HJ/EDMarch 6, 2006

Reporter's journal on Mississippi mission trip

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Our arrival in Mississippi

(Feb. 27) I was unaware of what I was to find when we finally reached our destination. After the 24-hour drive, it was a relief to be off the road.

We started to see the aftermath over an hour from camp. Trees were snapped and roofs were tarped. But I knew the worst was yet to come.

When we arrived in Waveland, which is our base camp, it was nighttime and too dark to see much damage.

The first night, we were welcomed by the others at camp with a warm meal and fellowship service. With a full day and night on the road, with only stops for gas, a good night’s rest was all we wanted.

The next day, our group was led around town by Tom Barbour, a lawyer from New Jersey. He had been at camp three weeks prior to our arrival and is signed up for two weeks out of the next six months.

This was when we finally got to see what we all came down here for. Tom drove us around so we could see some of the most devastated area.

Along the coast, which was only a couple miles from our base camp, were houses that were no longer there. These were million dollar homes with nothing left but the steps and foundations.

The bridge that crosses the St. Louis Bay into Pass Christian was completely destroyed. 

We drove through another area that was more than six miles from the coast. In this area, the Jordan River runs through a community of homes.

This river, I was told, goes to the bay. People who live on that river have boats which they used to travel to the bay. Someone’s pontoon was in the tree.

After touring the area, we went back to base camp to spend a Sunday relaxing before hitting work the next day.

The day was beautiful. The sun was shining with a high of 68 degrees. So, of course us Minnesotans were basking in the sun. We even played a game of football.

At night we ate and worshipped and prepared for a labor-full tomorrow.

My new friend, Sarah Weede, who happens to be from Litchfield, came down with our group. She is around my age so this was a comfort.

Sarah has a friend stationed in Biloxi’s Air Force base. He took us out on a tour last night. We drove to Gulfport to Biloxi and along the coast. The damage was much of the same. Houses were gone, lights were few and far between, and businesses were washed away.

A crazy sight was seeing a huge casino boat that crashed into the coast. You could see right through it.

This is like something out of the movies. It’s so hard to imagine how nature can do so much damage.

The saddest thing is that after six months, not much has improved. Some businesses have reopened, but the houses, if they’re still here, are untouched.

FEMA trailers are everywhere. In places along the coast, you wouldn’t even know there was a house there except for the trailer on the property.

There is so much work left to be done; but little by little, it will get done.

Every day there are new guests here at the camp. They come from all over to help, some as far away as Canada, New York, and of course, Minnesota.

It’s such a blessing seeing so many willing to lend a helping hand. And believe me, the more hands, the better. 

Many people drowned in their attics

(Feb. 28) Yesterday, I was able to take a tour of an area in the eye of the storm. This was only 20 miles from camp, but it was more of the bayou than where we are.

I have two words to describe this area: “Boats everywhere.” One large fishing boat was alongside the highway in which we drove. There were cars everywhere as well. Not many people, though.

The houses along the bay were nothing but stilts in most areas. Debris littered the entire area. We drove until we couldn’t drive any more. The road literally ended.

There was a drawbridge that hadn’t been up and running yet, with a “road closed” sign in the middle of the road. Next to it was an abandoned and destroyed Buick.

Today was different, though. After seeing the devastation everywhere, you want to talk with the locals.

So this morning I went out on one of the projects. It was a woman in her early 70s and her brother. There was nothing left of her home, but the garage/apartment where he lived was habitable.

We gutted it out so it could be sprayed for mold. It was an amazing story. The woman, Gloria, has breast and lung cancer as well as lymphoma. Her husband suffered from a stroke back in July.

These three survived the storm in her attic. Many people drowned in their attics during the hurricane, but luckily the surge receded before it could take them. She did lose her two cats, though.

When asked why she stayed, she said, “My brother wanted to stay. We didn’t think it would be that bad.”

I spent four hours tearing down Sheetrock and insulation. I didn’t do much, but the little that I did do helped one family get closer to a home. If everyone could spend four hours doing what I did, it would do wonders. 

'You're blind if you can't see God down here'

(March 1) This is becoming quite the experience.

I have never been on a mission trip. I’ve never been on a week-long trip with 21 people I just met.

I came out of my comfort zone into a camp it Mississippi. I had no idea what to expect.

The camp is more sufficient than I thought it would be. It’s based in what used to be a NAPA store. We sleep in bunk beds in the back.

