Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Here’s a thousand words or so. I’m still typing out the notes I took and can give you more words and pictures than I have here—if you really want them. Let me know if you do and I’ll send you the long version when I finish.
It’s hard to type the word “Louisiana.” There’s so many “i’s” and they’re in weird places. I have to put a lot of thought to where the “i” goes. I guess it’s better than having to write about Mississippi but I still secretly wish we had gone to somewhere like Utah for this mission trip where the letters line up more easily.
Still, we had a good time even if it is hard to type the state’s name. The people are delightful and we all fell in love with the Louisiana culture. (Please don’t expect me to use this state’s name very much). They have the most delightful Cajun accent. I could sit and listen to them speak all day. And sometimes it seemed like we did because we talked to one guy about “modular” homes for close to half an hour before we figured out he was saying “modular.”
I can say now from first hand knowledge that this was a disaster and it was horrible. We heard enough stories to know that what we saw on TV was only the tip of the iceberg. One elderly lady told of her sister waiting on the top of her house for a day and a half until she was rescued. The drama of the hurricane increases a notch when you hear it in person from the lady who just cooked your evening meal for you and see the fresh tears in her eyes six months afterwards. Elizabeth Lyman, an expert in traumatized church congregations, told us that Katrina was not a “normal” trauma. Most traumas change only one aspect of your life. You get up the next morning and go to the grocery story and the beauty shop and keep going. But Katrina took the hairdresser and the grocer and the doctor. Your whole environment has changed. Rev. Lyman said that the “secondary trauma” is now hitting six months later. Suicides were up in the last two weeks. They are seeing heart attacks in people with no history of heart problems. And people are very aware that the next hurricane season starts in less than 90 days.
This really happened. It was bad. It will take a long time to heal and rebuild. But I have never been more proud to be a Presbyterian than I was last week. And it wasn’t just the cool shirts we got to wear, though I suspect some of us do this stuff simply for the shirts we get. I could look in the parking lot at the volunteer village and see vans from Michigan, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina and Missouri, all sporting signs that said “Presbyterian Disaster Relief..” I watched trucks deliver equipment to set up housekeeping for 80 volunteers at a time to come to live and work. The church is planning to be there as long as it takes to get people back into their homes. We continue to build new camps and haven’t even started in New Orleans yet.
The two houses we worked on were across the street from each other. Miss Ellen is 76 years old and volunteers at the school during the day as a Foster Grandparent. She is one of those typical southern women whose hug just enfolds you. She’s lived in her house 36 years. Her house backs up to the bayou and this is the fourth time she been flooded. She woke up in the morning and looked outside, turned to her sister and said she thought they had dodged the bullet once again but her sister told her to come look out the back door where the water was rising. By the time she could collect her purse and car keys the water was so high against the door that she couldn’t open the door. A neighbor had to come and help pull on it from the outside. She described the race to get to the top of the hill before the water got too high to drive through it.
Miss Linda lives across the street with her son, Charles who is 21. They’ve lived there about 25 years which means that this is the only home Charles has ever known. Charles’ father was a Baptist preacher who died about a year ago. They lost all of their pictures of him in the flood.
I’m not sure if what we did is considered “mucking.” By the time we got to the houses we worked on FEMA had brought them a trailer and people were able to come home from wherever they had been staying. They had new roofs. The carpets had all been pulled up and the furniture was in piles or moved out of the house. The toilets and kitchen appliances were gone or disconnected so the house was basically an uninhabitable shell. Our job for the few days we were there was to pull out the old walls and the insulation. Then we sprayed the exposed wall studs with a chemical cocktail of bleach and Tri Sodium Phosphate. I’m kind of proud of that word.-- Tri Sodium Phosphate. It’s actually much easier to type than the name of the state. No one could remember it so I went out to the trash pile and found the empty bottle and wrote the word down. It’s a cleaning chemical of some sort. This blend of cleaners will keep the mold from growing back. After the TSP dried overnight we put in new insulation and sheetrock and mudded the seams. The walls were ready for paint when we left. Just as a team from South Carolina had brought the house to the stage where it was ready for us, we will leave the next step of rebuilding to the PDA team following us. I was able to tell Charles we wouldn’t stop until his house was finished.
