Friday, November 24, 2006
Crossing the bridge to Biloxi
Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, on March 29, 2006, I joined a group of seven men and three women from Concord and nearby communities and flew south to Biloxi, Mississippi, for a six-day stay to help with the aftermath. The team of volunteers was organized by Bridge to Biloxi, an organization formed last year by four different faith communities in Concord and Carlisle: St. Irene Church, First Parish in Concord, Tri-Con Congregational Church and Kerem Shalom. Since last year this group of volunteers has sent more than 200 people to Biloxi to help with clean-up and now with the rebuilding efforts. A number of Carlisleans have taken part, including Katie Burke from St. Irene, Dick Shohet from First Parish and my wife Carolyn and I, also from First Parish.
Our hosts in Biloxi were Hands On, the Gulf Coast branch of Hands On USA, a volunteer organization founded by Carlislean David Campbell, who is also its executive director. Hands On served not only as hosts but as project leaders, tour guides and constant inspiration. We came with our sleeping bags, air mattresses and a willingness to work. Our home away from home was a large assembly building with kitchen and limited bathroom facilities and a large field, all generously donated by the Beauvoir Methodist Church. Some folks slept inside in the balcony, the rest of us slept in a Tent City in the field. Hands On can accommodate approximately 220 volunteers.
The camp was constantly in a state of flux as new groups such as ours arrived and others left. A number of college groups came through on winter and spring breaks as well as church-affiliated or corporate-sponsored teams. While we were there, a group from Credit Suisse Bank of New York donated $50,000 to Hands On upon their departure.
In the week we were there, there were about 100 volunteers plus the "long-timers" — mainly recent college graduates who were volunteering their time and energy, some older folks and several nurses, plus quite a few people who kept coming back. They handled all the logistics from dealing with the needs of all the volunteers to organizing the daily work crews. I noticed that no two of them equaled my age of 61. Despite the constant flux, this cadre of long-timers was welcoming, helpful and fascinating. They truly had become a community unto themselves. Their enthusiasm and spirit reminded me of the verve and energy of the young people of the Civil Rights days of the early '60s or the anti-war demonstrations of the '70s. They are doing difficult, dirty work on a daily basis, yet they are full of optimism and energy. I was struck by how little blame or grousing went on, even in the face of the insubstantial federal support or the immensity of the job.
The clean-up process is so overwhelming that seven months after Katrina, Hands On was only just beginning to move into the phase of rebuilding. Our group, with a licensed contractor and several willing handymen, were one of the first to arrive ready to build. I spent two days hanging sheet rock and taping, mudding and sanding for Miss Bonita, a terminally ill woman with two kids in Bay St. Louis.
The day-to-day running of the facility was an equally vital task to the projects we had come to work on. Various housekeeping chores from cleaning to cooking were assigned/volunteered at community meetings each night after dinner. The slow but steady progress was celebrated at the evening meal back at "home" as each work crew reported on their day's activities. New folks were welcomed and introduced, and sometimes humorous pleas for volunteers for crews for the next day's less attractive projects were announced. Those departing could say their goodbyes, and volunteers offered many moving and inspiring testimonials. As one of the young long-timers said, "Hands On is a place where men can cry."
The evils of mold
We also installed a porch on a FEMA trailer for a badly crippled man, Gene, in Waveland. This was ground zero for Katrina. His home, half a wooded mile from the beach, disappeared, leaving only the hearth of the fireplace. Fifteen to 20 feet up in the trees around his property, the bark has been worn away by the collision of the debris in the storm surge. A group of Amish were coming in to rebuild his neighbor's home, and Gene was hoping they would help to rebuild his own home. He had been waiting for three months for a group such as ours to help him. The victims we met and talked with were ready to start over, although a feeling of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was noticeable in some of their soft words and voices. We had been encouraged to let people talk about their experiences; many volunteered their stories.
In addition to helping Gene with his porch, we spent our last day installing a boardwalk for a fellow, Chris, who needed a cane and was precariously negotiating walking on pallets to his FEMA trailer. We listened intently to the stories as we worked out in the communities, and Chris's is the one I remember best. His was the only brick home in his East Biloxi neighborhood, and as the waters rose, it served as a refuge for his neighbors, some of whom arrived holding on to sheets between them so as not to be swept away. When the water rose even higher, everyone was forced to go up into the narrow crawl space in the attic, with no exit or tools to break through the roof. The water finally crested at nine and one-half feet, and eventually they all were saved. His "God Bless You" for our few hours of work sticks vividly in my memory.
A visit to New Orleans
Sunday was generally a day of rest although some clean-up crews were out working. Our group chose to visit New Orleans (about 70 miles away) after attending a Catholic/Baptist church service in Bay St. Louis. The Baptist church had been destroyed and had joined with the Catholics. A Baptist choir, swaying to the tunes of an organ, drums and baritone horn, combined with Catholic liturgy made for an interesting time. This church had been helping Hands On get started in their community and was our base of operations when we were hanging sheetrock.
In New Orleans we spent a couple of hours playing tourist in the French Quarter which sustained only minor damage. We drove through the ninth ward on our way back to Biloxi and encountered utter devastation. I was surprised that we could just drive into this recently inhabited area with no roadblocks or animals or people for block after block. There were a few clean-up crews scattered around, but there is nothing really left to restore. The buildings are mainly old simple wooden houses that some say were typically owned by slum lords. Looming overhead, workers were repairing one of the levees that had given way. It had a ghost town quality, except the buildings were collapsed and cars were tipped over on their roofs. The grayness of the scene is one of the stark images that comes to mind when I think back on the trip.
