Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Katrina relief - a journey


On September 25th Janet and I left for Gulfport MS to help with Katrina relief. Although we were long time American Red Cross volunteers, we were unable to be deployed by the Red Cross. We hooked up with Volunteers of America who had set up a Medical Clinic in Gulfport Mississippi by a friend, so we decided to go there.

The following is the journal I kept during our 8-day stay in Gulfport.

I decided to begin this blog as way of sharing this experience.


9.25.2005 day 1 Sunday

Arrived @ 3:30 pm local time and were met at the airport by Debbie who is the Clinic coordinator form Volunteers of America (VOA). She is a retired electric company employee from Florida. She seemed exhausted but greeted us with open arms and thanks.

We drove toward the clinic and although we were driving through the less devastated area – the roads were lined with piles of debris 8 feet high. There were sheds tossed across roadways, home after home with broken windows and roofs in blue tarps. The clinic was stationed north of the tracks (the dividing line between destruction and total annihilation) and the trip there was like traveling through an abandoned wasteland. The temperature was in the high 90’s with humidity like you have never felt.

We arrived at the clinic, which is made up on of 2 trailers set at right angles to each other. It is set up in a strip mall parking lot whose buildings have been abandoned. Next-door is the Pass Baptist Church. In the parking lot of the church the North Carolina Baptist Men and Women (a large faith based disaster relief organization) has set up an entire feeding station, shower facilities, laundry facility and are apparently serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to both volunteers and the homeless. Apparently yesterday they served 12,000 meals including those that they gave to the Red Cross who go out in their trucks to distribute to people in the community.


These were the Port-a-Potties we used. The tents set up are where they served our meals.

The Red Cross is not being well received here as they took forever getting here. We brought our Red Cross hats and name badges and were told it was not a good idea to wear them.

Debbie showed us around the clinic and introduced us to the doctors and nurses that are here. A doctor and 3 nurses that came from California and are associated with the International Relief Organization. They have been here 2 weeks and will be leaving tomorrow. There is another Doctor, Jennie, Alice’s friend and the reason we are here. There is still another Doctor who is from Mississippi. They all look exhausted and appear burned out. During the first week, I understand they were seeing as many as 600 people in a day.

The 2 trailers are divided into 3 sections. One trailer has a pharmacy set up (bags and boxes of drugs are just thrown everywhere – all have been donated by doctors from all over), and center area to see patients and side room equipped with you standard patient table and set up for suturing and so on. The second trailer has a room set up for tetanus and Hep A&B shots and for respiratory problems and other general area for patients and a side room where Janet will be sitting with people. Janet’s main purpose here is to serve as a grief counselor. The clinic is overflowing with donated supplies that have come from doctors and hospitals all over the country. I have my job cut out for me and can hardly wait to get my hands into organizing everything.


This is picture of the inside of one of the clinic trailers after I was able to do some organizing. We slept on the floor in the clinic while we were there.


By the time we finish the tour, they have decided to forego the Baptist dinner tonight and venture out to TGI Fridays for dinner. How weird - that in the midst of all this destruction, port-a-potties and third world conditions there is one restaurant opened. We wait for a good hour to get seated at there is hardly anyone working. Half of the items on the menu have been crossed off with black magic marker as there are limited food shipments coming into the area – particularly anything fresh – no vegetables or salad stuff.

When we get back I begin to clean out the tetanus room and make a space large enough for us to blow up our air mattress and get some sleep for the night.


9.26.2005 day 2 Monday

Today about 300 people came through the clinic. Janet sat with about 10 and there could have been many more but she could not leave those she was with to see the many that waited.

The stories are all so sad – people who have lost everything – their homes, their cars, all their possessions and on top of all that, their jobs. They sleep in their cars and wait in lines to get food and medicine from the kindness of strangers who are reaching out to them.

The Baptist church is great; they cook and feed us everyday with a smile on their faces – laughing at us because we don’t know anything about grits.

The patients today had everything from chest pains, spider bites, shingles, nose bleeds, rashes, abscesses, diabetic and respiratory issues to a volunteer whose thumb was cut off while cutting down trees. He had made a makeshift splint and just covered the top of his thumb and wrapped it in gauze and just kept on working. We gave 110 tetanus shots and filled endless prescriptions. All of the local clinics and doctors offices are simply gone. There is nowhere for these people to fill their prescriptions. Beyond all this is the endless grief. These people have a particular look in their eye; a stare that looks out to nowhere. I spoke with a woman today, held her while she cried and told me about the 9 people in her family she lost to the storm. Her faith was strong however – these people are sustained by their faith and believe that God will look after them as he already has – they survived after all – they may have nothing – but they have God. I marvel at this as of course I am inclined to ask where God was when these winds took everything from them. Instead, I hold her tightly and assure her that indeed God with look after her.

