Club Katrina: Post-Flood Relief Changes Lives
By Nancy Ruhle
After Hurricane Katrina hit, it was an urge to "do something" that impelled me to hook up with a group headed to Pascagoula, Mississippi, in November for a week of clean-up and rebuilding. Sponsored by Los Gatos United Methodist Church, our group of seventeen included individuals from other churches and ages ranged from teens to seventies. Families were represented by one father/daughter and two mother/daughter teams. Once we were on site, three other skilled men, volunteers on their own, joined our group.
Construction work is not my forte, but Don, our leader, reassured me there would be plenty for me to do and, as he frequently pointed out, often what was needed most was a good listener as people retold their stories of fear and frustration.
Pascagoula, now a Sister City of Los Gatos, is a town of 26,000 and sits on the Gulf Coast. It is a quiet place with large trees and numerous churches. One of these, Eastlawn Methodist Church, has been housing hundreds of volunteers, and during our week there we met folks from many other states.
Our first full day being Sunday, there was time for some touring of the area. Everywhere stood silent testimonies of an enormous disaster: an overturned truck caught in the branches of a downed tree; a boat on a church lawn; toppled church steeples; a cargo ship marooned a quarter of a mile inland; hand lettered cardboard signs spelling out addresses for FEMA and insurance agents; total destruction at the waterfront where once had stood multi-million dollar homes; a cardboard sign that read "Keep Off or We’ll Shoot" not far from one with a religious message. West of Pascagoula the destruction only intensified.
HURRICANE K’S IMPACT
It was the storm surge that hurt most of the homes in Pascagoula. The muddy water rose four feet, toppling furniture and refrigerators, and leaving behind filth and fertile conditions for the growth of mold. Walls had to be stripped to their studs, mold scraped out, and a bleach solution sprayed over everything.
Bleaching was a primary job for me, especially at Susan’s house, a large place that she and her husband had designed and built. Listening to Susan’s story became my secondary role. She recounted how her husband "went crazy" with anger, throwing things out after the hurricane—the good right along with the bad.
Our worksites were situated in an area of middle-class homes. Outside every house, close to the street, was a huge patch of dead grass where people had thrown out household contents. In the majority of cases, a white FEMA trailer sat in the yard. People often expressed anger with the bureaucracy: it took weeks to get a trailer; longer to be hooked up; longer still to be inspected; and even more time went by before a key was finally delivered.
I had expected to be interested in the stories of Pascagoula residents; I was surprised to find fascination in stories of people I worked with. A prime example was Doreen, who acted as coordinator at Eastlawn Methodist. Originally from the area, she came from Kansas because she felt a force was driving her to help.
She worked long, long hours matching up volunteers with people’s requests. Often she referred to miracles—instances where a situation seemed impossible, only to be resolved by somebody who appeared with the solution. Ten years prior, Doreen had turned her life around and now here she was—a pivotal person in the reconstruction of hundreds of homes.
Then there was John, a young, skinny construction worker who attached to our group for awhile. John showed us his swollen red thumb where he had been bitten weeks ago by a Brown Recluse spider, and he reassured us that it was much improved.
He told me that he had been sick with a high fever and that red lines had crept up his arm from the infected site. As a registered nurse (retired), I was appalled that he had not seen a doctor, because he could have died. John said he had been cured by "the elders" of his church who laid their hands on him.
In our group was a young effeminate man, Ron, who had everyone wondering before the trip how he was going to function at the work sites. Other men on the team were big and strong, especially Harry, a Tongan who was built like a brick and had feet the size of rowboats. Harry was a professional roofer, and on the second day Ron volunteered to help with Harry’s roofing team.
To everyone’s amazement, including his own, Ron became a good worker, prized by Harry. Later on, he confided to me that he had a fear of heights, and he was so proud of his accomplishment that he called his mother to tell her.
A DIFFERENT VACATION OF SORTS
I had left for Pascagoula expecting to work hard and I did. I expected it would be uncomfortable sleeping on a church floor, sharing a bathroom with many other women, and it was. I knew the free food would not be the greatest and it wasn’t. What I did not expect was that it would be like a vacation. I witnessed fascinating sights, met interesting people, and learned about a different culture. I enjoyed the camaraderie of a group of fun people working on a worthy goal. And the people of Pascagoula were genuinely grateful; a stranger even came up to our group in a restaurant to thank us.
On my return, more than one person told me she admired me for having gone, but there was nothing admirable about it. As I had discovered, it was a privilege.
Nancy Ruhle lives in Los Gatos. This is her first article for BAFT.
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