Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Katrina Report Part Two: What We Saw

I'm taking my photo card to Wal Mart later, so I hope I can post pictures a different way. Meanwhile, here is Part Two.

My husband, Ken, and I left Wisconsin with a mix of anticipation and dread in our hearts. That mix of feelings was to continue throughout the trip, and even now our feelings are conflicting as we rest and recoup and ponder what we saw. After dropping my elderly mom off with a relative in Indiana and getting a last shower, shampoo and a night's sleep in a real bed, we traveled to Tennessee to pick up Debra, who is mentioned in Part I.

The trip took forever, it seemed, and we ended up spending a night somewhere in Mississippi. We were still a long way from the coast, but the motels were full of evacuees who had their stay paid for by FEMA or the Red Cross. We had a hard time finding a room. The hotel manager saw our JUBILEE ASSEMBLY OF GOD tee shirts, and he thanked us for coming. He told Ken, "The churches are pulling together. Yesterday the Salvation Army brought lunch for everyone here. Then a half hour later a black church brought lunch. Then a few minutes later a white church brought lunch." He smiled as he said he sent food home with his employees and saved what he could in the hotel fridge. ("Too bad the "white" church and the "black" church didn't work together," I thought to myself. But it was good to hear that the churches were doing what they could.)

Earlier, we had stopped at a rest area. Only in the "deep south" would restrooms be made of brick, have bright green doors, porches, and white columns! Who knew a restroom could look like a plantation house? A very elderly Black security guard offered to give us maps and tourist information. We explained that we were heading to the gulf coast to help in relief efforts. He didn't quite grasp that, and he kept talking to us about the tourist attractions, even giving us a large Mississippi tourism book. I hope no one ever tries to vandalize or steal from the rest area building. I don't think that dear old man could have helped much with "security." But he was, as southern folk often are, very gracious and called Deb or me "ma'am" about ten times. I thought, "We're not in Wisconsin anymore, Toto!"

We finally accepted the tourism book and perused it in the van as we headed down the road. In the present situation, it was eerie...filled with bright glossy photos of Gulfport casinos and the beautiful gulf coast vacation areas. It is the only way we had some idea of what the gulf coast "should" have looked like.

About 200 miles north of our destination we began to see the destruction! We still had four hours to drive, and already we saw enormous trees splintered and uprooted. As we got closer we saw that the evergreen trees were orange. Many had only a few remaining tufts of pine needles. We surmised that the salt water had "burnt" the trees to make them orange? The grass mostly looked okay, but the trees were mostly leafless, another eerie sight in the humid, 90+ degree heat of a Mississippi summer.

We began to see roof damage, blue tarps, and large sheets of plywood covering damaged buildings. Further on we saw our first national guard troops. They stood by a large truck dispensing bags of ice. There were many churches along the highway. It's the south, and churches are everywhere. Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ...some were totally destroyed, some looked okay. Many had spray painted signs advertising free clothes or food or water.

We passed a church called "The Fountain of Life Church." The sign was intact as was a faux waterfall made of what looked like plastic "rock," about ten feet high. I stared in amazement. The waterfall was untouched, complete with water still coming out of a spout at the top. Several yards Behind was the church, a pole barn kind of structure. Or it had been. Most of it was gone. But the waterfall splashed on.

We passed a large, brick Church of God building. The roof was totally gone, and I assume the interior was gone too. We got sad and quiet. After a while there was not much we could say.

I began to feel like I was in a surreal dream world. An odd feeling of "apartness."

Finally arriving in Gulfport, we headed past piles of debris to find First Assembly of God. Their gym, which had had three to four feet of water during the storm surge, was now full of supplies. Diapers, food, toiletries, toilet paper, baby formula, bottled water. So we unloaded the trailer of supplies from people back home in Wisconsin. Among the boxes of bleach, toys and other supplies, we had one glucometer and some test tape. I walked over to the little clinic located in a dry and air conditioned area of the church and delivered a few other medical supplies we brought. I asked the nurse if she could use a glucometer. She almost started crying, and then grinned as she called me, "Mrs. Santa Clause." At that very moment, an ill diabetic woman sat in the back room being examined. They had no supplies for her. She received the glucometer, test strips and instructions before going back home. God's timing?

A/G home missionary Bill Easter directed us to a room in an undamaged upstairs part of the gym. He normally works with Native Americans in Arizona but he told us that when he began to see the pictures of devastation, he and his wife, Denise, got in their camper and headed south. We set up our cots and unpacked a few clothes.

A large sign on the church sanctuary entrance warned, "DANGER! DO NOT ENTER! MOLD DAMAGE! Condemned by the Gulfport Dept. of Public Health." The sign sent a shiver down my spine...but crews were pulling out smelly carpet, so I ventured inside. The odor was pervasive and sickening. The spacious hallways smelled, the tall sanctuary smelled, the classrooms smelled. The padded pews lay in pieces on the floor, along with water damaged speakers and piles of hymnbooks. We heard later that they had tried to salvage the pews, but when they handled them they just fell apart. Later the pieces were stacked on the curb along with piles of reeking mauve carpet.

At church services in Gulfport the next morning, about fifty people packed into a small youth chapel and praised God and sang and heard a short sermon and a few survival stories. Most of the church family is still unaccounted for. Many left town and probably have not yet returned. one knew.

Somehow, we three all began to feel that our place was not at Gulfport. We weren't sure what to do, but we soon headed for nearby Waveland.

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