calendar January 21, 2010 in Disaster Response

Ocean Springs journal: Still so much to do

Once again a team from Christ Lutheran, Kulpsville, is in Ocean Springs, MS. Lois Kadel is keeping a journal of the group’s activity as the group works, even with their eyes and hearts fixed on Haiti. Follow the story as it continues from last year’s trip.

Now is the time to join a SEPA-LDR trip to Mission Starfish (formerly Camp Victor) in March — your interest needs to be noted by Jan. 24.

The Moved and the Shaken

A crew of eight volunteers from Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kulpsville, PA have arrived safely in Ocean Springs, MS to help in the continuing rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina, a furious Category 5 hurricane which made an indelible mark on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005.  It’s been 1,605 days since the fateful morning when the storm surge permanently changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons.  So many individuals and families still need help and our crew led by John Stoler Jr. and assisted by Sally Frederick, Deb Freece, Karen Johnson, Earl Mower, John Stoler Sr., Bob Walker and myself have joined a total of 80 volunteers in this week’s assignment to work to restore 18 homes to pre-Katrina condition.

Our team drove to Mississippi, logging over 1,300 miles on our trip.  We stopped once again in Lebanon, TN,  at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church where the hospitality of Jim and Nancy Daniels, Te’Nancy and Frank Wilke and the entire congregation, was most warmly received by our crew of road weary travelers! 

On the first day of our journey, we stopped for gas at a convenience store/gas station/Burger King combo in rustic Buchanan, VA in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.  As we waited to make our purchases a woman approached us and asked us where we were from and where we were headed.  When we told her we were heading to Ocean Springs, MS she surprised us all by telling us she was from Ocean Springs and had left following Hurricane Katrina, never ever to return again.  She still owns the land her home once stood on and she pays real estate taxes on that piece of land which houses only a concrete slab and nothing more.  When we asked her if she might ever reconsider she shook her head emphatically, "I’ll never go back, never…."  Her gray blue eyes told the story – her encounter with Katrina altered her life path and she wouldn’t try to re-claim that which was taken from her and her family. 

As we finished our conversation and turned to leave she thanked us all for remembering those who decided to rebuild their lives in her home state of Mississippi.  I sensed a sadness and a longing for home yet a resolve to live the rest of her days in a place from which a 30 foot storm surge could never again  wash away her treasures, her history, her dreams.  


The Movers and Shakers

Monday morning came with the sound of volunteers rolling out of their sleeping bags and shuffling around in the dark – quietly finding their belongings packed away in bags and suitcases under their army like metal bunk beds.  Soon the loud clanging gong of the meal bell would beacon the barely awake teams to a meal of eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy.  I walked into the now familiar cafeteria with its long rows of tables and chairs.  The walls are embellished with beautiful and creative murals, dates and names of volunteers, and words of encouragement and support from scripture and those in the world who have made tremendous differences in quiet ways.  I was full of excitement and anticipation to find out where we would be working and what we would be doing.  I wanted to know who we would be helping.  As John talked to the construction supervisor I noticed a perennial Camp Victor fixture, Jimbo, who came initially to Ocean Springs from Kentucky as a volunteer from the Christian Appalachian Project.  He stayed on as a long term volunteer and then became paid staff working hands-on with the revolving crews of volunteers.  I was excited to see Jimbo and knew he would be a source of great amounts of information about what was going on with the recovery.  I gave Jimbo a big hello and a smile, and he struggled to place a name with the face.  He wrinkled his brow and I noticed his customary warm smile and folksy mannerism were strangely absent.  I told him my name and he slowly made the connection.  "Oh yes, your husband was one of the first people I met after Katrina."  Yes, Tom had been on the ground in Jackson County and Harrison County shortly after the hurricane and he had many fond memories of conversations with Jimbo.  But for whatever reason on this particular morning, the conversation was stilted and cold.  I asked Jimbo to sit with me and eat his meal.  He sat down quietly and I waited for the Jimbo I remembered to wake up a bit and start talking my ear off.  I thought I’d jump start the conversation and asked him how things were going with the recovery.  Jimbo looked up from plate, pointed his fork at me and said, "It’s going slow….real slow… because people like you (this is where the fork seemed to stab me directly in the heart) and others (now the fork was pointing around the room) have stopped coming down as much.  His deep Kentucky drawl continued to wound.  "The movers and shakers, the ones who would organize groups to come down here, have stopped moving and shaking."  I gulped back tears and struggled for words.  Finally I said to him, "You’re making me feel guilty."  Jimbo abruptly stood up and said, "Well?" and moved his plate and himself to another table.

Stunned and angry, I didn’t know what to do.  I struggled with his words all day and tried to reason with myself that I couldn’t be held responsible for the slow down in the recovery.  I was doing the best that I could.  I went back and forth arguing with myself that I should do more, then arguing with myself that I couldn’t do more with my family obligations, my job, and my commitments at Christ Lutheran.  It was a pointless argument. 

Tuesday morning – another breakfast and another day of struggling with Jimbo’s words.  Then Kelsey Blum, the new camp director stood up to make announcements and lead us in morning devotions.  "The harvest is great and the laborers are few," she began reading from the scriptures.  She then went on to talk about Jesse, an elderly veteran who sleeps in his recliner in his garden shed. Her voice broke as she told us how hard everyone was working to get him back into his home.  Almost five years later and there are still people like Jesse living in such conditions.  She then acknowledged, with each new disaster we lose more volunteers.  She, like all of us in the room, were thinking about the thousands of Haitians newly displaced from their homes.  

