Friday, September 30, 2005

Katrina Report Part Four: Waveland

The debris from what was once the front of this house was scattered right to the edge of the four-lane highway. At first we did not realize that the house could not have sat on that spot...but no one builds a house quite so close to the traffic. We realized that the house had been flung to its present location from--who knows where--there was no sign of the foundation.

This little house was leaning against a telephone pole. Again, no clue as to where it began it's "flight" since there was no sign of a nearby foundation or driveway. It made me think of Dorothy's house in "The Wizard of Oz" a thought that would have made me smile if I had not already been on the verge of tears.

Along the highway to Waveland we did not see any homes that were not totally demolished, or flung about like tiny houses from a Monopoly board.

This is what remains of a boat dealership. The closer we got to Waveland, the more shocked we felt. The sight and smells are indescribable, but these pictures are not isolated, or necessarily the worst of what we saw. They are typical of what we found everywhere.

A foundation, and nothing else. No boards, bricks, glass, furniture. Nothing.

Before going over to the Convoy of Hope site, we drove down to the nearby gulf coast. The pathos of what we saw are beyond words. On the site of what was once large luxury condos was...mostly nothing at all. You can see the gulf if you look closely between the branches of the bare and twisted trees. A few piles of bricks and some scattered belongings are all that remain. Debra and I stood in silence as Ken took photos. I found myself thinking the rather morose words of Solomon in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the preacher."

Steps to nowhere.

Many addresses are spray painted on some nearby surface. There is simply no means of identifying what home used to stand there.

We headed to the K-Mart parking lot and the Convoy of Hope distribution center. We found a hand made sign announcing "Camp Katrina," where many people had pitched tents on the grassy edge of the parking lot. Behind the small "dwelling" tents were several large circus-type tents, a demolished group of stores, a twisted and gutted McDonald's and the shell of what was once the Waveland Cinema. We found the Convoy of Hope people and they instantly put us to work, as I wrote in an earlier blog entry. I worked distributing clothes, and Ken passed out bleach and other cleaning supplies along with hand disinfectant, and other items. Here he is. He is probably announcing, "Just take one bottle of bleach, please!"

Here is Nurse Joan, sorting first aide supplies. Note the large pile of toilet paper alongside. One of those items we take for granted until we don't have any.

Guests shopping for free groceries and supplies inside the tent.

This guy worked all day passing out clothes, shoes, underwear, towels and socks. The work was nonstop, demanding and exhausting. At one point he opened a box of t shirts and pulled out this large American flag. Oddly, everyone got quiet for a moment, and then someone asked if they could have it to hang in front of what used to be their home.

After two days of standing on my feet for ten hours at a stretch with no breaks, I returned to First Assembly Gulfport (thank God for their showers and my cot) with some trepidation about how I was going to get through the remaining time. My back was hurting badly, and all of us were so stiff we crawled clumsily out of our van like zombies. That night I asked God to show me what to do, or to assign me something different.

More about that in Part Five.

Katrina Report Part Three: Leaving Gulfport

We drove around Gulfport a bit before heading over to Waveland. These pictures are from Gulfport, typical of what we saw everywhere.

A housing complex. Or it was. Every apartment was missing large pieces, which means that they not only have major structural damage, it means the water and mold damage is going to be extensive as well.

The tree in the front yard of this little house is huge, but the roots were shallow. It is very rainy in Mississippi, so perhaps that is why. Anyway, we saw many houses narrowly missed by trees.

Some signs of the beginning stages of cleanup were evident in Gulfport.

Heading down the highway we saw these huge billboards, at least 100 feet high with bases about 6 feet around. As you can see, these steel signs are all twisted. Farthest away, one is visible that is vertical. It's the only vertical one we saw for miles. The picture does not convey the spookiness we felt viewing these gigantic, and now twisted and torn, sentinels of the highway. The sky is blue in the picture, but when we first saw them it was dark and cloudy...and the sense of foreboding was intense. It felt like a nightmare was beginning.

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.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Katrina Report Part One: "Thr Fruit of the Spirit is..Kindness and Goodness"

The photo feature of Blogger doesn't apprear to be working right now.

I'm still working on the pics I want to post here of Katrina's aftermath in the Mississippi towns of Gulfport and Waveland. They will be coming.

Meanwhile, I was once again pondering the nature of spiritual fruit. If you've read my blog in the last few months you know I have been preaching through Galatians 5:22 (the "Fruit of the Spirit"). Goodness, I think, comes back to what Jesus called the "first and greatest commandment" -- that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and that we love others in the same way we love ourselves. And kindness -- is that not just the doing unto others as we'd have done to us?

