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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Emily here. I'm checking in from Mississippi. We're in Starkville now, having just returned from several days in the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi.

The extent of the devastation is beyond words. My 17-year-old son and I attended a community workshop a few weeks ago put on by people in our small town who have spent time as volunteer workers in the Katrina disaster area. They said that five and six months after the hurricane, after months of round-the-clock cleanup and restoration, it's still a huge disaster. I guess I thought they were exaggerating.

We spent a day working in Bay St. Louis. We were told it was one of the hardest hit communities. On the one hand--that's right. Bay St. Louis after seven months of cleanup and the beginning efforts of rebuilding is a jawdropping sight. I'd like to say it's like a third-world country, except that you can get in your car and drive ten miles and get clean water, electricity, beds, medicine--all the amenities of American life.

On the other hand, it's hard to say what "hardest hit" might mean in the context of the 25 miles of coast we drove, from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis. Virtually all the buildings along that long shore line, and many inland as well, are just gone, leaving piles of debris--still piles, after much has been removed.

We worked for the Bayside Bapist Church (some pictures are on that link if you scroll), which is the poor Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis. I was incredibly impressed by the effort they have going on. There are teams of volunteers from Baptist Churches all over the country coming in and out.

The church itself is gone except for the white steeple, which lies on its side in front of the site. Behind the steeple is a jury-rigged assortment of tents, trailers, quonset huts, pathways over the red mud built out of scrap wood. If you've ever seen the movie "Swiss Family Robinson", that captures the flavor.

We were sent a mile down the road to work in the distribution center. This was in the abandoned gym of an elementary school that was destroyed by the storm. Nothing has been done to the school. The outer walls are intact. Walking through the interior of the school, one sees all of the debris from the school--desks, chairs, papers, books, bulletin boards, building materials--laying in odd contortions, covered with two inches of storm mud, now dry and cracking, all now covered with a dangerous looking mold. Two boats are in the courtyard where they were thrown by the storm. A vigorous spring bush has grown up through the hull of one of the boats.

Did you contribute items from your home to help Katrina victims? What we did all day is sort through boxes of donations. We were trying to make room for two new semi-loads of donations that were coming in later this week. The boxes we sorted through seemed to be from Humboldt County, California and Wichita, Kansas.

About half of the material we sorted through we just threw away--by the standard of anyone except perhaps the people who put in in boxes, it was really worthless: torn, dirty, stained clothing, chipped dishes, old toys with parts missing, coloring books with half the pages colored in, old family photos. (Interestingly, there were quite a few wedding photos...I wondered if this was the debris of broken marriages?...and, sadly, surprising numbers of posed, formal, family photos of growing children. Why were these treasures thrown out?) This part of our job made me discouraged about humankind...and believe me, I will *never* take a questionable item to Goodwill again.

Looking at newspapers tucked in some of the boxes, I saw dates of November 2005, which could explain why so many people, sweetly, sent Christmas ornaments. Of course, the people who contributed these items had no idea of where the boxes would ultimately end up (or when they'd get unpacked).

Our operation was run by a guy in his late 30s named Al. Al was homeless in Wisconsin last year and rode his bicycle down to Bay St. Louis--which took 2 1/2 months--when he heard about the hurricane. He came with his dog Otis, and after several weeks of supervised volunteer work was put in charge of this entire operation--which includes sorting through all the food donations that go into feeding about 200 people 3 meals a day. He's been doing it for months.

The people who are fed are the local people in this area of town--it was the poorest area before the storm, and in some senses is still the poorest area--and the volunteer work crews. All the food is cooked in a jury-rigged kitchen and tent down by the old church.

Throughout the day, old cars pull up to the distribution center asking if we have bleach, or food, or toys. Al and his assistant Lori send them down to "the store"...that's where we send the good stuff we get out of the boxes. And there is some GREAT stuff in these boxes! We shuttle it down the road, it gets stacked on shelfs in "the store" and people pick it up there: knick-knacks, clothing, cleaning equipment, building materials, furniture, bedding, toys.

Some of the sweetest boxes are the ones filled with cleaning equipment. When you open up a box with two gallons of bleach, a couple of new sponges, some new kitchen towels, cleaning chemicals and several rolls of paper towels--you know that some common-sense church lady up in Wichita looked at the news and thought, "Well, what those ladies down there need is something to clean up with!" And that's exactly right.

We stayed in a funky hotel in Gulfport. It used to be a Holiday Inn and it used to look like this.

It's one of the few buildings on the coast that survived, and it's still, charitably, in the rebuilding phase. The registration office is in one of the old bedrooms and in order to register, you have to sign a scary-sounding form that says there are no elevators, the electricity, water and phone are questionable, there's no room service and the maid comes once a week. We were put on the fifth floor--and since there are no elevators, you get to the room by drudging up one of those old, dark, rarely (prior to Katrina) used interior stairwells.

The reason we stayed in this hotel is that all the normal hotels in Gulfport are bursting to the gills, mostly with people from the building trades. The hotels and the restaurants in Gulfport and the other less-damaged areas on the coast are bursting with construction workers and church mission groups. It's quite a sight.

Some residents of Bay St. Louis are blogging at MSNBC.

Lori Gordon, a Bay St. Louis artist, had some items for sale at a charming gallery in the very, very slightly rebuilt Old Town area of Bay St. Louis. She has created a number of pieces from stuff she found after the storm. They are beautiful.

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