September 18-19: Highs and Lows
Three weeks ago tonight the wind started blowing and the first storm surges began to roll ashore on the Gulf Coast. Some of the people had already evacuated, some started driving that night, still others would leave the next day, and others would leave only when their very lives depended on it. One man from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, told the story of how he evacuated with his family to a second house they owned that was further inland. They had ridden out Hurricane Camille there and didn't have any trouble. This time, however, would prove to be different. The water rose and rose until he and his family had to swim to the attic of this two-storey house. They had to stay there for two days until the water receded and they were able to climb down. When they came down, they found their refrigerator on top of the kitchen counter and everything in the house destroyed. The home he lived in had been completely submerged; pieces of his shrimp boat were stuck in a tree thirty feet in the air.
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 soul.
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.
Gulf Coast UUs
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,