I have just returned from watching love in action in Mississippi. Here are just a few instances of goodness and kindness. I saw them:

...In the beautiful brown face and sparkling eyes of Jeannie Wallis, who has worked for weeks to clean up mold-damaged First Assembly of God church in Gulfport. Her warm smile was not dimmed, and her praise to God was still vibrant, even though she had only gotten about three hours of sleep each night since the day Katrina slammed into Gulfport. She called me a "powerful woman of God." She is the powerful one!

In the voice of Pastor Norlund who vowed to do whatever was needed to help hurricane victims, to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus to the town of Gulfport--no matter how long and no matter how costly.

In the broad smiles, firm handshakes, and gentle words of two very young policemen from Ohio who had worked long days in Waveland, MS, and who didn't know when they'd get home. They smiled with genuine kindness anyway.

In the hands of my friend and former parishioner, Debra, who taught me how to do face painting so we could give little hurricane victims a few moments of normal fun. She tried hard to remember every child's name, cried when they weren't looking, and prayed for them when she could.

In J.J., a fireman from Utah turned temporary FEMA employee, who asked if I'd let him sit and talk with children for a few minutes as he,too, painted clowns and butterflies on the children's faces. He needed a break from misery almost as badly as the children did, I think, but he turned his own need into moments of joy for others. And he painted an impressive alligator! Then he let us put a KIDS ARE AWESOME sticker on his FEMA shirt, even though he said it was probably against the rules.

In the hardworking doctors and nurses at an impressive M*A*S*H type tent. They were distressed and weary but smiled with great kindness nonetheless. At the end of an exhausting day they still managed to joke with me when I asked to take their pictures.

In Misty, a tiny dynamo who supervised the volunteers at the large disbursement tent. She had been in Waveland for almost three weeks, and she still managed to direct us with energy and grace. I know she was exhausted and ill, but she hid it well and she toiled on, reminding us that we needed to "be very compassionate with these folks."

In the hard work of the people of Christian Life Church, Alabama, who were in Waveland first, before Convoy of Hope (or anyone else) arrived. They set up on the parking lot, and they did what they could with what they had, and they are still there.

In the cheery waves of national guard troops.

In an older woman whose name I never learned. She amazed me with her stamina and tireless work. She sang hymns and she smiled and she sorted clothes for hours. We had very few baby clothes to give away, but she somehow managed to find some newborn items for a sad-eyed but grateful pregnant woman who told me, "My due date is today."

In the waitress at the Gulfport "Cracker Barrel" who had lost her house, but who smiled and counted her blessings as she served us breakfast with paper plates and plastic forks.

In Thomas who cheerfully made the rounds of "Camp Katrina" all day every day to keep styrofoam coolers stocked with ice and bottled water--and who updated us with glee, and praise to God, every time someone else found a missing relative.

In Joan, who stood beside me and passed out band-aide tins and other first aide items to hundreds of weary and sometimes rude customers at the disbursement center. Joan worked long hours on her feet even though her toe was bleeding and hurting badly from a mishap with a pallet of supplies.

In the kitchen and the serving line at the "Waveland Cafe" tent. Church folks from many different denominations labored long hours in stifling heat and humidity to serve free meals to thousands of victims and volunteers alike.

Weeks ago at Jubilee A/G (my church) we prayed for the people of God to shine in the aftermath of the hurricane We were all shocked at the images we saw on our t.v. screens. At that time I didn't know that I would travel to the gulf coast and witness the horror of Katrina firsthand. We prayed for the Church of Jesus Christ to be His hands, his feet, his heart, his voice. I am rejoicing to say that I saw this happening.

The fruit of the Spirit is love...expressed through kindness and goodness. How rare that is, and how beautiful when found.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Back From Waveland, MS

We just arrived home a couple of hours ago. It is like returning from a nightmare. I'm exhausted and sore, but otherwise fine. I took lots of pictures. After a few days of rest -- and figuring out my new digital camera, I'll be posting a great deal.

Here is a link to a CNN story about Waveland whick is where we ended up working the most.

Waveland is a horror of sights, sounds, and smells.

But in addition to horrible things, I saw wonderful things too.

More later. For now I've got to get some sleep.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Dancing With Katrina

This interesting blog contains photos that I found fascinating and heartbreaking.

For me, its a frantic day of too much to do as we prepare to head to Mississippi.

I am excited and scared at the same time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Different Take on the Federal Response

Thank you, DP (he sure does indirectly help this blog out a lot) for the link to this thought provoking article. I'd better post it, since I posted a link to CNN's story questioning the response. Frankly, I have no idea what to think about much of this, but I do know the important thing is to deal with the current issues of devastation and suffering.