A kitchen is set up with refrigerators, grills, and ovens. Bulks of food have been donated so we never goes hungry.

Every night after dinner, people talk about what happened during the day. What they did, whom they helped and what they learned.

Al Nagel said it best, “You are blind if you can’t see God down here.”

Amongst the disaster and the people’s livelihoods dwindled down to a 12-foot FEMA trailer, how could a person not feel lost? But the people do find hope when a team comes to help them with a job that is so overwhelming.

People may wonder why it’s taking so long for the clean-up. Some people are still waiting for a FEMA trailer six months after the storm.

They have nothing. They don’t have tools. They might not even have neighbors anymore because they abandoned their homes.

I can’t stress enough, how bad it is here. This week is the six-month anniversary. Katrina hit August 28. The media doesn’t talk about it anymore but it’s all over the news down here. No one wants to hear it anymore.

Well, just because you don’t hear it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And not talking about it, makes it seem it’s all been done with and it’s all been taken care of. It’s so far from being taken care of.

I wonder, with the hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq, why can’t there be some here. Even a hundred troops could do so much is such a small amount of time.

This is here, in America. These are our people. Yet they are being forgotten. It boggles my mind to think what people could be doing if they were only here to see what has happened.

All I know is if this happened to me, I could only hope and pray that someone like this team would come and help me. It’s about helping your neighbors, even if they are a thousand miles away.

Mixed feelings about FEMA

(March 2) Even now, mixed feelings remain about the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Hurricane Kurricane by residents in Mississippi.

After six months, rumors still spread about the delivery and management of FEMA.

One Waveland resident explained little problems with FEMA while another had been dissatisfied with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Shirley Martinez, applied for a FEMA trailer after her home was flooded by the storm. Within three weeks, she received her trailer.

Gloria Chetta, a longtime resident of Waveland, explained her difficulties with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Her home needed to be torn down, but because of her poor health, and a husband recovering from a stroke, the process became overwhelming.

She went through a long process of paperwork for the removal of what was left of her home.

“I had to sign so much paperwork just for them to take my house down,” she said.

With required procedures taken by FEMA and the corp of engineers, it is undeterminable when the process will begin.

The process according to FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The president declared the area a federal disaster Aug. 29 and FEMA was sent to provide assistance to those devastated

In order for FEMA to provide housing assistance, the victims needed to provide them with information on the damages caused by the hurricane.

“FEMA is designed to get people back on their feet but not everyone was in need of assistance,” Brezany explained.

After they were registered, FEMA had to verify the damages of the homes in which some only needed monetary assistance for repairs.

There were more than 213,000 cases in which FEMA provided as much as $5,200 to the residents to make their homes livable.

If this wasn’t enough, they could apply for a grant from FEMA for alternative accommodations, such as an apartment. “This was a vast majority of the cases,” Brezany said.

For more extreme cases, other options were explored including manufactured housing, he said.

FEMA has provided more than 36,000 travel trailers and mobile homes in the past six months.

In order for FEMA to deliver a manufactured home, there had to be an availability of utilities on the property including water, sewer, and electricity.

Along with this, there had to be a reasonable amount of debris removed.

FEMA provides the funding for the removals, but it is under local jurisdiction and the Army Corps of Engineers as to when this will happen, Brezany said.

In order for any debris to be removed from properties, a right of entry (ROE) must be signed by the owner.

After an ROE is filed it is logged into a database and sent to local and county officials for eligibility determination, according to the Corp of Engineers.

In order for this to be possible since houses can be unidentifiable, they have to be clearly marked stating an ROE has been signed.

With such a large area of debris, the process requires a significant amount of time, in turn, delaying the process for the delivery of FEMA’s manufactured homes.

Waveland and Bay St. Louis are in Hancock County, Miss. and according to county statistics, 51 percent of the total debris has been removed.

With both FEMA and the Corps of Engineers working together, the process does take time and not everyone can be assisted at once, “but conditions are improving, it’s just taken a lot of time,” Brazeny said.

Statistics from FEMA and Hancock County, as of Feb. 27

• FEMA has provided $164,029,045.28 for individual assistance and 20,376 applications has been approved for individual and household assistance.

• FEMA has provided $141,309,839 in public assistance.

• The total number of FEMA occupied trailers to Hancock County 8,553.

‘You are blind if you can’t see God down here’

(Feb. 27) I had no idea what to expect before I arrived in Waveland/Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of the most devastated areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. I also had never been on a mission trip.