You can see the look on the face of the mother here. I will never be able to shrug the image of that fixed stare painted on the faces of so many.





9.27.05 day 3 Tuesday

Today I toured Pass Christian – one of the most devastated areas of Mississippi- it was very surreal – like a Hollywood set – complete and total destruction as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped. We had to cross a military check point to get through. We were allowed only because we were with VOA.

Nothing was left standing. Mile after mile after mile, street by street, neighborhood after neighborhood, only rubble remained. Only the slab foundations remained of million dollar beachfront homes. Stairs that lead nowhere – toilets still plumbed to concrete, their cars twisted in treetops. There wasn’t a personal article to found. Where are the walls I wondered? The roof? Their possessions? What force is capable of crumbling entire homes and driving everything 2 blocks north? Words cannot describe what I have seen. Hundred year old great big oaks, leafless but standing, their braches blooming with shreds of clothing, door frames, bicycles, baby toys, all tangled and lifeless in the still humid air. The sun beats down hard on all the ruin in sharp contrast to what my eyes and mind are trying to absorb. There are no words.





The people continue to dribble into the clinic all day – another 300 or so today. An 86 year old woman falls and splits her forehead open as she struggles to walk toward the clinic, a girl in her 20’s with her young daughter is having an asthma attach and cannot breath, at least 15 come in with what we are calling the Katrina rash. Children with fevers, men with cuts and gashes all wait for assistance. For each the physical ailment is nothing compared to their grief.

The day before yesterday Janet spends hours with a guy who lost everything and is crippled with depression and anxiety. He was a college professor and is now living out of his car. He stops by each day and speaks with Janet. This morning he came again and brought his fiancĂ© – they were looking for the pastor to marry them.

Later today, Janet spoke with a woman whose son died in a car accident just before the storm and now she finds that her father has colon cancer. They lost everything in the storm and she can no longer deal with the cumulative loss and is in a state of despair.

Tonight after the clinic closed, we rode along with the doctor, nurse and EMT searching for people in need of tetanus or hep A vaccinations. We come upon a crew of men working to clear the rubble and vaccinated about 20 guys. No one had even told them that they should not be working in these conditions without shots.

And in the midst of all this tragedy there is this little Sicilian angel called Maria who somehow found us and cooks meals for us each day. She comes and tells us that she lost her business but she has her home and her family and she must give back because we all have too much as she says! All she wants is to give what she has and so she cooks for us – pasta, lasagna, pizza, meatballs, rice with saffron and peas, salmon puttanesca AND she brings special vegetarian meals for Janet – fresh broccoli soup, broccoli calzone, mushroom pizza.

9.28.2005 day 4 Wednesday

Today I organized the pharmacy – it took all day. I was thankful to be out of the 100 degree temperatures.

Janet spoke with a man who landed there from New Orleans who lost everything. His brother drown in the storm and his 2 two children who he had custody of were taken to the Houston dome. He has not seen them since. He was living in his car, had no money to even attempt to get to his children, and didn’t know what to do even if he got them. He didn’t want to get them just to have them all live in the car. He barely spoke and had that indescribable frozen stare. Such grief and sadness is so hard to imagine. He was one of many to whom we gave money.

The Baptist men’s (and women) group not only cook and clean for us but they also send groups out to the community to do clean up, cut down trees from roadways and yards, sweep out mud from peoples homes and tarp their roofs. The tidal surge was 30 feet high, anyone within a half mile or more of the beach was flattened, beyond that, houses were filled to just below the roofline with seawater. Those houses that stood were for the most part unlivable but FEMA would not declare them totaled. Already in just 4 weeks, these houses were nothing but black mold. Every possession was mud covered. These were the houses that the Baptist would clean. Sweeping muck and mud. How these old men and women could do this work in 100+ temperatures and 100% humidity was beyond me. You could not be out in this for more than a minute before you were soaked to the bone. And yet they went, praising the lord and thanking God but NOT before curling their hair and putting on their makeup 3 women deep behind the two sinks in the bathroom we all shared!

This evening we went out again after hours to find people to vaccinate. On our journey, after clearing one military check point and another by local police, took us to US 90 that runs along the beach. Part of the highway was collapsed. It is along this road where all the casinos were. The casinos were the livelihood of this state, the poorest in the nation. Gambling is not legal in Mississippi and so all the casino were on the water. Well no longer. The highway was impassable at one point because one of the casinos was smack in the middle – they are built on huge barges bigger than 2 football fields and some were carried miles before they were set down on roadways and where houses once stood.