I have been on the phone almost all day. I'm exhausted--and I haven't left yet. HA!

Things are changing by the minute, it seems. As it turns out, we are not going to Biloxi, but we are going to a town not far away. There are many cities and towns all along the gulf coast. We will be going to a town called Gulfport. So far, almost no help has arrived. We are going to First Assembly of God. I’m told it used to be a lovely building but is now a mess. And they won’t even know we are coming as there is no phone coverage or way to contact them. The pastor lost his home, as did most of the congregation. As the storm gathered strength, people arrived at the church. They ended up with about 250 people huddled in the basement, from what I’m told. Afterwards they used some food they had in the church kitchen, then Convoy of Hope got in with some basic toiletries and food. They distributed clothes and some other stuff. However, the mold grew really fast and was so bad that the health dept. made the people in the church leave. I don’t know where they went, but the district presbyter I spoke with today said there are still about 50 people there in the church, including the pastor. I don’t know if the church is cleanable….but they do have power now. We are taking some tents with us precious little. I don’t have a clue what we are gonna find…but I am more at peace than I have been for days. I have an odd sense that for some reason we are supposed to go to Gulfport, and not Biloxi. Like what difference does it make….the need is hugh everywhere?! Well, we shall see. We are taking a trailer full of cleaning supplies, some water, and our gear. Thinking about taking bicycles that we don't use....seems like maybe that would be helpful, gas being costly.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Biloxi or Bust

It looks like Ken and I will be heading to Biloxi, Mississippi soon with a few others from Wisconsin. We will be working with
Convoy of Hope to provide meals for National Guard troops, police and other rescue teams. We'll also be taking in supplies. We're gathering information now and coordinating with Convoy of Hope, FEMA, and our Assembly of God District Office. I'll share more as things develop. Ken says he just "wants to head south..." but we can't do it. They are feeding thousands each day and are desperate for help right now, we are told, but I don't think they are going anywhere before next week. Sad to say.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Wise Words About the Problem of Suffering

No, not from me. These words are from a friend, "Quiet Earthling." She shared this devotional at an inner city coffe house ministry. She should be a pastor.

The Problem of Suffering

I am sure most of us have been following the news from New Orleans and the devastation that hurricane Katrina brought. It's scary to see a beautiful, popular city with rich culture and history go to a 3rd world country level overnight. It makes us realize very clearly how fragile life is.

When September 11 hit, my husband was back in NY. In a space of two hours, everyone knew that things would never be the same. Things we relied on and trusted were forever exposed to be fragile and uncertain.

So here's a really old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or maybe let me rephrase that, why do bad things happen to normal, ordinary people?

People have different ideas regarding that.

Some people say that bad things happen because God wants to punish human sin. And certainly, it's God's prerogative to do that, if He so chooses. But Jesus discouraged this kind of thinking. When people brought him to a man who was blind from birth, they started asking Jesus, "hey, what's going on here? Who sinned? Was it him, or his parents?" Jesus said, "Not the man, and not the parents, but let the works of God be made manifest in this man!" In other words, Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do." (The Message)

Some people will say that God wants to teach us a lesson and he uses natural disasters to do that. While God can certainly teach us lessons through things that happen to us, I can't see what lesson all of us could learn from this - other than that it really sucks to be hit by a hurricane. Once again, Jesus never actually tried telling people who were sick or injured that He was trying to teach them a lesson through their adversities. He simply helped them.

Some people can say that God has bad things happen to us in order to build our character, and this certainly sounds reasonable, because we can develop better character in adversity. But what about people who actually died in New Orleans? How did it help build THEIR character? What about infants who are hungry and thirsty, and injured? Is it helping build THEIR character? How? Once again, Jesus never sit down with the lepers and blind people to tell them that God was trying to build their character through their problems. He simply reached out and helped them.

How many people here remember the book of Job? Job was a very wealthy man, he lived a good life and had everything. One day, something bad happenned to him. His entire family was killed. All of his possessions were destroyed or taken away. And then he himself got really sick. His friends came to comfort him, and they tried telling him the same things we often hear: "We are sure you did something bad, and God is trying to punish you - and it's too bad for you that you don't know what it is; or "God's trying to teach you something here", or "Maybe you should just not say anything, Job...") You can imagine that none of those things were very helpful to him. Finally, God spoke to Job ... but his answer was not what they expected. Instead of talking about building Job's character, or punishing Job's sin, God spoke about the complexities of the universe. He spoke about animals getting food, and eagles, and sea creatures, and snow, and oceans, and all of it working together. It's like he was saying, "Look, the universe is a very complex place. It's a place that you'll never understand completely. There may not be a simple cause-effect thing here, there may be complex reasons beyond your comprehension at this point." And if we think about it for a minute, knowing WHY may not always help us in our situation. Jesus certainly didn't sit down with the people who were sick and injured (and probably asking "why") to explain to them why certain things happenned to them, and the complex causes and forces behind the events in their lives. He sipmly reached out and helped them.

