|by Jesse James '08 • October 20, 2005|
Seeing first hand the wrath and destruction of a natural disaster does not set well with most people. For me, that holds true. I had anticipated seeing the occasional tree down, awning gone, and light pole bent. However, I had no idea what to expect nor did I have any method to prepare for what I saw in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
On October 13, when we arrived on the Mississippi Gulf coast, reality hit me. Hard. Until this point, I was accustomed to seeing the news feeds and images during Hurricane Katrina. I was no longer in my comfort zone sitting on my bed watching the coverage. Now, I was interacting amongst one of Katrina's most heavily hit regions. Yes, I had heard on FOX, CNN, and ABC how bad the devestation of the hurricane was, but in reality I had no idea. That changed for me, though, when I was down on the coast seeing that coverage in person.
That Thursday, the 13th, we unpacked all of our gear and then became acquainted with the Americorp team. Just a few short minutes after listening to protocol, 15 Wabash students were put to work. The city, the National Guards, and the relief contractors had recently finished constructing the temporary hard-back tents.They resembled the ones most commonly seen on M.A.S.H. For those familiar with the military life, they know what I am describing. Each of the tents needed four bed frames accompanied by four mattresses, so we hauled the frames and mattresses from the storage units and put them into the tents. After about five hours of that, the team had us visit the
The trip from camp (located at the city's Memorial Park on the Gulf of Mexico) to the distribution center gave us our first glimpse of damage on a city scale.
One of the most common images was that of houses on cars. There was not a day went by that we did not see such calamity. Unfortunately, this "image" was one of many. As the bus drove to the distribution center I looked out the window and saw nothing but destroyed homes, homes off foundations, or homes gone completely. An eerie feeling overcame me when I looked at a set of porch steps leading to nothing. It was not uncommon to see homes collided into one another. Homes that were thrown into streets were bulldozed to make the city accessible leaving half of a home on the left side of the road and the other on the right. The closer we got the aid center the worse things appeared to be.
On the distribution center's north side, there once stood a Shell gas station. Here, an entire house was juxtaposed between the price sign and the station itself. Roughly, seventy-five percent of the home was completely under the station awning. This did not settle easy with any of us. The east side of the center was once home to a Dollar General Store. I peeked through remants of a door and saw a partial roof with inventory thrown throughout the inside like snow in a sno-globe. After assessing the damage, we became familiar with the distribution process.
For those wondering, the distribution center provided such things as shovels, toiletries, tools, canned foods, cereals, and medicines, all the way to ice and canned water.
The second and third day of the trip, too, allowed us to assess the damage of 'Pass' (as the locals call it). On day two, we hauled lumber for the city to a secure location. That provided yet another chance to view more of Katrina's wrath. It was the same sight: houses shredded apart like cotton, houses missing, roofs collapsed. Then we drove by Pass Christian High School, or at least what is left of it.The frontal brick facade of the school remained, but the entire middle section had disappeared providing access to a cross section of the school's north side. Outside the school, schools buses were tossed about like old toys. Some were smashed into others while others were drove into the ground.
The third day of helping affected me more than the other two. This day we mucked. Mucking is the term used to describe the process of tearing the interior of a house out. It is essentially the gutting of flooded house. We spent the day at the home of an elderly woman who had lost all the contents of her home to flooding. Her house is five miles from the coast, but as a result of the surge, ten feet of water stormed her region with bay water. She and her son stayed at the home during the storm. She told me that they went to top of the carport and then into the attic after the winds picked up and a section of it blew off. For two days, she said, they survived off vienna sausage and containers of water. She went on to tell me the story of her neighbor, an elder woman bed-ridden with Alzheimer's Disease. Her caretakers could not leave the woman, so they also endured the storm. They carried the women outside and laid her on her mattress. As the flood waters rose the mattress floated. When the mattress was roof heighth, they pulled the woman and mattress onto the roof. Hearing such a drastic survival story made me emotional numb. This surrealistic feeling grew as the day progressed.
I contribute most of my emotional instablity to the fact that we were destroying the home of a women who had lived there since 1962. She raised two sons in the house, and it was also the place where her husband died. To make it worse, she was there watching us do this. I could not get the notion out of my mind that we were stripping the inside of this woman's home while she was watching. I tell people it doesn't matter how "big of a person" you think you are, this type of work will play havoc on the emotions of anyone. It did me, and it sparked a great deal of self reflection for me.
The time I spent in Pass Christian during the fall of 2005 will never leave my mind. I had the gracious opportunity to help fellow Americans in dire need of aid. This, is very self rewarding. Yes, I donated money to the various charities, but to be actually, physically helping rose things to a new level. I met amazing, grateful people thankful for everything being done to rebuild there small, coastal town. I got to know several Wabash men determined to help Pass with 110 percent effort. We were all there for a common cause - helping those in need. The woman who we aided in hauling out flood damaged dry-wall has become someone I will never forget. I urge others to continue their relief contributions as there is still a lot to be done in the Mississippi Gulf coast region of this great country. After seeing the spirit of Wabash students rising to, in the words of President Andy Ford, "help foster the essence of civilization as responsible citizens," I know people will continue support.
The experience was gratifying and humbling. Taking in the devastation was surreal. The time I spent there, however, is unforgettable.