Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Out of Chaos, Hope


Early in the morning of August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.  Like everybody else in the country, I was glued to the TV screen in disbelief.  The sheer enormity of it boggled the mind.  Once the water went down and the TV showed the damage, everyone in America wanted to help.  Later when I met the people whose homes were destroyed and they tried to thank me for coming to help all I could think of was how good it felt to finally be able to DO something besides watch TV.

The minute the church was ready to help with the rebuilding, I hopped on the band wagon. I had no idea just no idea how deeply involved I would get. Or how long I would stay.  And in some respects I’m still there. 

The church ended up mobilizing their Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, usually called PDA. I went as a volunteer with a group of Dallas churches in March of the following spring. 

Even then, six months after the storm, there were still great piles of rubbish everywhere we looked: shingles, lumber, bent metal, toys, clothes, sheet rock, refrigerators-- the debris of life piled 20 or 30 feet high, often with a car balanced on top like the cherry on a sundae. There were great slabs of concrete parking lots with no building or an empty plot of grass with concrete steps leading to nowhere: the ghosts of a community. 

We spent a week gutting a house in Houma, Louisiana. We took the walls down to the studs; then sprayed the studs with anti-mold chemicals. Then we went home.  But mentally I was still there.

Our group went again that fall; this time to a tiny little town called Pearlington where the storm blasted through and washed houses two miles north. This time it was a whole year after Katrina and I saw more piles along the roadside.  Piles of lives forever changed.  And I couldn’t get the awesome power of our climate out of my mind.

We worked on Shirley Thompson’s new house and she told us how her house had been washed away.  We unloaded a truck of sheetrock and spent our week building walls. We ate lunch at the First Missionary Baptist Church.  We saw how many other volunteers were working in the town.

Back home, the town of Pearlington scratched out a little place in my heart and set up a home. I wondered about Shirley’s house.  

When I became too restless to stand it I called the camp.  I shyly asked if anyone ever came as an individual.  They said to come. So, I packed my car without a clue how long I would be gone and left with Beaven’s blessing.  The electricians were wiring Shirley’s house so I painted and sheet rocked and built stairs at a couple of other houses.  I stayed two weeks and came home.

The following April I went by myself again for a couple of weeks. I installed the toilets in Shirley Thompson’s house. I grew to know the town and their people. When our church team went again in the fall, Rich Cozzone, who was responsible for the volunteer villages, asked me to come work as a village manager.  I felt a strong sense that God was calling me to the work there.

I left on the morning of November 26, 2007-- my 60th birthday--, once again not knowing how long I would be gone. PDA wasn’t big on details.  They were too busy trying to keep up with the magnitude of the task.  I soon discovered that details were a rare luxury at PDA.  I learned to not ask questions because no one had answers.  There was no road map for what we were doing.

I served as camp manager for about four months. I lived in a travel trailer in Pearlington.  By then I had heard the story of the thirty foot high wall of water that came ashore and washed everything away, leaving behind four feet of crude oil, raw sewage, dead fish and live snakes.  I was there long enough to get a post office box for myself and find a lady to cut my hair. I went far longer between haircuts than usual because there simply wasn’t any time.  Dujuan Bosarge never let me pay her out of gratitude for what all the volunteers were doing.  I learned hugs and Dr Peppers were a recognizable form of currency in the town. Pearlington became my soul’s hometown and Rev Rawls of the First Missionary Baptist church became my pastor.

I learned how to make a U-turn in a pick-up truck on a one lane dirt road with a four-foot ditch on either side. I learned how to change a propane tank at 2 in the morning after the heat went out in my trailer.  I took a shower standing on a solid sheet of ice because the shower trailer froze overnight. I wore the same clothes longer than anyone knew because it was a uniform and nobody could tell and the village managers never had time to wash their clothes.  I learned how to disinfect dishes with bleach when the camp water supply tested positive for ecoli. I wrestled a jacked-up crack-head in the road one morning and called the fire department to come pick her up. When I accidentally locked myself out of the office I realized I knew three local people who had served time in jail so I called one of them to pick the lock for me.

I went to a memorial service for Rich Cozzone when he was killed driving in the fog one night. We all knew how exhausted he was that night. I remembered the last conversation I had with him.  He told me he had resigned and was going home in a week because his wife needed him.

I met a new enemy I had never known before: loneliness. Most of the staff was college age.  They hung out together to unwind and exorcize the demons of the disaster.  I went to the Waffle House for breakfast by myself at all times of the day to hang with strangers who wore the scars of old wounds.

When springtime came, I went home only to return four months later. I walked the aisles of Lowe’s and Home Depot and the smells of new lumber and metal tools were comforting.

That time, I worked at the camp in New Orleans.  And I was there the morning of August 29th, 2008--the third anniversary of Katrina. 

That morning I picked up the newspaper and saw the headline saying a storm as big as Katrina was heading straight toward us. I turned on the TV to CNN, then local station, then the weather channel, then I checked a few websites and finally called Dallas.  Not my hometown, the person.  The woman with more balls than a lot of men I know, who wasn’t afraid of anything.  The chick who climbed a tree in her front yard and stayed there for about 8 hours while 30 feet of water filled up Pearlington.  Dallas verified what all the media said. We were sitting in the path of a storm that promised to be as big as Katrina.

