are the poorest of the poor, the sickest, the
feeblest, the most mentally unstable, the least desirable. The shelter is
scheduled to close by no later than Friday, September 23. Where these people
will go is yet to be seen but I suspect some will be transferred to yet another
shelter until someone figures it out.
When 76-year old Gilda arrived at the shelter she quickly
won everyone's heart. Rather than evacuate New Orleans with various members of
her family who were heading in different directions out of the city, she chose
to drive a 60-year old, mentally-challenged friend of hers to Mississippi where
this woman's relatives lived. Just outside of Hattiesburg, her car broke down.
The car had to be left and Gilda and her friend were given a ride to the shelter
to sit out the storm. For the next three weeks, Gilda searched for her daughter,
her niece, anyone who could take her in. She posted her information on the
Internet, she was interviewed by the newspaper, she spoke with the radio and the
TV news. Her health deteriorated and she spent time in the hospital before
returning to the shelter to wait for some information about her family.
One day last week, when she returned to the shelter after a doctor's visit,
she found that her friend had left the shelter without her. Now utterly alone,
she tried hard not to despair but despair was clearly setting in. She was angry,
hurt, and terrified of never finding her family. But even then, she had a good
word for anyone who would listen; she helped the woman in the cot next to hers
find clothes that would fit her; and she hugged anyone who needed a hug.
Then, just two days ago, she received a call at the shelter. Her niece found
her listed on the Internet and immediately called her. Yesterday, her niece came
to get her and took her home with her. I can't think about Gilda without tears
coming to my eyes. What an amazing spirit she is. God clearly lives in her
Although not quite as dramatic as Gilda's story, Mary's story
touched me in a different way. With no home of her own, Mary worked as
a live-in care giver to an elderly woman. The house where she was living was
destroyed and the person she was caring for moved in with relatives. Like
countless others, suddenly Mary had no place to live, no job, and no hope of
getting a FEMA trailer. She thought she could get another live-in job but with
no phone where potential employers could call her, the prospects didn't look
good. She was becoming more and more depressed by the day. After we talked on
Friday, I was pretty convinced she would be one of the long-term victims of
Katrina with little chance of recovery. Then on Saturday, a woman stopped by the
shelter. Mary happened to overhear her tell the Red Cross worker at the
registration desk that she lives alone in a four bedroom house just down the
road from the shelter and wondered if anyone there wanted to come live with her.
Mary jumped at the chance and now has a nice place to live, a new friend, and
renewed hope. She hugged me when she left and thanked me for the time I had
spent with her. She walked out the door of the shelter with a smile on her face.
On Sunday (September 19) we went down to meet with the UU congregation in
Gulfport. Rev. Martha Munson (minister, UU Congregation of East Aurora, NY) is
going to be joining me here tomorrow and we'll be spending time with the
Gulfport UU community over the next week. All are alive but many have lost their
homes—their pain is palpable. I'll have much more to share about their needs
soon. Keep them in your prayers.
In faith and hope,Annette Marquis
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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