Wednesday, February 07, 2007

PDA Camp Life

OK, I only lasted two weeks. I probably could have stayed longer but they had a huge crowd coming in this week and with the camp still not moved I figured I would get out of the way.

But I got an answer to the two questions that were the main reasons for my trip. Yes, one person does make a difference. And I'm not so sure anymore about having the town back to normal by the second anniversary of the storm.

A big part of the rebuilding of Pearlington is the question of what normal means. Will it be when the buildings destroyed by the storm are rebuilt? Or will it be when the yards are greened up and cleaned up? Will it be when the stores and restaurants reopen? When everybody comes back?

To me, their new “normal” has so much potential that I’m willing to hold out for them to take their time for some other important things. In terms of race relations alone, this town has now become much more than it ever was and a big part of that process was working together after the storm. I don’t want to hurry that process.

During the two weeks I was in Mississippi the weather was cold and wet. If I thought I was going south for the winter I should have thought a little bit more. It wasn’t really freezing; it was usually in the mid-forties. But that’s a miserable enough temperature, don’t you think? One day it rained the whole time we were outside working. Also, you have to know that the camp is heated with kerosene stoves and kerosene is expensive, so they were pretty stingy with it. They don’t turn the heat on in the dining tent until dinner. And they don’t turn on the heat in the tents until around 8pm. So I was really limited on places I could go to be warm. I had brought my goose-down jacket with a hood so some afternoons I just wore that to lay in my unheated tent for a little nap before dinner.

On the job site there was seldom heat. Remember: this is what we’re here for—to rebuild houses that were washed away. If a house had heat it was probably ready to move into and there was no reason for me to be there. Our greatest luxury came when a house had a working toilet. Otherwise we had to scout the neighborhood for a porta-potty or just wait.

Since I was there for two weeks I got to watch two different teams come and go. The first team I worked with was from Iowa and the second was from Pennsylvania. It was interesting to be with total strangers. By the time I learned names of the Iowa crowd they left. With the Pennsylvania people I worked harder at getting to know them quickly and did a better job of it.

I also had the opportunity to help move the camp. The land Hancock county loaned to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for their camp is the former site of the community center. The storm blew it away and PDA built a huge camp on the land. Huge means 30 tents on wooden platforms, three storage containers (the kind that eighteen-wheelers carry), a six unit shower tent, a kitchen building with adjoining pantry tent, a dining hall, an office building, two travel trailers for the camp managers and ten porta potties.

A couple of months ago the county got a grant to rebuild the community center and they had to start construction by February 1st or lose the grant. So they offered PDA the land next door where the post office was before the storm. (At the moment there isn’t a post office and people have to go to another town to send a package. During the move I stumbled on a pile of red bricks and realized that was all that was left of the post office.)

I got there in the middle of the move. Fortunately, the new site was only about a hundred yards from the old one and on the same side of the street. This was important. There was a huge issue with water. Here’s the problem, and it was a common one: the storm blew away all the landmarks.

After the storm hit if you remembered that your well and the water pump were next to the old live oak tree behind the house but the hurricane blew away not only your whole house but the tree as well, then it was kind of hard to find the well. And that was the case when they went to hook up the new camp to the old well at the post office. It wasn’t so much the storm blew stuff away as it was the bull dozers that came two weeks later and scooped up all the rubble. The only thing left of the post office was the foundation and the concrete parking lot. When they scooped up what was left of the post office they got the well pump as well. Without the pump or anything else above ground nobody could tell where the well was. And when I say “nobody” that includes not only the post mistress but the county supervisor and all fifteen or so guys who ever mowed the grass at the post office, the ones who had to trim around the well pump every week. And it seemed like every able bodied man in Hancock county had mowed the post office over the years because we had a parade of men come by to help locate the well. They came by and stood around to stare at the ground and scratch their heads. They called in a back hoe which dug deep trenches in every direction. No one ever found the pipes or the well. So, when I left they had made arrangements to dig a new well.

When we couldn’t get water at the new site the water gurus just ran a pipe from the old camp. We never could have done that if the new camp was anywhere else than just right next door. The only drawback was that there was deep drainage ditch between the two camps and anytime you went from one to the other you had to balance on a four by four thrown across the ditch to make an extremely skinny bridge.

After the Iowa team left on Friday we were mostly moved out of the old camp. They moved all ten of the potties except for one. You might say that I would have had my own private bathroom that weekend.


The camp managers have travel trailers that had already been moved to the new camp. I knew they would have trouble justifying $35 worth of kerosene to heat one person so I bailed out and went to a hotel for Friday and Saturday nights.

In my two weeks there I spent two days dry-walling a house, two days mudding another house and two days painting a third one. I also spent a day helping build the rails on a deck. All of this was in addition to helping move the camp. Moving the camp involved a lot of plain old lifting something up and walking somewhere with it. But this wasn’t boxes; it was huge and heavy platforms of lumber, usually with something on top of it. We would get about twelve people around the sides and lift on the count of three. After moving the object the hardest part was letting go. You don’t ever want to be the last person holding onto something that heavy when the others decide to let go.

I got my own closet to drywall. I’m sure this is a huge no big deal to other people. But most of these projects turn into a bubba thing and women usually get relegated to carrying nails or something. This time none of the guys knew who I was or cared so they pretty much left me alone. I staked out a closet and did it all by myself. Well, yes, it did take me two days but that counts finding the right equipment and the right technique. Then there was the fact that the walls were over twelve feet high. Well, OK, maybe I didn’t do the whole closet. But if it had been eight foot walls I know I could have gone all the way to the ceiling by myself.

I’m not finished telling you about my trip but I have to stop for a while. In the next couple of weeks I want to tell you about the really important things I saw and did. The town of Pearlington, Mississippi has crept into my heart and set up housekeeping. I will never forget them and you need to know why.

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