9/20/2005

More about how to help

Well, what can I say. This has been the most incredible experience of my life. Times like these bring out the best and the worst in people. Saw a professionally-printed sign in Gulfport today that said, and I quote, "Is your gym gone? Try ours..." There are hundreds of small companies offering to do roofing, tree removal etc. This vulturism is rather distasteful in a time of desperate need. But for the most part, what I have seen is extraordinary caring and sacrifice. The gift of the Magi, the widow who gives everything she has, those acts have been repeated numerous times before my very eyes.

If you choose to come, you can have a similar experience, but you will have to seek out the people in need. That will be fairly easy in the hardest hit areas, but not as easy as you may think. If their house is badly damaged, they may not be living in it. You may drive thru the same neighborhood 3 or 4 times, and each time you will meet different people working at different houses.

Talk to people. At the church, at a restaurant, in the line at Walmart (open 7 to 7 in Ocean Springs). Ask them how they did, and see if they need help. If not, ask them who they know that needs help. If you do that, I promise you will find more than enough to do.

If you bring your own equipment, chainsaw, work boots, gloves, shovels and rakes, surgical mask, you'll be productive immediately. If you can bring heavy equipment, pick-up truck, bobcat, etc, you'll be able to help even more.

If you can't do hard physical labor, be creative. Parents could use someone to watch their children while they look for work or do clean-up, or take a much needed day off. Educate yourself about FEMA procedures, and help people navigate that maze. The more damage they have, the more difficult it is for people to get help. For both the insurance adjuster and the FEMA adjuster, the survivor must be physically at their home when they arrive. They must work with their insurance adjuster first. They will need identification, something to prove they are the homeowner to FEMA, but they may have lost all of that in the flood.

Offer to answer phones at any church.

Take supplies out into a neighborhood. Offer transportation to someone who needs it.

If you don't find work in Ocean Springs, you'll find it in Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, I promise. There are thousands of flooded houses, and some of their owners have just now returned to the area.

If you are working at a large church or distribution point, and feel like you aren't significantly challenged, go to a neighborhood distribution point in a badly affected area. The Elks Lodge in Gulf Park Estates or the Fire Station in St Andrews are but two examples. Ask around and you'll find them quickly.

If somehow this experience disappoints you, then please ask more questions, and find people who are still truly in need. They are everywhere, and you will find they are beyond grateful.

Thanks for listening to me ramble. Thanks for reading my blog. And thanks for caring for the victims of this terrible storm.

God bless you,

The work remains, but I must go.

I'll be leaving Mississippi tomorrow and going home. Not because the work is done, far from it. Believe me, there is an enormous amount of work to be done, and an enormouse opportunity for people to serve others.

Anyone who is interested in coming down, please email me at reevesg@gravidata.com. I will send you a small spreadsheet that has some contact info of a number of churches, supply distribution points and other resources in this area. I want to provide several contact points in case you have difficulty connecting at the church where I have worked, as they are extremely busy there.

These contacts are focused in the Ocean Springs area, because that is where I worked. However, the devastation is even worse in Biloxi and Gulfport, so you may want to head over in that direction if you are so inclined.

By the way, if anyone is looking for a house to help clean out, contact Troy and Carolyn Jones, who live at 179 Ahern Dr in Biloxi. They haven't started on it yet, and he has a prosthetic leg and a walker, so can't do much by himself. They aren't staying at the house but you can call them at 228-860-7224 to arrange a meeting. They will be eternally grateful. You'll need either a Red Cross symbol on your vehicle or the ability to talk your way thru a National Guard checkpoint, but if you have supplies that shouldn't be hard.

Also, I would appreciate it if before, during, and after you travel to this region, send me a story or two and I will include it in the blog.

God bless you,

9/18/2005

Pictures, carrying on

I'll be leaving here in a few days. Some of you have volunteered to fight the good fight when I leave. In the next day or so, I'll put as much contact information as I can about where to go and who to see to help in the Gulf Coast region.

Please do me a favor if you come down. Write down your thoughts on what you saw, and I'll include them in my blog. This blog, like everything here in shadow of the storm, will belong to all of us.

For those of you who want to see them, there are some pictures of some of the people and places I've talked about available online. Wendy May, a friend who worked down here took them. I'll be incorporating them in the blog later, but for those of you who can't wait, you can see them here:

http://wendymay.buzznet.com/user/journal/3591/

God bless you,

Captain Tom

I don't know how to tell you about Tom. I don't know if I can make him seem real and rational. His actions don't make sense in this world.

