Biloxi blues 

Tales of charity, frustration from storm-torn region

Tales of charity, frustration from storm-torn region

Becky Oberg, a frequent NUVO contributor, recently took a trip with others from Indianapolis to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Miss. She brought back the pictures and stories here.
A Jeep covered in debris in Biloxi, Miss.

It’s been two weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit, and Indianapolis resident Ray Rice is already on his second relief trip to the Gulfport-Biloxi area. On his first one, he noticed survivors were using humor to deal with the situation. At a house that had been washed off its foundation and into the street, he saw a sign reading, “Jesus Saves. Keep the Faith. Houseboat for sale — $100.”

This time he’s led a diverse team to work with Coast Episcopal School and Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, a predominantly black church. Lighthouse is one of the only churches in Biloxi to have survived the storm.

“This team is kind of a cowboy team,” he explains. “It’s a bunch of different people from a bunch of different places.” Although sponsored by Trader’s Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, the 11-member team has members who attend Zionsville Presbyterian Church, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis.

Rice’s latest work was with the elderly women of the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, nicknamed “the mothers.” The storm washed up a 3-foot grill in front of one small house. The woman there used the grill to cook for the entire neighborhood.

At the next house, a woman tells him the story of how she and 11 of her friends survived the storm. When the water began to rise in the small ranch-style house, the 74-year-old owner and her friends climbed into the attic, which was less than 3 feet from floor to ceiling, and remained there until the waters receded five hours later.

Both women have the same answer to Rice’s question of how they are doing: “I am blessed and highly favored by the Lord.”

Although the residents plan to rebuild, Rice is disturbed. He knows the chances of their property surviving the condemnation process are slim. “There’s a huge disconnect between what they think is going to happen and what’s really going to happen,” he says.

Many of the houses that survived the storm are still wet. Black mold covers the walls. People think they can’t do anything on their houses until FEMA comes, and they think FEMA will just take photographs and write a check for the full amount of the repairs — if they’re lucky enough to live long enough for FEMA to come. Many people, especially the elderly, are dying from exposure or respiratory illnesses triggered by the mold and the elements.

“Since there’s no churches, there are no funerals. And the bodies are just stacking up,” Rice explains.

Worrying about the future

Indianapolis resident Lenore Ealy hangs up her cell phone in disgust. “Mobile, Ala., is a riot waiting to happen,” she tells me. The Mobile media have reported that all services — FEMA, the Red Cross, etc. — have consolidated at the Mobile Convention Center. A line of people has formed all the way around the building and back two blocks. FEMA is not there and there is no communication. Riot police are everywhere.

Ealy is co-founder of Project Kid, which provides free daycare at FEMA sites. The newly formed organization is desperately seeking volunteers who have cleared a background check, which is why Ealy is especially seeking trained elementary education and early childhood health care workers. On their first day of operation in Mississippi, they babysat 77 kids.

“We’ve had a couple of kids who didn’t want to leave,” she says, as she talks about the large amount of donated toys and books that the kids can take with them. “If he’s living in a shelter, that looks good to him.” She smiles as she tells the story of young Michael, who was hesitant to take a book since his house didn’t get washed away and still had electricity.

She’s skeptical about the Red Cross. Rumor is they took over a locally run shelter in Bayou la Batre and kicked everyone out until it could be reorganized to their standards. Few Red Cross volunteers know or understand the area. “They do a heck of a lot of good,” she says, “but they’re almost too big for their own good and the good of the people.”

The threat posed by predatory developers, who often buy condemned houses and apartments after hurricanes, frustrates her. Instead of the low-income housing that previously existed, they build “expensive, nice beach condos — subsidized by the U.S. government and yours and my tax dollar.”

Ealy can be contacted through Project Kid at www.project-kid.org.

Helping themselves

They call themselves “The Fabulous Five.” Diana Allard, her husband Dave, two volunteer firefighters and the fire chief at the Cuevas (Miss.) Volunteer Fire Department have organized a drive-through supply distribution line — with absolutely no help from the government. Information about it has spread by word of mouth, leading to long lines of cars each day.

Volunteers have shown up from Boston, New York, Connecticut, Georgia and parts beyond. My team from Indiana is working with a couple from Illinois who cashed in their vacation to Las Vegas to come help Hurricane Katrina survivors. Diana Allard smiles slightly. “I’m glad I live in America ’cause this wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” she says.

Everything in line has been donated by private parties. To the donors and volunteers, she offers a message: “Thank you. Their hospitality has been very generous and overwhelming.”

She lost her house and job due to Katrina. She calls Katrina “the worst nightmare I’ve ever had.” Diana Allard tries not to think about her losses: her home and her job as a chef at a casino. She focuses on her new job. “Somebody’s got to take care of these people so they can get on their feet,” she says. She’s proud of them. “They don’t take what they don’t need.” In fact, some victims donate what they don’t need out of supply kits received elsewhere.

Many people in the line have lost everything but their lives and their vehicles, which are in various states of functioning. Some vehicles sputter and die in line, but are quickly restarted by volunteers. At least one overheats. But the line always keeps moving.

The “vigilante do-gooders”

It’s night and my team is beginning to cook a meager meal of spaghetti and red sauce. Suddenly, a man in a battered but reliable Suburban pulls up, towing a flat trailer behind him. He’s about to cook dinner, would we be interested in joining him? A crowd slowly forms.

His name is Lee Goral, of Fort Walton, Fla. He’s on his fourth Katrina-related relief trip. He asks if we’re authorized volunteers or “vigilante do-gooders.” We laugh and tell him we’re the latter. So is he.

He recently pulled up to a local school, which was the site of a turf battle between local relief workers and the Red Cross. A crowd of 175 people who had not eaten in four days waited there. Disturbed that people were suffering in the midst of a turf battle, Goral told the crowd he had some food he needed help cooking. Within an hour he had served 400 hot dogs to 175 people — much to the Red Cross’ aggravation. The site director demanded he show identification and inventory his goods. He refused. “I’m not donating this to the Red Cross,” he explained. “I’m donating this to these people.” The site director walked away.

Now, he stirs a pot of baked beans. “The Red Cross dropped the ball,” he explains. He rethinks this and shakes his head. “No, the workers dropped the ball. ... The Red Cross is doing the best they can. They just need to do a catch-up job.” He explains that the money is backlogged, much like water in a kinked hose.

The beans are ready now, and he begins to cook hot dogs as he describes the features on his trailer. He has two large camping stoves designed for outdoors catering. There’s a large diesel generator on his truck, used to power the refrigerator.

“We have people that haven’t eaten in a week. You have to get creative,” he says. He explains that, while he believes donating money is good, donating supplies is better. “If people could donate 1,000 loaves of bread and 10,000 hot dogs, that’d mean a lot more to people than a promise they’ll get fed tomorrow or a promise they got money coming in.”

Those wishing to donate supplies can contact Catherine M. Gautier at Coast Episcopal School Disaster Relief Site, 5065 Espy Ave., Long Beach, MS 39560. Her phone number is 228-872-4704. She requests readers not donate clothes — as do most other organizations.

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