Frustration, righteous indignation, sadness – all were behind Jimbo’s fork pointing and pointed words.  Jimbo sat with us tonight at dinner.  We talked again the way we always did, about the families we’ve worked with and the ones yet to be helped.  We didn’t need to say anything about Monday morning’s conversation.  The workers are few, the disasters are many.  We continue to work, one family at a time to make it right.  Hopefully our stories and pictures will encourage others to join in the recovery effort – until everyone on the coast and in Haiti and where ever the next great tragedy hits, can sleep peacefully in their own bed.


Pay It Forward

This morning Kelsey came into the cafeteria with news to share.  She began her announcement with the words, "Haiti has been hit by another 6.1 earthquake."  She continued, this time with a catch in her voice, "There is no news yet on any further damage or casualties…"  Her voice wavered as she added, "There is no news about the disaster workers, military, medical personnel or volunteers."  The disaster workers in Mississippi, those there just for a week and those on the front lines now for many months…many years – collectively moaned in shared sorrow, compassion, and deep concern for those on that fractured island.

Yet, these people, these coastal survivors, in spite of their continuing fight to recover have launched their own efforts to help.  A white board in the front hallway at Camp Victor announces a tentative mission trip to Haiti for Camp Victor volunteers and staff tentatively scheduled for April.  A sign on Route 10 reads, "The Red Cross Needs Us Now."  Compassion remembered, compassion returned.  


Mr. Billy’s Magic Carpet Ride

Last year in January 2009, Charlie Hoffman, Walt West and myself worked at a house in Van Cleave, MS owned by Mr. Billy, another elderly survivor of the hurricane.  His house had been worked on by many crews of volunteers including the Roloff Family of TLC’s Little People, Big World.  The work of volunteers from Camp Victor was finished and a pastor from Christus Victor Lutheran Church had joined volunteers and friends to bless the house.  Well, I should say Camp Victor staff thought all the work was finished. Mr. Billy had just a few items on his punch list that were not quite right and he called the construction supervisor and cajoled him into sending another crew to do the things on his list.  Charlie, Walt and myself were that crew and we found ourselves immersed in trying to fix those things on Mr. Billy’s list.

We framed out some doors, painted trim, then ended up painting his kitchen, installing linoleum flooring by the entrance way, and installing new counter tops.  At the end of the week we had checked off everything from the list and did a few extra things as well!  We felt pleased at the work we had done and were ready to leave.

Mr. Billy talked to us all week about his back room and how the carpet had been ruined.  It really seemed important to him to have that carpet replaced.  Right before we left Ocean Springs, the three of us went to Home Depot and purchased a roll of wall to wall carpeting and gave it to Mr. Billy as our parting gift.  We told him we couldn’t install it but would put it on our pass-through list so another crew could come out in install it.

Fast forward to January 2010!  Dinner at Camp Victor, conversation with Jimbo, questions about previous homeowners we’ve worked with.  "How’s Mr. Billy?"  I asked.  "Well, he’s doing well… (a bit of a pause).  "Does any of y’all know how to install carpet?"  "WHAT?!"  I yelped!  I couldn’t believe that darn carpet hadn’t been installed yet!  A full year has passed!  At that moment, John piped up, "I can install carpet.  Do you have the tools?"  Well, the details haven’t been ironed out, but if we can we are going to Van Cleve this week to get that carpet installed.  Stay tuned, this could be a long, drawn out story!



I just realized I haven’t told you what we are doing!  We are working on a 3 bedroom ranch in the St. Martin neighborhood of Biloxi.  The house has been vacant since August 29th, 2005 and it is a rental property owned by a woman we have not met yet.  Yes, I said rental.  The back story is, as usual, sad and infuriating.  The homeowner had insurance.  She was able to secure a contractor which, in the early days following Katrina, was a significant accomplishment.  She was also bilked $80,000 by the same unscrupulous contractor – not an unusual story at all.  We’ve heard that one over and over again when getting the background information on homes and homeowners.

So, why are we working on an income property instead of working on a home for a homeless family?  Good question and I think I have a good answer for you!  Since Katrina rental rates have gone through the roof.  Middle income earners can no longer afford the same rental properties they lived in before 2005.  Camp Victor has worked out an agreement with the homeowner to do the repairs with volunteer labor, she will pay for all the supplies, and when all the work is completed she will rent the home to a Katrina survivor at pre-Katrina rental rates.  Creative solution to a complex problem.

The house has been gutted.  All studs, no walls.  The roof was just completed last week and our job was to close in the rafters and gables, remove a car port, prime and paint the new wood and get it done before the rain (which came in torrents today!).  When we have accomplished that we will, weather permitting, install flashing, then side the exterior of the laundry room.  If plumbing and electrical certifications come through we may be able to start insulating the interior and installing drywall.

Chris, our construction supervisor, made a point of coming up to our team as we were sitting in the dining hall together to thank us for how well we are working and how much has been accomplished.  We completed in 2 1/2 days the work which they expected to take the entire week.  It has been so great to have a larger crew this year – and we hope others will consider taking the plunge!


Turn Around – Don’t Drown!

The weather today has been ferocious!  The rains began mid-day and haven’t let up since.  We expected two inches of rain, and I think that may have happened in the first hour.  The drive back from our work site was challenging with limited visibility and gushing water flooding the sides of the highway.  Thunder and lightning has been added to the array of weather delights as well as flash flood warnings and now a tornado watch!  The tv in the game room buzzes weather alerts periodically and the crawl at the bottom of the screen offers advice to viewers including the pithy warning, "Turn around, don’t drown!" for drivers who find themselves in high water situations!

Let’s hope tomorrow brings clearer skies and less threatening conditions.

Lois Kadel