Tom is a bachelor. He had a girlfriend for 18 years who was a model. She lived in Miami while he plied his trade as a yacht captain who also did construction contracting on the side. They were starting a life together before she died of a seizure three years ago at the age of 36. He's a scuba diver, and has dived at wrecks of sunken ships.

If the story of Tom's life sounds fantastic, about being a ship captain, dating a model, diving to a sunken schooner to retrieve souvenirs, I can vouch for it. I can vouch for it because I've seen the remains of his life. I've seen the pictures of him with a beautiful woman. I've seen the portholes from the schooner and the Mayan Art. I've seen the model cars he collected.

He lived in a modest home in East Biloxi, that was completely paid for, but because it was 32 feet above sea level, he had no flood insurance. Tom doesn't drink, smoke, or gamble. His only vice was collecting things. He collected finely crafted, high quality, scale model cars, hundreds of them. He made model boats, some with $400 miniature, fully working gasoline engines. He made model ships and planes. He also had pieces of fine art and 2 Harley's and a Suzuki. He had a jet ski, a pickup truck, and a Cadillac and a couple of dirt bikes. Tom had tons and tons of stuff.

The city of Biloxi, MS, sits on a peninsula that runs East/West into the Gulf of Mexico. http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=30.394199,-88.909607&spn=0.139821,0.233854&hl=en
Tom lives in the East Central part of the peninsula, in between the inlet known as the Back Bay and the Gulf itself. During the storm, Tom watched as first the Back Bay, with water foaming with thick, black goo, and then the Gulf itself, met at his property. The debris that accompanied these opposing storm surges, buried his home and property. The VFW from a couple of blocks away was deposited in his yard. I know this because I have seen the plaques, the pictures of the succession of commanders, and cancelled VFW checks on the street in front of his house.

After several hours, when the waters had receded enough, Tom rescued his diabetic brother from the attic of his home, took him to the end of the street, and gathered the dazed, naked neighbors that were wandering in the ruin. He guided them all to safety, and soon after, returned to his home and began to work.

When a house is flooded, everything is lost or destroyed. The chaos of the water moves everything from it's place, mixing it like a blender in or around the house. After the water recedes, the belongings will be covered with slime and mud, and in some cases, sewage. You may have a $5,000 ring somewhere in that morass, but how bad do you want to find it? Almost everyone will look for photographs and a few special, sentimental items, and bulldoze the rest away before hauling it to the landfill. Most people don't spend much time looking for even the most valuable items.

Tom is the exception. When I first met him, he had dozens of those small model cars set neatly on his lawn. He had at least a dozen pair of nice looking shoes on the hood of a flooded out truck. For three weeks, Tom has lived in a ruined house, on a decimated street, in a destroyed city. And one piece at a time, he has been cleaning and restoring the shattered pieces of his life. He had to move mountains of debris, just to open his front door. He has only one room empty of major items of furniture. He has cleaned and restored shoes that were covered with 2 inches of mold. (Mold can grow as thick as a lawn, yes it can). He does this because he has no flood insurance.

Tom has lost his job as a ship captain, because the company he worked for is headquartered in New Orleans. But he has the skills to get a job, either at sea or in construction or anything that requires mechanical skills. He has managed to get a cell phone working from the ruins of his house, and he has reconnected his electricity, and now can watch TV on the carport by his toolshed. He could get a job that would help him buy new things, new toys, new stuff. But that is not how he has chosen to do it. I think he is reliving his life as he miraculously cleans off the pieces.

When he finally gets to the bedroom, I'm sure he'll recover the casting that includes the ashes of the love of his life. But that won't bring her back, and no matter how hard he works, he will never restore his collectibles to their former glory.

I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. I don't know if it makes you want to help Tom. I worked for 3 hours at his home, and I couldn't do it any more. I left and went down the street to where his neighbors needed help. Neighbors who weren't going through the debris one shard at a time. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day I'll find the courage to go back for a little while. Not because I care about his model cars or his model planes or his valuable art. But because I care about Tom, which is the only thing in the rubble worth having or saving.

God bless you,

The difference between shelter residents and volunteers:

There isn't one, at least there wasn't in the beginning. Now, new volunteers coming in are a little more aloof. I can see how, in the future, the volunteers will look down with pity on the residents.

Please, when you come, leave your expectations at home. Ask the residents of the shelter, and the survivors in the cars that pick up food who they are, how they did in the storm. Ask for their help, they will give it freely. When you're out working on a house, they will give you a cold drink, when it is all they have to give. You will need it, and they will give it gladly.

You can go back to the real world, where class and status matter, any time you want. In this world, it's about who needs it the most, and helping each other. When someone works like a dog beside you in the brutal heat, you say thank you regardless of their race, income, or education level.

If you care about "yours" and "mine", you will have that when you go home. Here, in the shadow of disaster and scarcity, everything belongs to everyone. You hand it to the person who needs it the most. Sometimes that is the survivor of the storm, and sometimes it is the volunteer who came to help.

Today, I was on the way to deliver relief supplies to a small outpost in one of the most affected neighborhoods of Ocean Springs, Gulf Park Estates. I realized on the way that I was driving a borrowed car, following a truck I commandeered from the line of cars picking up supplies at the church, which was towing a trailer that a volunteer from Charlotte, NC had donated to the church. The trailer was loaded with food that had been donated by some unknown person to another organization, not the church I've been working for. Nothing I was using had ever been mine, but it was given to me because I asked for it, and they trusted that it was needed. I've been loaned a refrigerated semi-trailer worth more than $100,000 in the real world on the same basis, and a tractor and driver to pull it.

When you're here, or at home, don't be afraid to ask for what you need. And don't be surprised when the answer is yes.

God bless you,

Graduation Day

Watched a graduation of sorts today. 15 of the shelter residents waited almost all day for buses to take them to Mobile, Alabama. The shelter at the church is only intended for temporary lodging, and there are good reasons for that. There are no private rooms. Men and women sleep in the same open areas. My friend Billy shares a small Sunday School room with two residents, one male and one female, both of whom are on oxygen. Also, this is a church, and the congregation would like to have it back at some point, so they can resume all the normal functions of a church. They held services today, but no Sunday School.

Also, space for residents is simply limited. They would like to have more room and comfortable facilities.

Anyway, the bus to Mobile took the residents to a cruise ship that is docked there. It will serve as a temporary residence for these victims. They will have a private room, and some nice amenities, even a swimming pool. The ship will remain in Mobile for now, but will move to Pascagoula, MS, in a few weeks when the harbor there is cleared of debris. The residents will then be able to leave the ship to find jobs.

It was a thrill to see them leave. It did feel like a graduation. Although they came to the shelter with nothing, they have already begun to accumulate possessions again. Some of them more aggressively than others. It's funny, because on the ship they won't need many of things they've already gathered, like bedding, because it will be provided by the cruise lines. Possessions give them comfort, I guess.

But I've seen how easily everything a man owns can be made worthless, and a lifetime of accumulated goods become trash that you must pay to haul away. Accumulating more toys will not be one of my goals when I return home. I want to see how quickly I can donate what I have to someone who needs it more than I do.

When I was at the shelter in Jackson, MS, a lady brought her entire Beanie Baby collection as a donation. The children in the shelter loved getting a single, stuffed toy. It meant more to them than everything they received last Christmas. This is a game of who needs it the most. Does my daughter need 40 stuffed toys? Perhaps the 41st should go to someone who has none.

God bless you,

There's work to be done

What do they need here in Katrina's wake? Should you decide to volunteer or send supplies, please keep these suggestions in mind.

You can ask the victims what they need, but they will only tell you what they need at the moment. If you ask them how they did in the storm, and truly listen, you will find much greater needs. Jeanette, a resident in the shelter, needs help burying her brother who died in the storm. His body is in a funeral home in Biloxi, and she doesn't have the money to transport him to the family plot in Alabama. If you ask her what she needs, she wouldn't ask for money to bury him, but that is exactly what she needs. By the way, Jeanette has spent hours in the distribution center sorting supplies to be given to people who need them. Perhaps you could help me raise money for the funeral and expenses.

The sooner you come in after a hurricane, the more obvious the need will be. As time goes by and they begin to clean up major items of debris, the need is less obvious. But there is more than enough work here to keep an Army of volunteers busy for years.

