Plenty of work remains after Hurricane Katrina
I recently spent my school vacation on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi as part of a volunteer team that I helped to co-ordinate and organize. Our team of 20 — made up of seven high school seniors, some of their parents, and several faculty members from E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Conn. — spent five days in the towns of Pascagoula, Gautier, Ocean Springs, Moss Point, and neighboring communities, contributing our efforts toward the ongoing Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Our “hosts” were the Christians Organized for Relief Efforts, C.O.R.E., a group that was started on the heels of the storms in late August of last summer.
Our experience in Mississippi was one of hard work and mixed emotions. The simple fact that our little group made it safely there and back — and did productive work to boot — made the trip a success from an organizational point of view. We had headed into the unknown and came back having had a completely positive experience. However, much more meaningful than our logistical success, we became part of something greater, and more significant than each of our individual efforts. Though our work made but a small dent in the seemingly infinite pile of work that still remains to be done on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, we left knowing that we had helped those in our country who need it the most.
From the moment we arrived, we felt humble in the company of the people who are spearheading C.O.R.E. and the local volunteer relief effort. It was impossible not to fall into their selfless ways of reaching out to others. We slept on cots in canvas Russian Army tents. We ate home-cooked meals in the cafeteria of the monstrous church. We used makeshift showers in the back of an 18-wheeler trailer. We used Port-aJohns. And we worked during the day on whatever task we were asked to do.
Our jobs included building bunk beds and tent floors for the base camp, helping lay torch-down rubber roofing and gutters on a huge warehouse that serves as a distribution center for the residents of Ocean Springs (which still provides hundreds of people a day with food and supplies), painting a local Catholic school cafeteria, removing hardwood floors from a house to get it ready for reconstruction, and most significantly, cleaning and sanitizing three homes that had not yet been touched since the storm. “Cleaning and sanitizing” is really a euphemism for “gutting.” We tore everything out of these homes – furniture, cabinets, appliances, flooring, walls, and ceilings… everything except the studs and the general frame of the house. The black mold has become omnipresent, and in order for these homes to be habitable again, this gutting of the houses is necessary.
When we drove down highway 90 through the formerly beautiful towns of Biloxi and Gulfport, we witnessed devastation beyond description. Antebellum mansions that had dotted the drive (picture Bellevue Avenue in Newport, or the houses on the Shoreby Hill Green) were reduced to concrete slabs and debris. Hundreds of years of family histories and homesteads were completely gone. To see it firsthand was worth the trip, though we felt strangely guilty about returning to our safe and sound homes. And while we felt good about the work we accomplished and the fact that we dedicated our precious February vacations to this relief effort, we returned to Connecticut with the disheartening realization that we wanted to do so much more. There is an incomprehensible amount of work that remains to be done. However, this feeling of helplessness is tempered by the fact that we now know that there are amazing, hardworking, and dedicated men and women of all ages giving themselves daily to this effort. C.O.R.E. will be hosting over 400 people per day during the spring break weeks of March. While we were there we were part of an overall group of 262 people from 11 states.
Hurricane Katrina, with 150 mile an hour winds and a storm surge over 30 feet, ruined nearly 70,000 homes in Mississippi alone, and displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens. They have lived through a nightmare, but now there is a deep strength in the growing volunteer movement that is underway in rebuilding this beautiful part of the country — I was fortunate to be part of it for the past week, and am glad to share this story in the hopes that others will do the same.
Editor’s note: The writer was raised in Jamestown. His parents are David and Jan Martin, and his sister is Jennifer Talancy of Stearns Farms Organic Produce. He lives in Storrs, Conn., home of the UConn Huskies, with his wife Laura and 1-month-old daughter Virginia.