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ZZZ-RETIRED Mississippi UUs Remember Katrina and Look to the Future

Annette Marquis serves as District Executive for the UUA’s Thomas Jefferson District. She traveled to the Gulf Coast to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Below she offers an update on the determined community of UUs who worship in Gulfport, Mississippi.

(Gulfport, Mississippi, August 30, 2006) When I visited Waveland, Mississippi in November 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the streets were still overflowing with debris. Twisted and broken trees lay smashed into houses, on top of cars, and across roadways. In the relentless piles of rubble that lined the streets, drywall, insulation, and other building materials were plentiful. But it was the clothes, books, furniture, knick-knacks, and other personal items that left Gulf Coast residents feeling violated and exposed. It was as if someone had entered their homes and exhibited the contents of every drawer, every cupboard, every secret box of memories for the entire world to see.

Nine months later, a full year after Katrina struck, the personal belongings are all gone. In fact, everything is gone. Entire beachfront neighborhoods have been bulldozed so that all that is left is a sea of concrete foundations, a few gnarled and scraggly trees, and an occasional FEMA trailer. Even though it is a hot August day in Mississippi, miles and miles of sandy beaches are deserted. Signs along the beachfront warn people to stay out of the water because of the debris that still covers the ocean floor.

Waveland is just one of the many Mississippi communities devastated by Katrina. Members of the Gulf Coast UU Fellowship (GCUUF), based in Gulfport, MS, know this devastation first hand. Although only one member lost her entire house, everyone in the congregation has been seriously impacted, so much so that some members chose to not to return to the region and, even a year later, others are moving to communities that are less prone to natural disasters. GCUUF anticipates losing four of its key members in the coming months, a significant number in a congregation that is struggling to survive.

However, there is hope for GCUUF. According to congregational president, Keitha Whittaker, two new families have joined the congregation recently and brought with them two toddlers and two other school-aged children—the foundation of a religious education program. Additionally, the fellowship has acquired a newly-rented worship space that allows them to keep everything set up from week to week, a big improvement from their pre-Katrina space. They are close to finalizing a deal to sell the low-lying property they purchased last year, and they hope to use the proceeds to acquire a more visible property on higher ground.

The brightest ray of hope, though, comes from UU seminarian Jinnie Trabulsi, who is working with GCUUF as a community minister. Funded by the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief fund, Trabulsi is actively working with our community partners and coordinating UU volunteers in Mississippi. In doing so, she is making Unitarian Universalism better known in the region, vital work that GCUUF members are unable to do on their own during these troubled times. In direct aid to GCUUF, Trabulsi offers one worship service a month and helps them become more visible in the community.

How You Can Help

Trabulsi says that the need for volunteers in Mississippi will continue to be strong for a long time to come. Many UUs have the misperception that they must be able to gut houses to be useful volunteers. According to Trabulsi, nothing could be further from the truth. Although people with construction skills are still desperately needed, other abilities are also in short supply. Trabulsi says it's important to recognize that the needs change on a regular basis as projects are completed and new projects begin. However, just this month, Trabulsi knows of community partners seeking people who can:

  • Distribute community information and flyers on housing and immigrant worker rights
  • Serve as Spanish translators
  • Serve as Vietnamese translators
  • Provide general budget and office support
  • Provide software development/support (web-based database)
  • Serve as primary school tutors
  • Assist immigrants with taxes (guest worker programs and regular taxes) from January-April
  • Gut homes
  • Install drywall and perform other structural repairs

If you have any of these skills and would like to volunteer in Mississippi, contact uukatrina [at] bellsouth [dot] net or call Volunteer Coordinator Cheré Coen at the Hurricane Relief Project at the UU Church of Baton Rouge (225) 223-2876. All volunteer requests are handled by this office.

And if you can't go yourself, you can help by encouraging your congregation to sponsor an individual or team to make the trip. No matter what you have to offer, whether it's professional expertise, skilled labor, or a good heart, the people of Mississippi need you.

Annette Marquis, District Executive
Thomas Jefferson District of the UUA