Thursday, January 26, 2006

January 11, 2006- Ocean Springs, Mississippi-Rich and Poor Alike

[Photo Captions:(1) Bay St. Louis Storm Surge-courtesy Chris and Mary Ashbaker;(2) Chris walking past foundation of his house;(3) Alix wheelbarreling up debris to the curb;(4) Debris on property 5 months after storm;(5) Hannah Hofheinz removing large piece of debris (6) Liz Theoharis,Dominique Atchison helping the Ashbaker's neighbors; (7) Diana Bell in the throes of clean up; (8) Chris and Jan-the levees gave way; (9) Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico bordering the Ashbaker's property (10) Photo of the Mississippi sunset on the Ashbaker's property] All photos by Cynthia Wilson except #1.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi is the third city on the Poverty Initiative's "Katrina Relief Team" tour. Our first stop is Emmanuel Baptist Church where we will be lodging for two days. It sponsors a work project where our group will be assigned real people in the community who need helpers to come out to their property and remove debris that has been lingering since Hurricane Katrina. We're deep into disaster territory now. Rev. Ron took us on a tour of Ocean Springs and Biloxi. They sit pretty close together. The destruction which Katrina caused is just unimaginable. Driving through the neighborhoods earlier today on the way to the work site was simply heart wrenching. Just view some of the pictures and video clips for yourselves. But, what is even more incomprehensible is how the government response, a service which we pay tax dollars for as citizens of the U.S., has been so unbelievably slow. I've seen some FEMA trailers today. However,people that have them say they just received them within the last couple weeks.

Most of the pictures I took on the the property of Chris and Mary Ashbaker, today's relief work site. However,the first one is of the storm surge, the "culprit" which flooded and uprooted many homes in the area, including theirs. They sent it to us by email a few days after we left.

A team of us,consisting mostly of Union students and instructors, were assigned to their home. They lost everything. Their entire home was washed away except the cement foundation. The 2nd pic from the top pictures Ted walking near the foundation where several of our group members are collecting debris.

One of the things which struck me most about this visit is that I first did not want to do any work on the property. I had a visceral reaction , feeling and thinking to myself, these people are well to do. They live off the golf course. They could probably hire some folks to come out and clean up this mess. Afterall, in talking to Chris , he informed me that he was an engineer that worked for one of the local shipbuilding companies. There, he makes and designs war ships. Of course, that didn't make my decision whether to "opt out" any harder either. I was definitely leaning towards "CO", conscientious objector, status.Then he informed me about his daughter,who lived nearby. Her house had gone unscathed. Nothing was damaged at all on her property. I thought to myself they don't seem to be completely destitute. At least they can go over to a nearby relative's house to wash, bathe and cook,etc. On top of that, they had two trailers. One they purchased themselves. The other one was from FEMA. That one, however, had not been completely hooked up and made operational for use. Although it was clear to me that this was a terrible inconvenience, it seemed in stark contrast to what I had been observing over the media about New Orleans and the plight of people there. They somehow appear to be so much better off. What am I doing here?
Well, that reason would gradually became abundantly clear as the day wore on. It would even be sealed by the most beautiful sunset I've ever witnessed over the Gulf of Mexico which borders their property. It is captured in one of the photos I took above.

A good many of the other houses on the Ashbaker's block were also still standing. However, several of the homes surrounding theirs were completely wiped also. Debris covered foundations and remnants of what used to be were all that remained. I talked to Chris a little more. He was very forthcoming about his situation and eager like most of the residents in the area to share stories about the storm.

By then, everyone in the rest of the relief team was working really hard, raking, sweeping, picking up and carrying debris. I began to feel guilty standing around talking. But, I remembered what Rev. Ron had said earlier at our training meeting at the church. The person who is standing around talking to the people may have the most important job. People need to vent. They need to share their stories. So,don't judge. The people you're going to help need to get frustrations off of their chest.. They need someone to listen to them. After thinking about that I felt better. I was sincerely interested in getting to know the family a little better. I wanted to know what really happened to the victims of this storm. Why they could not and still can not seem to get adequate help from the authorities is quite frankly puzzling me. I wanted to ask deep and probing questions. I also wanted to listen to them tell their stories and lend a shoulder to cry on while they were releasing their anguish and pain.

My goodness, its' been five months since hurricane Katrina hit. It just seems as though more progress would have been made by now. I looked around slowly again, taking inventory of the surrounding neighborhood,trying to find some new detail or area of damage I may have missed. It was then that it began to register just how many homes had been lifted off of their foundations. Not to mention, the total devastation of houses and buildings which lined the roads on the drive over here. It was a sight to behold. On top of that, storm debris was still laying around as a constant reminder of catastrophic loss, displaced structures and remnants of destroyed buildings. The psychological impact of that alone had to contribute to substantial wear and tear on the mind. Not to mention a strong reason to develop depression or listlessness. It's a wonder the people still have their sanity and human dignity.

I was standing outside when Chris' wife Mary approached me. She kindly invited me to eat some pizza and drink some of the soda they had bought for us. She asked if I could please help her gather the email addresses of the others so she could send a personal thank you to everyone. That was the turning point for me. She was close enough that I could sense that she was a really good person. It emanated from every fiber of her being. I looked into her eyes and saw the pain of losing everything, perhaps still having to pay a mortgage on a house that is uninhabitable. In addition to that, maybe not having a clue as to how the insurance company would be indemnifying their homeowner's claim i.e., whether they'd eventually be going belly up from the weight of the multitude of similar claims. I saw the frustration that comes with not getting emergency needs met swiftly by a local or national government you thought you could rely on. There was something sad,yet very humble and telling in her eyes.
A quiet and graceful uncertainty about the future was evident, reaching out and connecting to the compassion and humanity within me. No doubt, a good part of it was the sincere gratitude and appreciation she felt for finally receiving some kind of help and attention.

Rev. Ron was right. Rich and poor alike had been brought to the same level in a sense by Hurricane Katrina. I thought to myself, this "leveling" is worth deeper exploration... something I need to follow-up on. I also quickly reflected on our emotionally charged discussion on homelessness during the reflection circle last night,which Jessica Chadwick and Cristal had so courageously led us into. When one of our facilitators stated during a moment of rather intense silence that"there is somebody here that wants to say something", I recalled saying that there was a thin line between wealth and poverty. Many of us walk that line everyday. Then, I left her company to gather up the email addresses, now happy to be of service in whatever way I could.

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