The only consolation was that none of the camps had volunteers.  All we had to worry about was the equipment.

My boss called.  All the camps were evacuating up north.  I packed up all the office electronics and files.  I emptied three freezers and two refrigerators and packed them up. I gave as much of it as I could to our homeless guy, a regular visitor to the camp named Terry.  I asked Terry where he was going and he told me he wasn’t leaving, he had no way to evacuate.  I struggled with that situation. Could he come with me? I knew the answer before I started but that didn’t make it any easier.

In the midst of packing, one of the other agencies helping with the recovery called.  They were planning a huge party in our building that night and they didn’t want to cancel.  Like Dallas, these people aren’t scared of anything.  So while I carried laptops and printers to my truck, they carried in a banner that read “Rebuild!  Recover!  Rejoice!” While I carried out boxes of food they brought in platters of fried chicken and potato salad.  While I was tying down the port-a-potties there was a jazz band tuning up in the parking lot.

The next morning I packed up ten five-gallon cans of gasoline and filled the truck.  They hitched up a tool trailer to my pickup and we made a convoy of seven trucks and trailers.  We drove north for four hours going 70 miles an hour, bumper to bumper.  It was the most surreal thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was like the freeway was of one mind.  No one changed lanes.  No one slowed down.  We were like one organism, all moving together as one. It started to rain as we drove north.

We circled up like a wagon train in the parking lot of the Presbyterian Church in Meridian, Mississippi.  We were too exhausted to set up the trailers so we slept on the floor in the church basement.  I wasn’t sure if I felt safe or not. The next morning I called Dallas to ask how Pearlington fared.  She said all the tents the volunteers used had floated out into the woods.

I met some of the other village managers who evacuated with me.  I met Kevin Henry’s Cajun family who spoke their own special French dialect. We spent our time cooking gumbo and cookies to take our minds off what was happening.  After a few days we packed up the trailers again and went to the PDA headquarters and set up camp there.  I counted up that I had slept in six different places in 14 days. Some of the camp managers went to Pearlington to pull the tents out of the woods.

Gustav never hit as a real hurricane; instead, it turned into a series of tornadoes, one of which hit the Houma camp and one that hit Kevin’s house.  Two days later we went to salvage what was left of his house. There wasn’t much.  The roof and the entire back wall were gone.  It looked like an empty dollhouse.  We took what clothes we found back to headquarters and started washing them before they could mold.  We went to the Houma camp and took down the big storage tent hoping we could repair what Gustav had ripped.  The rest of the camp’s tents were hanging 30 feet up in the pine trees like gigantic blue Christmas ornaments. We folded up what cots we found and packed them away.

I remembered Shirley Thompson's prayer when she first saw the damage, "Lord you have to send some people to help us.  You know we can't do this on our own, you need to send some people to help us."

A second hurricane named Ike tore through the Gulf of Mexico, this time in Texas, my home state.  I called home to ask what was happening because all we had was one tiny TV set with a bad picture and no internet service. My family had few details. There was a vacuum of information. Pearlington flooded again.  The volunteers’ tents had all floated out to the woods for the second time.

Finally, the weather calmed down.  We went to Pearlington and started putting things back in order.  The camps managers had carefully taken down their big dining tent so we put it back up.  When Miss Kitty Doby saw us she came to sing Hallelujah over us.  The town thought we had gone for good when they saw PDA taking down the tent two weeks before. One of the things we always say about PDA is that we may not be the first to arrive after a disaster but we are the last to leave.  The Presbyterians still have a camp in New Orleans. Nine years later there is still much work to be done. And still volunteers come.

The two weeks I spent evacuating and living in limbo were probably the hardest two weeks of my life. I was stretched far beyond what I ever thought I could go. All the time I spent on rebuilding from Katrina was hard.  The emotional toll was greater than the physical.  Yet I still felt a clear call from God that I should be there. 

And for the first time in my life I felt the presence of real evil.  It was in the air.  I couldn’t put my finger on it—where it was and when it came and how it moved—I never saw it coming or going.  But it was there. It loomed large in meetings where staff couldn’t agree on the next step.  It stung when a few on the staff rebuked each other. I felt it in meetings where people shouted at each other. I saw the most loving people with the best of intentions act in hurtful ways. Psychologists would blame stress but I think it was beyond stress.  I’ve seen stress.  This was different; it was evil. I found myself mumbling with certainty, “The devil is afoot!”

I don’t expect you or me or anyone to be able to explain this.  We could try but I think we’d probably be wrong.  I know that I was afraid of it.  I fear being sucked into it. We can agree on the good and beautiful things the storm brought:  the volunteers who came with love in their hearts, people giving of themselves to people they had never met, people who took vacation time from work to come and work even harder; people helping other people, hugging them, hurting with them, building relationships that still are in place today.  I saw it, I felt it, I never doubted it. 

The PDA motto we all wore on our blue shirts was "Out of Chaos Hope"  Sometimes I felt like I was watching Chaos and Hope battle each other. Chaos won a few rounds but I am convinced that in the long run Hope wins.  Hope always wins.





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