There is a house on top of the gas station and a dentist chair propped up against a telephone pole. Sand softly blows across the road to a backdrop of skeleton structures and a now-gentle body of water. Peoples’ material lives are strewn all over this town.
Ten weeks have passed since Hurricane Katrina tore through the small community of Pass Christian, MS. But like many other communities on the coast, the people here are still recuperating from the most damaging and costly natural disaster recorded in U.S. history.
On October 20th, 38 students from the University of Minnesota, in affiliation with Campus Crusade for Christ, left for a destination and type of disaster most had only seen on T.V. I was fortunate enough to go along for an unforgettable experience.
After a twenty-five-hour drive, our bus finally crept into the ghost town. It was dark, the bus was silent, everyone’s foreheads were glued to the windows. We were about to learn the stories of what this place used to be.
According to FEMA’s website, more than 60,000 homes have been completely destroyed in Mississippi and Louisiana. Of the estimated 321,000 displaced residents housed in congregate shelters, FEMA now says less than 1 percent of these people remain in those shelters. But as we were about to see, just because they weren’t staying in shelters didn’t mean they had a home to go back to.
The next morning started with a walk to the FEMA tent for breakfast, which seemed more like a walk through downtown Baghdad. Piles of muddy debris, stairways to nowhere, and army barracks lined the streets of this town that seemed occupied more by volunteers than actual residents. It was eerily quiet.
After breakfast we split into work groups and headed to our sites. My group went to Miss Marjorie Ann Garrison’s house.
Though Pass Christian was known as a historic port town with beautiful beachside mansions, according to Wikipedia encyclopedia, 10.8 percent of the population is below the poverty line. The 2004 U.S. Census Bureau ranked Mississippi as having the worst poverty level in the nation.
Miss Garrison, a member of the select upper class in Pass Christian, was the portrait in my mind of a wealthy southern woman- her drawl, her motions, her hospitality. But she wore pajamas, a bathrobe, no makeup and, looking into her eyes, one could see a wearing fatigue. Her uninsured million-dollar home on the beach was hardly touched. Her neighbor’s was nowhere to be found. It looked like Miss Garrison needed our help the least in this neighborhood, but we realized it was more our gesture that was needed.
Next, we went to the other side of town to Miss Johnson’s home. Her house was very different from Miss Garrison’s. It was not a million-dollar house, but then again dollars didn’t seem to mean much in this town anymore.
The smell was putrid. Someone pointed out the pretty ceiling tiles. No, I corrected them, that’s mold. What was left of Miss Johnson’s belongings were stacked on her small porch and organized like a yard sale. We sat in what must have been her living room and, for no real reason, went through her purses and chests that were still wet from the storm.
We found moldy wet news clippings, letters, and photo albums. Then, like a picturesque story time, we gathered on the floor around Miss Johnson as she explained the pieces of her life. That’s my husband, he died three years ago… that’s my son… those are my babies next door. She is smiling.
At the end of the day, this woman with such a tough exterior did not want us to leave. We hardly did any work, but Miss Johnson would have come up with something just to have us stay. I squeezed her hand a reluctant goodbye.
The next morning, we had reflection time on the beach. Looking out to the gulf, the water was calm and glossy, but the view to my back was like a deserted island. Someone compared it to two different movie sets. I felt small to the wind and the sky and the water.
In an article that appeared this month in the Associated Press, Gov. Kathleen Blanco expressed a hope and a determination to move forward.
“The nation must see a united front. Our fellow Americans must know that we are united in purpose and determined to recover,” Blanco said.
We experienced this hope firsthand that very morning when we went to Clarence’s house. We opened the door to a dark cave of mud and stale air worse than that at Miss Johnson’s house.
Nothing was touched since the storm. Each room we passed looked like it belonged in the sunken Titanic, but the Titanic would have been cleaner. Everything needed to be removed from the house, so we started in the living room moving piles of damp, filthy and bug-infested furniture to the street.
Clarence, who stayed outside, explained how he thought God was showing us he’s mightier than any one of us.
“But these are just things, they can be replaced,” he said aimlessly sorting through the pile in the driveway. Then he joked that his wife cried because her shoes were gone.
Though we were covered in layers of grime and breathing heavily for fresh air, Clarence’s optimism pushed us on.