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Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina

By Ken Horn

Editor’s note: Managing Editor Ken Horn and Assemblies of God missionary Daniel Irizarry, spent five days in the hurricane-ravaged states of Mississippi and Louisiana. The following is taken from Horn’s journal of the trip.

Friday

The goal of my trip is threefold — to report for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel, to assist Convoy of Hope in disaster response, and to check on my family. My sister Pat, her two daughters and their families live in the Mississippi area that was hit so hard — Pascagoula, Gautier and Biloxi. I have talked to my sister by phone, and know everyone is safe. But I also know Katrina slammed all three homes.

The highway is filled with vehicles responding to the disaster — groups of rental trucks, church vans with makeshift signs, vehicles from the Red Cross and other response organizations. There are many military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers chock full of Marines, Army and National Guard.

There is a caravan of fifth wheels. Convoy of Hope has asked people to come to the distribution sites in their motor homes or fifth wheels for as long as they can because this will be a long-term effort.

Cars carry extra cans of gas (as we do), some strapped to roofs. Gas is in short supply. The price is high and the lines are long. Yesterday my niece’s husband spent 51/2 hours in a gas line in Biloxi.

Just outside of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital — some 150 miles from the coast — we see downed traffic signs, scores of trees snapped like twigs, and larger trees uprooted. Thirty-three miles north of Hattiesburg a large sign in a parking lot says “Free Water.” It is the first of hundreds of similar signs we’ll see in the next few days.

Radio stations inform residents of relief distribution sites, but supplies are running out quickly in the hardest-hit places.

As we approach the coast, mile after mile of dislodged pine trees skirt the road, some hanging precariously over traffic.

There is no electricity throughout the area. Power poles are leaning on billboards or snapped in two. Power lines suspend furniture in midair, cradle trees, and lie dangerously along and across the road.

At 7 p.m., we pull into the parking lot of Christian Life Assembly of God in Picayune, Miss. The workers, including my wife, Peggy, are still at the distribution site.

The first people we meet identify themselves as refugees, people from the area who have sought shelter in the church. The Sunday School rooms are occupied by refugees and disaster workers. This church, like many others, has opened its doors and is doing everything possible for the people of the community. The church’s electricity was restored just today.

Pastor Darrell Worley is the presbyter of this section. In his section alone, two Assemblies of God churches were completely destroyed and eight were significantly damaged. Pastor David Watson of Gautier’s Liberty Assembly of God had his home destroyed and his church was hit hard. A pastor from a non-AG church with no home or church is at a loss how or where to pull his people together for worship.

One person tells me, “Going into my house, it looks like somebody dropped a bomb. It’s bad when you have to fire up a chain saw inside your house.”

Ted lives 12 miles outside of town. He has some damage, but lack of power is his greatest problem. With gas expensive and fuel lines long, the 24-mile round-trip is impractical. People in outlying areas could wait weeks or even months for power to be restored.

Ted himself worked the distribution line for five days. Today he is trying to reach the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Biloxi, where he was supposed to have surgery the day after the hurricane.

Many people have run out of prescription medications and can’t reach their doctors or find a source. Many doctors have themselves been left homeless. Free clinics have limited resources.

The workers who return to the church include HealthCare Ministries nurse Mary Miramonti, who gave tetanus shots and dispensed other medical help at a nearby Convoy of Hope distribution hub in Slidell, La.

Tonight the curfew has been changed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The curfew is a necessary measure against looters and violence.

The Picayune police have arrested 12 looters and tell us they broke up a fight of about 300 people that engaged the entire police force, already stretched thin. “My officers are beat up,” the police chief says. “They’re ready to drop.”

This situation is clearly bringing out the best and the worst in people.

Saturday

At 7:15 a.m. at the Picayune Convoy of Hope distribution site, Ron Showers, a U.S. Convoy director, briefs volunteers. The Marines who had been working the site are gone and the Army has arrived to help.

Businesses are beginning to open a few at a time. A local Wal-Mart opened, but scuffles over the limited food and supplies brought in the National Guard. They cleared the building, secured the entrances and allowed only 30 people at a time inside. Hardee’s opened today. Huge lines formed, despite the fact the menu is limited to a few biscuit items.

Irizarry and I survey the destruction in Slidell. A wall of water that raced down the waterway devastated the homes along the canal.

Here we meet Sam, who amazingly rode out the storm on his sailboat. He tells us he saw a pitched battle between armed civilians and police and military. He says drug addicts, alcoholics, even people who were having tobacco withdrawals, were looting buildings and fomenting violence. Sam tells us snakes are another problem. He’s killed three snakes, two of them cottonmouths, since the storm.

The canals, ponds and stretches of standing water are a caustic soup of oil, chemicals and all sorts of putrefaction that assault the sense of smell.

We arrive in a hard-hit Slidell subdivision just as the military has allowed people to enter for the first time. They are retrieving what possessions they can, but they are not being allowed to stay.

A resident tells me, “If it wasn’t for religious groups, I don’t know what we would have done.” Churches and parachurch organizations are the bulwark of the disaster relief.

After the distribution lines are closed for the night at the Picayune site, Convoy workers go to the Knights of Columbus Hall where the Picayune police have been feeding workers in the evenings. The police of this city have established a tremendous working relationship with Convoy of Hope.

An officer explains the city’s situation. Picayune is really the first high ground close to New Orleans, she says, and evacuees from New Orleans thought they were safe when they arrived here. But Katrina did not spare Picayune. This city of 10,500 people has swelled to 35,000, making ongoing relief a challenge.