It was very uplifting to work with Hands On and to do a little bit to help. The areas' needs are so great and seemingly unending, yet each small, positive accomplishment, such as getting one more home gutted, de-molded and ready for reconstruction, was celebrated with applause at the evening meal as each crew reported on their day's activity. It was a week of hard work, but great satisfaction and many laughs. Somehow people just keep on keeping on.
About four months ago the idea was hatched with the Bridge to Biloxi folks to capitalize on our continuing interest and volunteer manpower to work on just one family's house. The East Biloxi Coordination Center that works closely with Hands On to identify projects, selected Cynthia and Dan and their five kids as a needy and deserving family. For 14 months the family has been living in two FEMA trailers, next to their devastated home.
Their house was built in 1948 by Cynthia's father; it is one story and measures 25' by 75'. Hurricane Katrina pushed it off its piers, and it probably escaped complete destruction by crashing into a tree in their front yard. I was working up by the eaves one day and found dirt and vegetation lodged in the cracks. I found out the house had been completely submerged at some point in the storm. The family had the resources to have the house moved back onto cinder block piers, re-shingle the roof and gut the entire interior down to the studs. Hands On volunteers came in and de-molded (a very nasty job with full respirator and haz-mat coveralls) and then sprayed on anti-mold paint. At this point Bridge to Biloxi adopted the project to rebuild the house.
David Kramer of Concord undertook the enormous task of organizing the work schedule for the continuous stream of volunteers to keep the project moving forward and coordinating with Hands On. So far, more than 50 people have volunteered to go to Biloxi to work on this project over an 8- to10-week period. Most are from the area, but several have come from California and Wisconsin, having found us just by searching the web (www.bridgetobiloxi.org). Our volunteers range from recent high school grads to seniors in their 80s. Kramer has spent most of the time since early October in Biloxi. He was part of the group I worked with in March, and I'm pleased that 10 of the original 12 have already come down or will do so in the next few weeks to work on this project. The pull to help the Katrina victims, once you have seen the utter devastation and the obvious needs and the inability or will of the national government to do more, is magnetic.
Hands On continues to supply some manpower, expertise and tools, as well as our accommodations and food. The estimated cost to bring the house back to move-in condition is $45,000. A large chunk of this money has already been raised by hard work from fundraising in the Concord/Carlisle area. The churches funds become available, Bridge to Biloxi is seriously considering rebuilding another house. All labor is voluntary with the exception of a local plumber and electrician who needed to be hired to satisfy the building codes. (The electrician let us do a lot of the grunt work to save us some money).
My five eight-hour-plus days at Cynthia's house were spent doing a lot of planing, cutting, shimming and re-nailing of twisted wall studs and loose ceiling strapping. Meanwhile others that week were repairing warped floor boards, wiring, tar-papering and a million other details in preparation for windows and sheetrock. We had lunch at two newly opened Vietnamese restaurants in the neighborhood. One of the restaurants had had its exterior wall mural painted by Hands On volunteers. Another day we had a meal at the Salvation Army, served by volunteers from Hands On. I sat with a woman in her 70s from a church group in Wisconsin who was doing sheetrock at another location nearby.
Cynthia and her family were very gracious and appreciative. She made hot coffee for us on chilly mornings and always had cold drinks available for the hot days. One day she ordered pizzas for the whole gang. She called me "Mr. Barry" and greeted all with a hug each morning. She introduced us to her elderly neighbors who came by. All were very happy to see us helping their dear neighbor Cynthia and her family. Dan worked nights and we didn't see as much of him. He was less loquacious but friendly when you engaged him in conversation. Their two kids, Lilly Ann (seventh grade) and Luke (eighth grade), were around some after school; they were very curious and fun to visit with. I was very touched when both kids gave me a hug when I left. Lilly Ann wrote a very sweet note to my daughter Charlotte thanking her for some Beanie Babies and stuffed animals that she had me pack to share with some kids. I have saved it as a memento of my trip.
As with my first trip to Biloxi, I feel I took back from the experience more than I gave. At Hands On there is a sign that reads, "It's not about you." That pretty much sums up the motivation of the twenty-somethings running Hands On, the volunteers from all over the country who have come to Biloxi to help, the teams of folks from Concord/Carlisle that Bridge to Biloxi has sent, and the generous contributors who couldn't travel but could write a check to help rebuild a family's home — and life. It even characterized the gracious hospitality and heartfelt hugs that greeted us each day from Cynthia and her family.
I can't wait to go back in the spring.
Barry Copp lives on Craigie Circle in Carlisle.
Bridge to Biloxi — volunteers needed
Bridge to Biloxi still needs volunteers to go to Biloxi in early December to help with the finishing work and move Cynthia and Dan back in their home before Christmas. Housing, meals and great satisfaction are provided. Volunteers are also sought for a second home -rebuilding project in the spring. For more information on how to participate in or make a financial contribution to this project, visit www.BridgetoBiloxi.org. Check out our blog (www.blog.bridgetobiloxi.org) for daily updates.
Other ways to help
The Citizen Action Team (CAT), whose local representative is Christy Barbee, 1-978-369-4343, collects items to send to the Gulf Coast. They need basic household goods (linens, towels, kitchen items), holiday accountrements, nonperishable food, construction supplies (paint, hardware, cabinetry, lumber), computers and peripherals, and sporting goods for kids in FEMA trailer parks. If your church or organization is already doing a drive or collection and needs help transporting goods to the Gulf Coast, CAT can provide low-cost shipping. CAT emphasizes that donated goods should be new or in good condition.
Help is needed to pack, store and/or transport goods locally. CAT assembles and packs donated goods in local homes, then drives them to a warehouse to be shipped to destinations on the Gulf Coast. They need garages, sheds or spare rooms in which to store and pack goods; drivers with minivans or trucks; and packing materials (all sizes boxes, foam forms and peanuts and newspaper).
All photos by Ralph Staner
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito