10 years ago, a hurricane destroyed the lives of thousands of people across the Gulf Coast region. It was devastating. It was terrifying. It was final. And it was transformational for many of us that were privileged to serve those left in Katrina's wake.
The above picture: What was left of one of the homes we mudded out (after I buried the truck in the mud.)
My church, Mars Hill, was one of many that took part in the emergency relief efforts right after the storm. I remember sitting in a bar the weekend after Katrina hit, saying into thin air that I felt called to help. The next day, the opportunity was granted at service and within a week, the trip was set for the first week in October. I, along with a small group of strangers drove the 20+ hour straight trek to ground zero, Hancock County, MS. The evening we left was exciting and full of anticipation. We had been briefed on what was known. But what was known was very little. We knew we may be helping distribute goods to those in need and possibly be helping in the clean up efforts.
After driving straight through the night, we hit sunrise right as we began to approach the outer rings of storm damage. It was eerie. The sun was beautiful through the trees. There was no oncoming traffic coming out of the area and just a thin line of slow moving traffic with us headed in. It was sobering as we came down a hill to find open pasture lands of 1,000s of mobile homes just sitting, waiting to be called to action like soldiers. And this was still an hour away from ground zero.
(These photos were taken with my Holga on my first tour to Hancock County, Mississippi. The type of camera, with it's crude light leaks and it's body taped together is the only format I found that adequately captured the emotion of being on site.)
We started day one just down the street from this sign. A pastor's home had 200+ year old pecan trees that had fallen, blocking in his family of 8, whom were trying to mobilize to help others. In hindsight, it was a good warm up. We were still 10 miles from shore, but in awe to see these trees, the largest I've ever seen fallen, with their roots exposed. We spent the day with chainsaws and hauling equipment and cleared them. Still it did not fully prepare us for the intensity of what was to come.
This is a building in Bay St. Louis and was one of the communities we helped in.
This scene of a Michigan Apple box caught my eye and immediately personalized the situation.
We may have started by chopping up wood, but soon our days culminated to "Mudding Out." No one could have prepared me for this, nor would I have ever thought I could be up to the task, both physically and emotionally. But knowing that these victims had nothing left other than their property rights is a good motivator to suck it up and get dirty. When I say dirty, I mean, raw sewage dirty since we needed to wear masks and in some cases biohazard suits as we cleared the debris and tore down homes to the stud walls so they could be bleached and hopefully saved. The black mold was like nothing I've ever seen. The smell was like rotting paint and sulfur. The areas we worked the most in had water up 19 feet above sea level. That force floats refrigerators, tears apart homes, moves trucks. That force is astounding.
Our job was to make huge heaps of what was left with the hoped that FEMA would be coming with heavy machinery to clear it out. To try and leave a blank slate for families to assess the "what's next" of their situations. Weeks later, on my second tour, some of the same heaps were still waiting to be cleared, just like many of the families waiting for the trailers we saw parked on our way down.
Having never been to area, it was hard to appreciate the scene above. It was a street over from where we stayed in 5th wheel trailers. But after returning home and researching, I realized it was a lot like Grand Haven, with the most lovely southern beach homes right on the Gulf. This is all that was left. As well as the stories that we'd get to hear as we ate at the soup kitchens set up in the parking lots of Big Box stores. That was the most impactful part of the whole trip.
We stayed on what was to become a volunteer compound, but since we were the first to arrive, nothing was set up. That became one of our tasks...alongside the Osmonds. Because who else would be there to sponsor a housing unit and put on benefit shows besides the Osmond brothers? One of my friends, Suzanne, actually ended up singing with them when Bobby Jindal came to tour.
Other surreal circumstances involved actually working at FEMA's headquarters as it was the main distribution point for all goods being flown in by the government (Ironically, FEMA likes schools with airports and so we were stationed at Brent Favre's high school...whom I had just ridden a ride with at Disney World a few years previously. What a contrast!)
We worked the warehouse some days with International Aide, showered in semi-trucks and watched as George Bush landed some 300 feet away to tour the devastation. The most striking part of it all was how unofficial all the official government stuff was. We had badges the same as FEMA officials, we ate in the tents with the military there to help, we decided where we were to work each day (with the leadership of Chris and Jeff, our Mars Hill Liaisons.) It was just a bunch of really well intentioned people doing their very best to help. But the need was so intense and great, that it barely felt like a dent.
One of the few remaining beach houses due to its stilt structure and unusual shape.
The irony of documenting this by camera was the hundreds of family photo albums we had to throw out due to water damage. It never got easier. In a few cases we were able to salvage a few pictures here and there. The look on the owners faces...the gratitude they had when we returned the smallest of personal items...it stays with me today. Just recently, while staying in Carlsbad, CA, I met a woman from the community I volunteered in. Almost 10 years later and she was still overflowing with gratitude for the work of ordinary people that reached out. It was so nice to have a touch point back to someone who lived that life and to see that they moved on and had wonderful things happening for them.
This was the group I traveled down with on my first tour. In this crowd I met lifelong friends and shared life-changing memories with other that I haven't heard from in a while. One of my very closest friends was brought to me on this trip, Carrie. I truly believe that having processed our experience together has bonded us in a way that no normal circumstance could, since wearing the grief of people you are there to aid is hard on the heart, but good for the soul. It was also very impactful to do my second tour with Max along side, since I came back changed and he didn't really understand it until he worked in it and saw first-hand. The pictures don't adequately capture the scale of this disaster.
I walked away from this experience having a new appreciation for all that I am blessed with and a sense that I need to share more of what I have. It polarized in me the need to create home, but not hold onto it too tightly....and to challenge myself when I find material possessions having to much of a hold on me. All it takes is one storm. And then you're left with the people you surround yourself with and your reliance on God. The people I met in Hancock County, many of them knew that lesson ahead of time and inspired us with their resilience and perspective. I'll hold onto these experiences always.
Reflections from August 29, 2006:
I was part of the first and eleventh Katrina relief trips. We went to help the residents of Hancock County, Mississippi salvage what remained of their homes and belongings and clean up what had been irreparably ruined.
In my day job, I meet with clients, work at a computer and build concepts and images. It’s clean. Neat. Sterile.
Not in Hancock County.
Our most memorable task was “mudding out.” It was dirty. Smelly. Toxic. Mudding out involves stripping water-damaged houses to the beams, shoveling mud and belongings into wheelbarrows to be dumped at the curb, hauling out all appliances, ripping up carpet and tearing down moldy drywall.
I remember slipping in mud as I pushed the wheel barrow.
The stench of rotten paint and debris.
Endless trips back and forth to the curbside pile.
Sewage-contaminated water stagnating in the street.
An unbelievably small pile of possessions returned to homeowners at the end of the day.
Statistics say that, as of December 31, 2005, 2.5 million cubic yards of debris had been removed—only 30% of the wreckage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Chaos is still the norm; there remains a great deal of clean-up and rebuilding to be done.
As heartbreaking as it was, in the midst of the debris I found a new standard by which to look at my possessions, relationships, success, future . . . My home and my heart are less about stuff and more about filling those places with the people I love. For me, the chaos brought clarity. Mud brought cleansing.
It’s strange that it happened this way, but I think that’s God’s miracle.
I was baptized as a child and as an adult. Until my trip to Hancock County, I never entirely understood my baptism or what it meant to be the hands and feet of Christ.
But now I feel like I was baptized by mud.