And I think this is how we are called to respond, too.

I remember that once I shared with a friend (iswari ) that I had trouble with something because I couldn't figure out God's purpose in this. She said that she never tried looking for God's purpose in a time of trouble - just his presense. This made a lot of sense to me.

When we see bad things (like Katrina) happenning, we can't really figure out why. Sure we can think of the different things that could have been in place to make the damage less (better evacuation procedures, better town levee, and so on) - but ultimatley we don't know WHY it happenned. We don't know why that tropical storm became a hurricane and headed for New Orleans. But just because we don't know why, doesn't mean shouldn't do what Jesus did, reach out and help out. Now, many of us don't have a lot of money do be donating to Red Cross right now. And most of us can't just take off and go down there to volunteer. But this doesn't mean we can't still do something in this situation. And one thing we can certainly do, is be good to each other and help make this little part of the world a better place, right here, and right now. And even if it doesn't help the people in New Orleans directly, it does make the world as a whole a better place. And indirectly, the good things that we do here will spill over to the rest of the world, because everything and everyone in the world are connected.

Finally, what do we do when bad things happen to us? Sometimes asking "why" is useful. Certainly we need to take responsibility for our own situation, and the choices we've made. But eventually, there comes a time where we should give up the "why" question, and simply say, "Okay, this is how things are now. What steps can I take to make things better for myself?"

One place to go would be good friends who won't keep trying to tell us that we must have done something wrong, and we are being punished, or that we should learn some kind of lesson from this - but nobody quite knows what that lesson might be. But it's good to go to a place where our friends will simply listen to us, give good practical advice on how to change our situation around, and how to get help.

Finally, we can go to God with our troubles. And because God did experience human existence when he walked the earth in flesh, in the person of Jesus, he KNOWS first-hand what it's like to live in a place that is dangerous and harsh. He knows how fragile and uncertain and unfair life can be. And because He knows, he can be there for us like nobody else can.

The book of Hebrews says, "

15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." or in other words:

14Now that we know what we have--Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God--let's not let it slip through our fingers. 15We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all--all but the sin. 16So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (The Message)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Serious Questions About Disaster Response... and Some Praise

This CNN story raises frightening questions.

National Guard troops ready and waiting for authorization to move...I heard a policeman from Michigan discussing how they were denied access to the area because "...we have no place to house you" and this was the reason given even after he assured them they brought their own tents and supplies. Refusing help of Cuban medics because they are Cuban? A disaster relief team from Canada denied entry to the US?

The footage we are seeing is distressing. And this may be even more distressing! The stories of miscommunications, misguided refusals of aid, and incompetence seem to be mounting.

I don't think that "magnificent" or "embarrasment" is adequate. In some cases one, in some the other. But when the National Guard is ready...and receives no order to move...If nothing else comes from this, it is clear we'd better take a very good look at just what went wrong. Homeland security? Insecurity, more like it.

Now for praise...General Honore is looking like a wonderful example of leadership to me...walking in the city with his troops, telling them clearly to "lower their weapons" and remember they are there to help, personally stopping to take twin babies from the arms of an exhausted mother and get all of them to safety. It's one family among many, but it was a simple act of kindness that sent a message. And if everyone could stop and be HUMAN in this way, how much further ahead we would be!

Churches in Texas are opening their doors and hearts to hurricane victims, and in many cases people are opening their homes as well. God bless them!

Rapper Kanye West on NBCs concert...well, I know he is upset, but his comments were so inappropriate. And TWO different news sources, one using the word "looters" and the other not...does not racism make. But Tim McGraw with his heart-felt rendition of the wonderful "More Power to Ya" was inspiring and moved me to tears.

And praise goes to the nameless New Orleans police officerss I just saw on television...the distraught African American policeman who had words of scorn for the "cowardly" police who simply laid down their badges and left -- he has been working to the point of exhaustion...and being constantly shot at. The weeping white policewoman who is clearly at the breaking point, but who said, "We must come back and have hope and faith, and we must continue to have compassion on people....who had none for us." God bless that dear woman. If New Orleans had more like that....their police force would have a very different reputation than what they have had over the years.