Monday, October 03, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: a Personal Perspective

A dear, old friend of mine just forwarded an e-mail he'd received over the weekend from one of his friends, and, after checking for permission to publicize it, I thought I'd share it with the rest of you. There were pix, as well, and, if I can figure out how to translate them from the gibberish Mom's computer is trying to show them in, I'll post them, too. Meanwhile, the letter is rather long-ish, so if you're strapped for time, you may want to save it for a longer break, because it's worthwhile reading:

Hurricane Katrina
A Personal Perspective
October 2, 2005

It is now October here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the shock of Hurricane Katrina is finally wearing off. In its place is a vague sense of despair punctuated by fragments of hope. Yesterday, our youngest son Ben (10) flipped the calendar as he turned towards me saying, “It’s a new month Dad.” For a moment, I forgot that behind those stark blue eyes was the soul of a now very vulnerable boy who is having trouble sleeping and does not want to be alone—even for a few short moments. Outside of our damaged but livable home the live oak trees are covered with fresh new leaves. Stripped of all signs of life on August 29th the trees not torn to pieces or ripped from the ground have already made a decisive move towards survival. I did not know that trees could re-foliate themselves and it is a very hopeful thing being surrounded by a canopy of fresh green perseverance. Around our community, American flags fly from twisted poles and shattered tress. Some of these banners flew through the storm and now flutter defiantly like tattered Civil War battle flags. September is gone and it seems as if a hole has been ripped in time. The normal continuum has been snapped and there is now only before and after the storm. Most of us are finding we have trouble remembering things. I feel like I am hung over without ever taking a single drink.

Everyone here has a story to tell. The standard greeting is now a hug followed by a very placid, “How did you make out?” If your home is livable, no matter how badly beat up you say, “Great, no real damage.” “I got a slab,” or “We are flooded out,” unfortunately make up many of the responses. The lesser details such as “Do you still have a job? or “Where are you staying?” then follow. Then there are the stories of tragedy and miraculous escapes. We all know someone who either died or seemed to be saved by providence. One thing is sure. If the storm had hit at night, many more would have perished.

The days just after the storm were like an apocalyptic scene from the movie Mad Max. Gasoline became more important than food and those with gas cans hid them from sight. The nearest gas was $3.50 a gallon in Mobile, a three hour round trip, and another two hour wait in line, if you were lucky. There was a chorus of chainsaws across the coast as the inhabitants hacked open roads and removed trees from their houses. Air Force One flew low over our house as we cleared debris in the oppressive heat. It was an impressive sight and it lifted our spirits. I spent that night sleeping with the smell of raw sewage coming through my open windows after listening to the news on a portable radio. What I heard neither shocked or surprised me. The same national news correspondents that shamelessly grandstanded in the storm’s early squalls before heading for cover were already cultivating the seeds of blame. One local reporter even claimed that the national correspondents wrote their stories before they left Washington DC and were only concerned with embarrassing the President. I stayed on the coast for about a week after the storm. By then I had patched up things the best I could and stabilized the damage to our roof. I declared defeat went to Mobile where I picked up my family and went on vacation. As I drove past the Red Cross and Salvation Army soup kitchens, I felt a bit guilty to be leaving. At that time, it was unclear what lay ahead as the power might be out for months. As we drove north into Alabama, we passed immense convoys of power trucks, military vehicles, and disaster relief vehicles. I wept when I saw the magnitude of the assistance heading our way.

We spent time in North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan. Everywhere it was the same story. People welcomed us, they paid for things, and they asked for a personal perspective, as they knew the national news was missing much of the story. While the interlude was pleasant, the disconnection from our shattered community made it hard to enjoy things. During our return, we found it difficult to find a hotel room as far north as Birmingham, Alabama, due to the refugees. Local churches adopted hotels and provided food, entertainment, fellowship, and in some cases paid for the rooms of the displaced. Those that give freely, do so unselfishly, without any desire for public attribution. God Bless them all!

The photos of the destruction tell the physical aspect of the story quite well. But, they still fall short of preparing you for the raw impact of walking the ground. One of our many good friends, who lost a home, Rebecca, asked me if I would help recover some things from her house. I was happy to help, but after being cleared through a military check point I arrived at her street and stated, “I am lost, which house is yours?” The landmarks were all gone and what she pointed to was not a house. It was a pile of rubble and debris. Mangled automobiles where everywhere and a mound debris over five feet high surrounded the house. The objective was a closet on the northeast corner of the house. It held her fine china and family photos. It took several minutes to walk the 20 yards or so over the shifting debris. Stuffed animals and Christmas decorations, from thirteen neighboring houses swept off their slabs were mixed in with the wreckage, solemn reminders of the joy and celebrations that had filled these American homes in better days. After I knocked out a window with an axe, Rebecca stuck her head in the hole and directed me as I crawled through a small opening. We recovered several boxes of china, some crystal, a punch bowl, and two water-logged metal boxes of family photos. As I crawled out, I lost my hardhat, and just kept going. Then she told me to stop and look up. There was a framed baby picture hanging on a shattered section of wall. It was a major victory and I hope provided some emotional closure. Then we had to carry all those breakable items back over the debris field. I told her that when she got a place of her own again, she would have to have a party and we would eat of those dishes. I look forward to that day in a way I just cannot describe.

Several things hit me as I rested after the recovery effort. The smell was familiar. It reminded me of urban Somalia—a kind of putrid soup of human suffering and depravity. Yet, even if you nuked Mogadishu, it would not look this bad. Mississippi’s coastal zone is completely obliterated and only as you move inland, does the destruction become sporadic. There you find buildings that are unscathed next to ones completely flattened. There is no explanation for the capricious absurdity to the destruction. It is reminiscent of the World War II accounts of the London Blitz.

As we move on towards an uncertain future, I am becoming increasingly intolerant of the national media. There are so many human interest stories begging to be told. During the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, reporters eagerly imbedded themselves in military units to bring us the “real story.” Yet, no one seems willing to imbed themselves with a Red Cross relief unit, serve meals at the Salvation Army or join up with any of the countless church groups that are making unprecedented efforts to ease the suffering of an entire region. Instead, the national media perpetuates fear and assigns blame. In their perverted calculus, they have determined that scared and angry people watch more television. Let us not forget that television is a “for profit” business, while disaster relief is a non-profit endeavor. If the power of the mass media focused on telling compelling human interest stories that would instill some much needed hope, while at the same time building up our national image, then more people might turn off their televisions and go out into the world and volunteer.

Tom Crew
Long Beach, Mississippi

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