9.29.05 day 5 Thursday

Today a man is his early 40’s brought his children and wife to the clinic – one of the children had an infected blister on his foot. He stayed outside while his family went in. I was outside alone at the check in desk and I watched him. He stood there, immobile, his hand covering his eyes, head bent forward for the longest time. I walked up to him to see if he was OK. He slowly brought his hand down and raised his chin ever so slightly. Again that vacuous stare. I asked him if he needed anything, if there was something I could do for him. Forty seconds passed before he shook his head…”I’m so tired” he said. I asked how he made out in the storm and again he shook his head. Another long pause – I put my arm around him “we lost everything” he said and his eyes well up. I’m wondering what I should say but cannot think of anything. He is still staring forward toward some infinite point and doesn’t notice that I am crying. I put some money in his pocket and give him a hug before he walks off.

Janet spoke with an 11-year-old girl whose family did not evacuate. She had three sisters and younger brother. Her best friend was also with them. When the storm surge came, they were in the water. She was holding her friend but lost hold of her and she drowned. How does a child survive this trauma? “Only the stupid people stayed” she said behind tears, angry that those who should have looked out for her did not take them to safety. You can only shake your head.


10.1.2005 day 6 Friday

Today a clean up crew from the Baptist church unearthed 3 bodies, 2 of which were babies. We are becoming more accepting of the horror and can shake our heads without crying.

A young man nearly cut his leg off with a chain saw and was brought to the clinic. We are seeing more injuries from falls and glass and nails and more and more pulmonary issues from the mold and heat.

It is becoming more difficult to sit and write at days end. The fatigue of the day has grown too large. And the heat is frying my brain and skin.


10.2.2005 day 7 Saturday

This morning on my way for my breakfast of biscuits gravy and grits one of the Baptist men said “good morning sister” to me. It has been interesting being here in the Bible belt where God leads the way. It is a culture foreign to me. Their faith is so strong. They thank God for everything and never for a moment consider that God had anything to do with what has happened to them.

So many people whose houses are unlivable but not flattened praise the lord and live in guilt that others have it worse.

Janet spoke with a man and a woman who also decided not to evacuate. When the water rose beyond their roof they managed to get into a boat. They were in the boat without food and water for days, naked as the wind blew the clothes off them. When the water receded, the boat lodged in a tree. They managed to get down onto the roof of a casino where they found table clothes to wrap around themselves. Once they made their way to the street a neighbor of theirs passed them on the road, stopped, but would not give them a ride. The woman sobbed as she told the story. She could only think that he did not take them because they stunk and this horrified her more than what she had endured through the storm.

Another couple who came to speak with Janet who were experiencing difficulties since the storm actually invited us to dinner. The people here are so grateful for our being here and for coming all this way to help them. They bless us and pray for us daily. This gratitude is was has been most fulfilling about this experience.


10.3.2005 day 8 Sunday


Charles and Katrina came to pick us up and drive us around to see some of the damage and see their house. They have been struggling as Charles wants to attempt to redo the house and Katrina wants to leave and not look back. Hundreds of thousands of people left the area during the evacuation and many of them will never return. They have nothing to return to.

C and K’s house was completely filled with see water and mud and completely unlivable. They paid $4000 annually for homeowners insurance (half of which was hurricane insurance). Because most of the damage was caused by the water from the storm surge the insurance is not covering anything. They agreed to give them $14,000. Meanwhile they lost their car and must continue to pay their $700 a month mortgage as well as the insurance on a house that will get demolished. This is the case for all of these people. Consequently, most of these people will simple foreclose on their properties and not only be left with nothing but with no monetary ability to more forward in their lives. Most people also lost their jobs. How does anyone cope with this loss? Most of these people are in their 50s and 60s and now must start over.


This is the inside of C+K’s house – once they removed their belongings.

When they drove us to see everything in their neighborhood, beside what our eyes were taking in, the stench was overwhelming. There were 20 tons of Tyson’s chickens in tractor-trailers that were tossed around in the storm like potato chips. All of these chickens were now strewn all over this particular neighborhood rotting in the 100-degree heat. The smell was unbearable as were the flies. Of course, this was an added horror to those who returned to find these in their homes tangles among their possessions.

I think I need to stop writing……….

10.4.2005 day 9 Monday

Today will be our last day here. Doctors from Alabama and California arrived and it is over crowded. We will leave with Doctor Keith and traveling by car for 3.5 hours to Jackson to get an earlier flight home.

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If you are interested in seeing more images – please let me know and I can send some.

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