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While Jacqueline was preparing her service and ministering to a congregant, I
went off in search of Red Cross credentials. It only took talking with five
people, filling out two different application forms, going from the local
chapter office to the national office, which was set up in the 1st Baptist
church, and then printing my social work license from the State of Michigan web
site to be given an official Red Cross Disaster volunteer vest and name badge.
Considering it took up to three weeks after September 11 for at least one of our
ministers to do the same in New York City, it shows how desperate the Red Cross
is for volunteers in this far-reaching crisis.
Becoming an official mental health volunteer meant taking an
honest-to-goodness shift at the shelter. So last night, I started working the
4-midnight at the Hattiesburg shelter. Within an hour, I was totally overwhelmed
by the enormity of these people's situations. I have worked with homeless people
in Goodwill shelters, domestic violence shelters, half-way houses, even in
prisons. I have dealt with people in all kinds of crisis situations, from
suicidal people to people who have lost a child, and I can say that without
question, nothing has affected me more profoundly than my first hour in this
These people have not just lost their homes, many of them have lost the
entire infrastructure of their lives: their schools, their neighbors, their
grocery stores, their doctors' offices, their drug stores, the telephone
numbers, everything that made them part of a community. It is as if they have
been beamed up to another planet and are now living in an alien world where
nothing is familiar and nothing will ever be as it was before. Take Georgia and
her mother, Mary, from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Mary was on oxygen and they
knew she wouldn't survive if they lost electricity. So hours before the storm
was slated to hit, they packed up their car and drove to the newly opening
shelter in Hattiesburg. When the reports of the storm's aftermath began to
filter in, they learned that Bay St. Louis, a Gulf Coast community that survived
mostly on fishing and gaming, had been flattened—in essence, totally
annihilated. Not only do they have no house to return to or no neighbors to take
them in while they rebuild, they have no way to communicate with Mary's doctors,
no way to order her prescriptions from the pharmacy, and most importantly, no
way to contact other family members who literally have scattered to the wind.
They are alone, scared, and destitute.
And then there is Joe and Maria, a middle aged couple from the Gulf Coast
area of Mississippi. They lived in a beautiful cabin in the woods and being
quite a ways from the ocean and not at risk of flooding, they figured they could
ride out the storm. They had ridden out at least one hurricane every other year
of their twenty-years in the area. This one looked a little stronger but they,
like so many others, couldn't appreciate the enormity of Katrina.
At the height of the Katrina 's fury, a tree fell on the house, crashed
through the roof, and pinned Joe 's right leg. Unable to free him and with no
means of communication available, Maria drove through the storm to a neighbor's
house a mile away to seek their help. However, they had already evacuated and
Marie felt she had no choice but to return to Joe and pray for a miracle. When
she returned, she saw that the tree had continued its' fall, completely crushing
the house under its weight. She cried in panic and despair, knowing she had lost
Joe to the storm's rage. What she didn't yet know was that Joe figured the tree
was only taking a respite and that he would soon be crushed if he didn't free
himself. He pulled his leg out from under the tree by sheer force of will.
Bleeding profusely, he crawled out of the way of the falling tree and was lying
just beside the crushed house when Maria returned. He called out to her and,
with great relief, she went to him and was able to help him into the truck. They
quickly wrapped his leg to try to stem the bleeding and then headed out and away
from the center of the storm. Eventually arriving in Hattiesburg, they got Joe
to the hospital where he received the care he needed. When I met them and heard
their story two weeks after the storm, they were happy to be together, happy to
be alive, and happy that they had been reunited with four of their six dogs –
the dogs had been found and brought to the animal rescue out behind the
Most likely, Joe and Maria will fare much better in the long run than Georgia
and Mary. But it will still be months before they can return to their house and
probably even longer before Joe doesn't walk with a limp.
Many of the children at the shelter struggled to survive before Katrina hit
and will struggle to survive long after the memory of Katrina fades. They live
in extreme poverty, attend failing schools, look forward to low-paying jobs, and
have children of their own at much too young an age. They clamor for attention
by any adult who will give it to them. Case in point, I spent and hour and a
half with a group of about 15 children and a digital camera. Up to this time,
nothing any of the volunteers had done had held their attention for more than 10
minutes. But they couldn't get enough of having their pictures taken and seeing
their photos appear instantly on the screen afterwards. Several of them wanted
their pictures taken individually and fought off other kids to get that special,
individualized attention. They even rehearsed skits so I could record them on
video and play them over and over and over again. Within no time, I had kids
crawling all over me, hugging me, saying they loved me, and making me promise I
would come back with the camera tomorrow. Their desperate need to be loved and
comforted was clearly palpable—it will live with me for a very long time to
After I finally tore myself away from the children, I retreated to the
Microsoft mobile trailers out back where people can come to get aid from
Microsoft employees in completing FEMA applications, looking for lost loved ones
(and yes, there are still many of the those), searching for jobs, sending
e-mail, and all other things computing. I got a chance to talk with the staff
and was impressed with their caring and concern for the people they were
helping. As I was only two and half hours into my 8-hour shift, this short
respite gave me a chance to catch my breath and be ready to head back into the
shelter with a clearer head and a stronger heart.
I have many more stories to tell, observations to make, and emotions to
express but it's time to get ready to head back in for my second shift. I know
many of you who read this will be asking what you can do. My answer is pray,
pay, and plan. Pray that these people are treated humanely, fairly, and
respectfully; pay whatever you can and more to the UUA/UUSC Gulf
Coast Relief Fund and to the American Red Cross; and plan for the long haul.
The people who live here will need help for months and years to come. We have to
start planning now to help build houses, restore our churches, provide
emotional, spiritual, and financial support, and rebuild entire communities. Our
presence is needed and there has never been a better time to grow Unitarian
Universalism in this region.
I'll share more as time, energy, and emotions permit.
In faith, Annette Marquis
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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