230 days since hurricane Katrina put Waveland Mississippi on the map by wiping it off the map, you would be forgiven for thinking Americas worst ever storm had only just passed through the costal community of some seven thousand people.
The mass media attention has long since left the Gulf coast towns so badly ravaged by Katrina last year. The news cycle has moved on and the network saturation has all but dried up like the floodwaters of Katrina itself.
Waveland is considered by most agencies to be Katrina’s ‘ground zero’ and it shares some chilling similarities with the more famous ‘ground zero’ in New York City. Vast areas have simply been reduced to rubble. Buildings that stood for years and the history they represented are gone, just gone.
I travelled to Waveland with a church group from Hamilton Massachusetts. A diverse group of people I’d never met before who allowed me to piggy-back on their hurricane-relief trip. We flew into New Orleans and rented two mini-vans to get to Waveland just over the Mississippi border from Louisiana. I’d done a little research online beforehand so I was at least partially prepared, but in truth nothing could have prepared me for the extent of devastation that awaited us all. As powerful as pictures from the area are, they do little to communicate the sheer scale of the disaster. Facts and figures are easy to find, but the true impact of such statistics pale against the reality of the situation and this landscape so completely smashed by natures fury.
From our base camp at the temporary iCare Village shelter on main beach road, it was apparent that Waveland was once a beautiful place. White sandy beaches reach into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that basks in the thick southern heat of a Mississippi spring. Behind us standing defiantly among the footprints of once expensive beach-front homes, large established trees are starting to show the first signs of life, a welcome splash of color to an otherwise bleak terrain made up of pile upon pile of debris, snapped and uprooted trees, and streets littered with vehicles mangled almost beyond recognition.
The smashed and rusting cars became the landmarks by which I learned the town. Turn left at the blue pick up, right at the upturned red car. Street signs had been replaced but one street looked just like another and in the short time we were there we had to get used to the new Waveland. I tried to imagine how hard that must be for residents as they drove the streets they once knew so well.
FEMA provided trailers were now the homes of many those who had chosen to return to the plots where their houses once stood. Tattered sun bleached American flags flew on makeshift flagpoles leading Ingrid, one of our group members, to comment that she had never seen so many tattered American flags before. National pride was alive and well, if a little worn and weary.
That first night we met Susan Stevens and her sixteen year old daughter Laura. Their brick house had withstood the storm but everything in it had been ruined by the rancid smelling floodwaters. Susan was fortunate enough to have flood insurance, but she told us that as the area wasn’t considered a flood risk most residents were not covered for any kind of flood damage. Insurance companies paid out for cars and roofs but little else.
A truly inspiring woman, Susan invited us all to her FEMA trailer for dinner that night and recounted various stories about Katrina, referred to by locals simply as ‘the storm.’ She works at the local hospital as a social worker and was on duty when the storm hit. Among the experiences she shared with us was the rather bizarre moment when she saw fish and eels swimming by the downstairs windows of the hospital as she helped move patients to the safety of the higher floors. I stopped her as she recalled this because I needed her to clarify what she meant. “You mean swimming by the window as in what you would see in an aquarium?” I asked. “Yes.” She answered.
In her own written account of the storm Susan dubbed Katrina ‘the Great Equalizer’ that had reduced every one, regardless of their job or status, to “humbled creatures, destitute to some degree, in need of help that had never before required.”
Her sixteen year old daughter, Laura, seemed a very mature young woman. A volunteer at the hospital and keen to follow a career in the medical field, Laura seemed pragmatic and down to earth about the extent of loss she had experienced. Her father had died some eight years previous and now this. She took Ingrid, Craig and myself on a short tour of the area and told us a little of her story which filled me with admiration for this girl who at such a young age had already been through more than most of us will ever endure. Meeting both of them was a privilege.
The next day we began work. Myself, Keith and Craig set to work continuing rebuilding work that was already well underway at the home of a lady called Bobbie. Like Susan, Bobbie’s house had stood but floodwaters had meant the entire house had to be gutted and rebuilt. She had managed to save some of her possessions, but for a mature lady Bobbie had very little to show for her years.
Without flood insurance Bobbie was left with no choice but to spend money from her car insurance pay-out on her home. We hung dry wall and I mudded the gaps, a new skill learned in a few minutes that same morning. At the end of that day I felt like the work we were doing was having little or no effect. Among the wreckage and ruins of a decimated community the little jobs we were able to do felt like throwing snow balls at the devil. But that night, quite unprompted, Susan reassured all of us that the work of volunteers like us really did mean a lot to the people of Waveland, and that the kindness and support of strangers was powerful beyond our understanding.
That would be a theme we would hear repeated time and time again by the people we met. One man told us that as he worked hard one afternoon shortly after the storm to clear out his home, a stranger pulled up outside and began to unload a washer/drier on his driveway. The stranger had seen the news and unplugged and unplumbed his own washer/drier from his own kitchen and driven with it in the back of his pick up truck to give to someone he felt needed it. The man explained to the stranger that there was no electricity or water and so such an item was useless at the time, but with a smile on his face the stranger assured the man “they’ll fix that soon enough” and with that he drove off.
In our modern comfortable lives it’s become almost impossible to really imagine or appreciate the hardships experienced by people across the world. We’ve grown used to seeing humanitarian disasters in far off places beamed into our lives by dramatic TV news footage, but as hard hitting as those pictures are they do little to really convey the true scale or reality of the event at hand.