Now, I can say this has changed me forever. Seeing the devastation that words could never describe makes one realize that any help given goes a long way.

The people are so gracious and appreciative for the help they are given.

I haven’t been able to get dirty too much this week, but I have been able to help people in a different way.

Pastor Art said it every night at worship, “listen.” That is sometimes all a person needs to make their day and to help them forget a part of their lives they lost.

The area is in so much need of people’s help. The cleanup will take decades. With the storm causing more damage than Hurricane Camille, a category five in 1969, this is the worst storm this country has seen.

To put into perspective, the waves were 30 high, which is equivalent to five 6-foot men standing on top of one another.

The waves did more damage than any wind can ever cause and it stretched for miles off the coastline. Million dollar homes along the beach were washed into the gulf with nothing remaining but the beams they stood on.

Other homes were crushed. Boats and cars floated for miles, some are even stuck in trees. This used to be a beautiful community, as I was told. My new friend, Miss Shirley who has touched my heart, said that the city of Waveland is literally gone because nothing remains of the city offices.

Fortunately her house, just a couple blocks down, is still standing only because it was across the railroad tracks that served as a levy.

Besides all of the damage of homes, there is other debris scattered in trees and along side roads.

My new friend Lauren asked, “Whose job is it to take the garbage out of the trees?” Someone’s got to do it.

For now, the focus is on getting the people back into their homes, which is the most important thing, but eventually the cleanup will be needed too.

The devastation seems endless and it will take an army of men and women to get the job done.

I urge everyone to step out of his or her comfort zone and take even a week off of work, and come down and help put this back together. Despite how big this is, even just one person can make a big difference.

The trip has been an eye-opener for me in many ways. The people I have met left an impression on my heart and I will never be the same. I know I will leave, but I won’t leave this place behind.

I will come back as many do. But when I leave I will take a piece of it with me. The motto at Camp Katrina is, “What happens in Waveland does not stay in Waveland.”

Locals bring help and hope

(Return trip) After Al Nagel returned from Camp Katrina in Waveland, Miss. last December, he wanted to return with an even larger group of volunteers.

One night after their trip, Nagel and his team of volunteers gathered to talk about their experiences along with their families.

The group discussed going back, but with conflicting schedules, four separate waves were formed.

With the help of Wayne Murphy, Russ Irvin, Gary Plowman, Rollie Severson and Tom and Bob Morris and others the project became the Minnesota Katrina Relief Effort.

Groups were formed and plans were made for local volunteers to help.

“This is a life-long issue, it’s not going to end with Katrina. There will be tornados and floods, and someone needs to help,” Nagel said.

The group returned to Camp Katrina in Waveland/Bay St. Louis, Miss. where Katrina blasted away 150 miles of the coastline.

Christian Life Church of Orange Beach, Alabama, founded Camp Katrina three days after the storm hit.

It started in a Kmart parking lot with a small group cooking and feeding more than 5,000 people a day.

The mission group grew from there and now volunteers have come from all over the United States to roof, gut and repair homes.

There have been groups from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Alabama, Wisconsin and Canada and every denomination of churches.

Not only do they work, they listen and talk to the people about their stories and lives.

Gary Plowman of Cokato spent his first week roofing a home for one couple.

Their daughter lived six blocks away and now has a FEMA trailer on the same lot as her parents.

The couple had no flood insurance and almost no money from FEMA. They could afford the shingles, but they could not afford the contractor, according to Plowman.

“It feels good that you can do a job they can’t do,” he said.

Nagel and his team helped move bricks from what used to be one woman’s home. Two months after the storm hit, her daughter was murdered.

Among the debris, she was determined to find a memento of her daughter that they had yet to find under the rubble. What Nagel and his team did find were several significant items.

First, was a ceramic planter unbroken, with the Lord’s Prayer painted on it.

Second was a photo album with every picture destroyed except for a picture of Jesus. The third item was a DVD, which the pastor had spoken of the night before.

It was the movie, “Pay It Forward,” in which a young boy comes up with a plan to help others and in turn they would help someone else.

One camp member stated that the stories are endless. Nagel agrees, “That if you don’t see God is here, you are blind.”

Nagel doesn’t plan to stop here he said. There are three other waves yet to come and he was planning on heading back to Dassel where he is an insurance agent, but plans changed when he decided to stay another week.

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