Supplies: Please box, sort, label and palletize all supplies. This will help us get them in the hands of the Katrina survivors quickly. Many distribution centers will refuse to accept a mixed, unpalletized load, that contains clothes. They simply don't have the volunteers available to unload and process a truck that isn't well organized.

Cleaning supplies. Bleach, spray bottles, brooms, mops,
Diapers.
Gatorade. Better than gold.
New underwear and socks.
Chainsaws. Camping equipment. Tools. Shovels,
Generators. Still many homes, especially demolished homes, with no power. They are also needed for tent cities set up for volunteers, relief stations, etc.
Air conditioners, particularly window units. Again, these are needed for homes that residents are living in and for tent cities/ relief stations.


Things to do:
Move furniture out of flooded houses. Suggest rubber boots, work gloves, and a surgical mask for the mold and strange chemicals and creatures in the air.
Tear out drywall and insulation from flooded houses. Same equipment as above.
Clean and spray a chlorine mix for mold on wooden studs that remain after above procedures have been followed. In addition to above items, cleaning equipment is very useful, and a pressure washer or weed sprayer doohickey would be great.
Remove fallen trees. Please bring work gloves and chain saws.
Haul away debris. The city is doing well with that in some areas, but there is a great deal of work to be done in this area.
Listen. They want to share their stories. Ask them how they did, and then sit and listen.
Help them file for FEMA and Red Cross financial assistance. Help them navigate that maze. Internet access is the best way, because otherwise, they may stand in line for hours to get this done.
Help them find jobs.
Transportation. They need transportation badly. They won't be back on their feet till they have it. They can't get a job without it. Have an old car that still runs? A bicycle? Put together a load of these items and bring them on down. In your world, where resources are abundant, an old car doesn't mean much to you. Down here, where resources are scarce, an old car will mean everything to someone. You couldn't give a better physical gift to someone here. It could be the exact ticket that gets them out of a shelter and back on their feet. Billy, one of the residents of the shelter, rides an old bike 8 miles each way every day to work on his flooded house and to feed his cat.

In the very near future, the rebuilding process will begin for some of the homes. This will require carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. Then the residents will need dishes and furniture, and the things you need to maintain a home.


If the early phases of work are finished in Ocean Springs when you get here, then "Go West young man". Biloxi and D'Iberville, Bay St Louis and Waveland, Long Beach and Slidell, all have massive amounts of work to be done. Many of these areas, as well as New Orleans, will need help for years.

So come. Come now or come later, but the sooner you come, the more heartfelt the gratitude you will receive in return.

God bless you,

9/17/2005

How did you do?

We went out to dinner the other evening. It was a wonderful experience. Half the town and the relief workers were all at one of the first restaurants to reopen in this area, El Saltillo. The place was packed and full of happy chatter and a number of reunions of locals who hadn't seen each other before the storm. These reunions always started the same way: A happy hug and a four word question. "How did you do?". This question primarily means "Are all of your family members still alive and unhurt?" and "How high was the the water level in your home". If you only had a couple inches of water inside the house, the reply is "we did great!". For an average house, that means only $10-$30,000 in damages.
But if you come here to volunteer, you would do well to learn this question. Find out if the person you are talking to is local to this area, and then ask them how they did. They will always tell you, and you will find an instant opportunity to listen, and probably a great opportunity to help. Ask this question of your waiter, a resident of the shelter, and the person who is working alongside you. You will be very surprised at the answers you get, because the people working with you or serving you food in a restaurant may have been severely impacted. I learned this the hard way, when I asked a shelter resident if she could help in the area where we process food. The woman, Jeanette, was willing to help and worked very hard for some 9 hours straight. I had asked for her help several days ago, when we were trying furiously to get food out to a lot of people. This occurred several days ago, but I learned today that her brother died in the storm. (FEMA will pay for his burial).
It is getting more difficult to identify the people who need help, as this area starts to come back from the devastation. At first glance, driving down a main road, Ocean Springs is beginning to look "normal", but it is far from it. In even the most devastated areas, the major debris is being cleared from the roads, and the damage is not as obvious. To find the people you came to help will now require more effort on your part if you choose to volunteer.
But if you ask someone "how did you do", it will be much easier to find an opportunity to help. And if they did fine, then ask if they know anyone else who needs help. You won't have to ask this more than 3-4 times to find someone who could use your help.

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