It’s as if we have managed to accept the plight of those in poor countries on the other side of the world as they languish in the wake of a storm, flood, famine, war or whatever terrible thing it is that has brought them to our attention. As compassionate as we might be, their lives are often so removed from ours that it’s difficult for us to feel a connection, and without that connection we’re never really moved enough to affect serious change.
Those people often live in the ‘third world,’ a concept that I’ve never really understood because I’m unclear where the ‘second world’ is. Plus, I think calling some place the ‘third world’ allows us in the ‘first world’ to feel completely divorced from a place that now isn’t just on the other side of the world, but is actually two worlds away from us. These people aren’t our global neighbors, they’re aliens living on another world, the third world.
Hurricane Katrina didn’t hit the third world though. It flattened and destroyed the homes of Americans, residents of the first world, our world. It uprooted trees, snapped others, smashed and mangled cars and boats, and swept away houses and everything in them like newspapers in a breeze. But this happened in the richest country in the world, the first world, the second world, heck any world! So it’s not beyond reasonable expectation to feel that their lives will return to some kind of normality soon enough.
Yet as I stood among the ruins, and lets not call them anything else but ruins, I felt angry that this country that can spend so much money on wars in far off places, seems to either not care or not feel that the people living in their own back yard are important enough to make a serious effort to help on a scale that befits that disaster. I kept saying to myself “America needs to see this” because I felt that if every American were able to stand where I was standing, work to restore this area wouldn’t be proceeding at such a shameful pace.
I listened to so many amazing stories, so many heart wrenching tales. An ER Doctor and his mother had to take to the roof of their home to try and survive the storm. As their house collapsed the Doctor tried to hold on to his mother, but eventually he lost grip and she slipped into the rapid floodwater rushing under their house. He was later rescued but he never saw his mother again.
Six guys took shelter in a house on the night of the storm, they thought they would be able to weather it as they had so many other storms in the past. But as the house collapsed the six of them were swept away in violent flood waters. They were instantly separated and left to fight for their own lives. Each of them were able to grab on the large trees that were somehow able to stand in the face of natures fury. They all survived and were later reunited.
The picture above shows a house that was utterly destroyed but somehow remained standing. The yard was littered with the contents of the house. Everything was smashed, broken and covered in dirt. Clothing, furniture, books, everything. Among the wreckage a painted sign read “Please help us save our home.” Clearly the residents had decided to ride the storm despite the fact they had a motor-home and surely could have made an escape. Markings on the front of the property left by an army emergency search indicated that no one was found in the house that the owners had been desperate to save. But if the people had fled then why had they not returned to the home they so obviously wanted to save? As I knelt down and looked through a flood damaged book of ruined family pictures I didn’t want to answer that question.
My trip to India was moving enough. To walk among some of the poorest people in the world was a deeply humbling experience, I never thought I could have an experience that would come anywhere near that in the United States. But I actually felt at times like the people here had been hit in a uniquely devastating way. Prior to the storm they stood among the richest people in the world who enjoyed the spoils of western wealth, but now they had nothing, and their belongings, their money, their cars, their homes, their relative wealth, had not saved them from being reduced to near destitute status reliant off the kindness of strangers.
On a personal note I can’t imagine how hard it must be to lose absolutely everything. But in the six months since the storm, the people we met had more or less accepted that loss. Among the FEMA trailers people had gathered whatever remains of their ‘old lives’ they could find among the ruins. We saw many makeshift mantels with broken ornaments, the feet of angels, a model of an old church, half of the Eiffel Tower, and mardi gras beads.
One of Susan’s friends returned after the storm with her husband to find their house had vanished completely. As they sifted through the remains of their home she looked up and saw her wedding dress tangled in a tree. She climbed the tree to rescue it but it was to entangled to save. She desperately wanted to save something of the dress but had nothing to cut it with, but as she looked down at the foot of the tree a she saw a pair of scissors. She took the scissors and cut off an arm of the dress for keepsake.
Every loss must be awful, but the loss of pictures would hit me hard I think. The flood waters ruined everything they came into contact with. Susan told us all to make copies of important documents and send them to someone far away for safe keeping. Wise words I thought. There are federal grants available, but most of those who should be eligible won’t qualify as they no longer have the required documentation, like the deeds to their house etc.
It was my first trip to Mississippi, as it was for many of the nine of us who went there (pictured above), but I feel like I’ve made friends there now and I vowed that it won’t be my last trip there. Susan said she will declare the entire year after she moves back into her house as a house warming party and that we’re all invited. I intend to keep that engagement.
But as the summer months begin and the hurricane season is upon the region again I find myself worried for the people I’ve befriended. Just a block away from the beautiful white sandy beaches of Waveland, I’m sipping a beer with Leanne and her friend ‘Blue’ in a flimsy FEMA trailer on the plot of her former home. We’re taking a break from building a storage shed as I ask Leanne if she is worried about the approaching season. She sits back and laughs, then with a sarcastic smile says, “Oh sure, I might lose everything.”
Mission to the town that vanished
Mississippi here I come
Susan Stevens story.
Pictures from before and after Katrina.
After Katrina, insurance tops family’s list of tough battles
Rising from the ruin.
[Video] Guerra Family video during and after Katrina
[Video] A drive through Waveland, Before Katrina
[Video] Chocolate City.