We only worked on the houses for 3 days. The first thing we had to do when we got to the state (you know which one) was finish building our own living accommodations. We stayed in Camp #7 in Luling and drove out each morning to Camp #8 in Houma. Eventually our plan was to work on two houses in Houma but we had to commute for a couple of days until we could get water connected at the camp where we were supposed to stay at night. The camp had tents and utilities. Our guys spent one whole day putting the plumbing together. Our team was a lot more relaxed than some of the others we ran across. It’s one thing to share a kitchen with your sister in Christ or any sister for that matter. It’s a very different thing to try to set up cooking facilities with about 40 women you’ve never met who have different ideas on where the sugar should be stored and who should be boss.
I had brought my dancing chicken with me. I always like to take a tension breaker with me when I suspect things might get too heavy. When you pinch her wing she makes the tune of the Chicken Dance (You know: it from weddings receptions and other silly stuff) and lifts her legs while waving her wings. It’s a fairly accurate duplicate of the real Chicken Dance. There’s nothing like a dancing chicken to perk you up when you’re taking things too seriously. Sadly, few people took the bait. Some people take disasters so seriously that a whole flock of dancing chickens wouldn’t have relaxed them. We have to learn to pace ourselves if we’re going to be any use to anyone.
The food was terrific. Everybody wanted to thank us with food. Charles made us a cake in his tiny FEMA trailer which was about the size of the trailer I’ve been camping in. Miss Ellen commissioned a huge batch of red beans and rice from a friend. This was the same friend who visited one day and sang Amazing Grace for us in the true Gospel style. We had Jambalaya, bread pudding, Gumbo, and a Crawfish boil. I don’t think there was a single local dish we didn’t get to sample.
We stayed in interesting quarters. All the Volunteer Villages used the same kind of corrugated plastic tents. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The idea is that you can run ductwork to six tents from a central unit and have heat in the winter and cold in the summer – and corrugated plastic works better for this than canvas. There were also three other huge tents for dining, storage and a kitchen. About the only thing the camps didn’t have was an oven and dishwasher. It’s kind of interesting to look inside a tent and find a refrigerator. Girl Scout camping was never like this.
I have to say that Beaven was a trooper on his first mission trip. He was a good sport about the idea of mosquitoes which would normally unnerve him. He bought himself a mosquito net and slept like a baby except for the night his cot collapsed under him in the middle of the night and the night the heat went berserk. The heat, which was a great idea and worked perfectly, was set at 60 degrees, which is a pretty conservative way to do things. But what they didn’t know was that the thermostat was Celsius, not Fahrenheit. Sixty degrees Celsius is about 140 Fahrenheit. You can understand Beaven’s concern at 2 am that he had prematurely gone to Hell.
We got home late Tuesday night, hot, tired, sore, sunburned and emotionally exhausted only to find a plumbing leak in the hall bathroom that provided us with our own little bayou. We were so tired at this point about the only thing we could do was throw every bath towel we had on the floor and turn the water to the toilet off. After turning the water off Beaven stood up and hit his head full force on the towel cabinet above the toilet. That’s when the emotional baggage of the week fell as he loudly broke the third commandment. Who could blame him?
I have often tried to posit that the term “God Damn It” is actually a sort of prayer of intercession but I can’t get anybody to buy it. May God damn hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes. May God damn humans who can’t get their act together and rescue people faster than three days. May God damn the whole lousy situation.
Maybe God would worry a little more about the shape of our planet if we took better care of it ourselves. Maybe we wouldn’t have a flooded Ninth Ward if we had left the marshlands where God put them. Maybe we wouldn’t have extraordinary hurricanes if we left the temperature of the earth alone and quit heating things up. Maybe we shouldn’t choose to live right on the coast line.
In the end we can’t call upon God to damn anything. We’re stuck with the earth God gave us. We just have to take better care of it and each other.