I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles...
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Gulfport Mission Trip
What an awesome and inspiring week I had in Mississippi! We arrived in Gulfport in time to go to Sunday service at Crosspoint Church, the local church we volunteered through. After service, we spent an hour driving along the infamous Gulfport beaches. It was absolutely incredible.
More than fifteen months after Hurricane Katrina, the miles of beaches are completely barren. Nothing I read or saw on television prepared me for the view. Driving west, we had the Gulf Coast on our left and bleak land on our right. All along the water there broken piers and regularly placed “Beach Closed” signs. The water is still unsafe for swimming due to all of the pollution that washed away after the storm surge.
Even more disturbing, though, was the emptyuHurrica land on the other side of us.
Instead of houses, there were trees with fabric wrapped through the branches, steps leading up to nothing, piles of rubble, large signposts bent over, and lot after lot of slabs, only a few of which had FEMA trailers next to them. Out of the miles we drove along Long Beach, there were only three houses and one church standing. One was clearly brand new. The other two were have not yet been torn down. They were unlike anything I have ever seen. The upstairs of each was mostly intact, however, the downstairs was demolished to only pieces of the frame. The church was the same way, although it inspired hope because a few parishioners still worship there—with plastic school chairs instead of pews and a sea breeze instead of heat or air conditioning.
For me, the most poignant part of Long Beach was a slab with two metal folding chairs looking straight out the Gulf from what must have been the living room. This may have been even more heartrending because a large white board spray painted with the words “For Sale” sat next to the slab. I can only imagine sitting on what is left of my house, making the decision to sell.
After seeing the obvious devastation firsthand, we were ready to start looking at work orders to figure out how we could help. We called two fairly easy looking work orders first, but did not hear back from either person. After more time driving, we tried a third work order. This time, we reached an actual person and within half an hour we were at her house.
From the outside, Gracie’s house didn’t look too bad. Once we got inside though, we realized how much help Gracie and her mother really needed. The house is actually Gracie’s mother’s, however, since the storm her mom has been in a nursing home because it advanced her Alzheimer’s. Gracie’s mom actually rode out the storm in the house and is lucky to have survived. The entire house was demolished, except for her mother’s bedroom. There is no doubt that God was protecting her mother during and after the storm!
Gracie and her mother were given $7000 to repair and rebuild the house. Of that, most if it went towards the new roof. The rest of it, unfortunately, went to a contractor who started a small repair and then took off with around $2000. Since then, Gracie has been struggling mentally and financially. Before us, she had already had a number of volunteer crews in. The framing, outside painting, initial electrical wiring were done. The sheetrock was hung and some inexperienced mudding had been done as well.
During the week, we managed to make some vast improvements to the house. We finished the walls and ceilings so that they are ready to paint. Steve—one of our group of four—is a Master Electrician so he finished the wiring, attaching lights, switches, and outlets, even hooking the house up to a generator so he could make sure they worked. We also trimmed the house and put in interior doors. Lastly, the big surprise, we bought cupboards and installed them. This left only her painting, plumbing, flooring, and bathroom to be finished.
Thursday afternoon, she came home to a bunch of surprises (Gracie works two jobs, with a short break in the middle of the afternoon). She knew we’d been working on the trip and wiring, however, the cupboards, lights, and whatnot were all surprises. If you have ever watched ABC’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition, you’ve seen what we experienced first hand. As she entered the house, she just teared right up. She was amazed by the amount of work we did for her, the ways we helped her, and most importantly how much closer she was to moving into her home and out of the tiny FEMA trailer in the yard. As we discussed things and showed her our work, she just praised Jesus and God, calling us angels. It was one of the most amazing and humbling moments of my life. She was so touched by what we did for her, it didn’t matter that she couldn’t move in yet or that she still needs things she cannot afford before she can move back in and get her mother out of the nursing home. To her, this work and this gift meant the world. It gave her hope that she would soon be able to get back in.
We weren’t done with that. We still had about two hours worth of trim work to complete, but we also had one more big surprise for Gracie. That morning after breakfast at Crosspoint, April and I were talking to some of the church staff members about our week. They were amazed by what we’d been able to get done with our little team (it really helped that Steve and Cliff brought a wealth of knowledge and a vanload of tools, plus we had donations from our church to buy supplies). As we talked about Gracie and what big projects were left, particularly the challenge of the plumbing (we’d looked at trying to get that done too), the offered contact information for a local plumber that they’d brought in for some other homes in the area and then said to have Gracie get a quote and call them. Many churches around the country have been raising funds to assist in rebuilding, and Crosspoint offered to use some of those funds to help get Gracie’s house plumbed!
Outside of Gracie’s house and the awesome things I experienced and did there (mudding drywall, trimming, building cupboards, playing with power tools, etc), I had some other once in a lifetime experiences and met some truly incredible people. I visited New Orleans for the first time. We drove in during daylight. Most of the apartment complexes are completely untouched. Looking through broken glass doors, I could see furniture covered in trash, drapes hanging half outside of the broken glass doors. Every now and then, there was a new complex, but mostly things were empty, no cars in the streets. We actually went into downtown New Orleans, driving by the Superdome, Bourbon Street, and the French Quarter before visiting Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. for a delicious dinner and my first hush puppy experience. As we left New Orleans, the streets on either side of the highway were more startling. The streetlights were the only lights on either side of us for miles, no houses or cars with lights on. Once in a great while, there was a light on the side of a FEMA trailer, but otherwise the only lights were the evenly spaced streetlights.
We also visited Biloxi one night, bringing along Diana, Kacey, and Meg from the New Jersey group. Our primary purpose was to visit the Katrina Memorial there, although we did drive around a little bit. I loved the Katrina Memorial. It had a tall wall, representing the actual height of the storm surge, a beautiful mosaic of a wave made by glass broken during the storm, as well as a box of mementos found in the streets after the storm. Perhaps my favorite part was the gazebo (is it still a gazebo if it has tree limbs for a roof?) with a huge and beautiful tree growing up through the middle of it. It was quite possibly the most beautiful tree I have ever seen and it quickly earned me the nickname “Treehugger.”
April and I also experienced the entertainment of Home Depot and Lowe’s this week. On Monday, we went in with Steve and Cliff and it showed that we knew nothing. Our cloths were clean and we didn’t know where anything was (it took a surprisingly long time to find safety goggles). I did take a moment to revel in the power drill section, finally understanding why men love going to hardware stores. They have a demo space where you can try out the different tools. It is like playing the videogames at the department store! By Tuesday afternoon, April and I went to the hardware store by ourselves—covered in drywall dust and mud. We walked directly to what we needed and headed to the checkout. I had to laugh when I noticed two groups of guys watching us with admiration—not because of our gorgeousness, but our dirtiness and “apparent” knowledge.
The twenty-hour ride home was an interesting one as well. It allowed for a lot of introspection, as we were all tired and fairly quiet. Before this trip, I had been seriously considering starting the AT in March instead of finding a job. I’d looked at finances and thought maybe, if I were frugal I could afford another few months without income. After this week and the need I saw, that strikes me as incredibly selfish. I realized that if I can afford time without a job, I should spend it doing things to help others not just to help myself. I am not really sure what this realization means just yet. Maybe it means I am going to end up getting a job in March. Maybe I will find myself volunteering. It does mean that I won’t find myself atop Springer Mountain, but I think I am okay with that.