Sunday

It’s already hot at 7:30 a.m. Temperatures will soar into the high 90s. With high humidity and no cloud cover, volunteers face another physically challenging day. There are few volunteers to start the day, and military assistance is unsure. But soon the Army arrives.

Today I work the front of the line, greeting people in vehicles as they arrive. A few are dressed in suits or dresses for church. The biggest needs are ice, water, and MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. These are full meals with lots of nutrition that do not require heating.

One distraught woman tells me she overheard a man bragging that he had been going to all the distribution sites and stockpiling MREs for future use by his hunting club. We ran out of MREs twice. If the woman’s story is true, people are going hungry because of this man’s club.

The FEMA personnel who man a nearby tent are actually firefighters from St. Louis temporarily pressed into action to assist the undermanned agency. Nearby, the Army Corps of Engineers hands out vouchers for the blue tarps that cover damaged roofs.

I talk to people who are in tears. Many seem disoriented and in shock. One couple tell me they rode out the storm in their attic. The water continued to rise until there was just a little bit of air space. Ultimately, they beat a hole in their roof and crawled out.

An elderly man comes to my checkpoint. As I greet him, he says suddenly, “It’s just me now,” and breaks into tears. The day after the hurricane, his wife had an attack. He called 911, but overtaxed emergency workers never arrived. And his wife died. I pray with him before sending him through for provisions. It seems so little.

A couple from Slidell ask if we know of a rental home in Picayune. This is a fruitless search. They need to travel much farther. Even in central Mississippi many campgrounds post “No Vacancy” signs.

My wife, Peggy, is assisting a woman with supplies when a large amount of water from melting ice drains into the parking lot where they are standing. The woman starts in terror. Peggy learns she had been thrown into the water during the hurricane and nearly drowned.

But there are notes of victory as well. A lady who had lost everything had been working all day at one of the distribution sites. At the end of the day, family members she had lost track of came though the line. “Praise the Lord!” she shouted repeatedly.

On our way back to the church for the night, we see the occupants of a car and truck get into an argument near a gas station. A chase ensues through parking lots and around the area. Hotheads are causing a lot of trouble in these stressed conditions.

Monday

Peggy goes to Slidell while I make my way to the Gautier site with two other workers, photographing the devastation in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi on the way. Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90 are both closed in multiple places making our route convoluted.

We pass the NASA John C. Stennis Space Center, temporary base for much of the military deployed in the area.

In Bay St. Louis, as I photograph a devastated business, the owner arrives. Harry’s office is just a pile of debris with metal framing. He has come to look for one thing, a display of eight knives that had belonged to his grandfather.

Personal items are hard to find among the storm’s debris. Harry says his heavy desks are nothing but splinters.

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“I’m going to start rebuilding tomorrow,” he says.

As he searches the debris, an opportunist arrives offering his services for pay. This is another aspect that has brought the best and the worst out of people.

People obviously need help to clear and haul debris; they need contractors, electricians, plumbers, and others to rebuild. Many of these things are being done for free. Groups of young people are clearing debris. One group of men from Michigan came down with equipment just for this purpose.

Yet one elderly man who came through our line had been charged $4,500 by an unscrupulous opportunist for cleaning up his yard. There are people selling generators and other necessary items at inflated prices, profiteering among people whose lives are already devastated. The elderly are the most common victims.

An elderly lady is sitting in a rocking chair in front of what used to be her house. Two relatives pick through the seemingly atomized debris. They have found only a few trinkets. I look at the roof sitting wedged against the ground.

“I have a car in there somewhere,” she tells me. “I don’t know whose home this is,” she says pointing to the roof. The roof is from some other house.

A couple from an affluent neighborhood tell me, “We lost everything, but we’re OK. We’ve got us.” Sturdy structures were demolished just as readily as smaller ones.

Waveland, Miss., has earned its name. There is almost total devastation here; waves and wind have carried off most of the city. There is nothing standing for miles.

Abandoned vehicles sit everywhere. Most are smashed and not repairable. But others look perfectly good. These have either been rendered inoperable by the saltwater they stood in or belong to people who are missing or dead.

As we make our way through Pass Christian, Miss., which looks much like Waveland, the announcer on a Christian radio station reports, “I had 81/2 feet of water in my house and lost the whole first floor, but I still have a structure. I thought I was bad off until I saw some other people who lost everything. Now I feel blessed.”

Tuesday

I take today to help my sister in Pascagoula. The homes in her neighborhood don’t appear badly damaged outwardly. But 3 feet of saltwater stood inside. Her home is not in a flood plain and the major threat was wind damage, so Pat moved all personal items to the floor as the storm approached. She has done this with every hurricane evacuation for the last four decades.

But Katrina was different. So much of our family history has been destroyed — keepsakes, my mother and father’s letters, and family pictures up to 90 years old.

Saltwater is far more destructive than freshwater. Nearly everything it touched is rusted out and unusable — the refrigerator and other appliances ... even her car.

I spend the day tearing still-sopping carpet and padding out and moving all of the furniture into a large pile at curbside. My sister, like so many others, has seen a lifetime of treasured memories swept away. And, like so many others, her insurance company is refusing to pay to rebuild.

I join the relief effort in Gautier, Miss. The Convoy of Hope distribution site is in the parking lot of a shopping center where The Refuge Assembly of God, pastored by Richard N. Smith, is located. This is another AG church that has opened its doors to volunteers and is making a major contribution to the community.

The trip home

We drive north for three hours before evidence of Katrina abates. I am struck by the immensity of this storm. In the natural it reminds me that we are all small, weak and temporary. Every material thing in which we find security will one day be gone. There is only one reality to which we can all cling — that which is spiritual. Each survivor has an eternal soul. Nothing else will last.

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NKJV).


Ken Horn is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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