November 07, 2005

First Hand Report From The Gulf Coast Two Months After Katrina

Fifteen miles from the Gulf Coast we arrive at a small town where we will work for the weekend. The devastation is surreal. It is like a war zone.

Boats on top of houses. Houses on top of cars. Everywhere there is garbage. Here and there a space has been cleared for a temporary FEMA trailor to park.

Power lines are working, but on a given block perhaps only a quarter of residents are back. Living in trailors, living in tents.

"How deep was the water?" I ask an old African-American preacher living in a tent across the street from his church and next to an open cess-pool. "Eighteen feet deep over yonder," he says.

It was saltwater. We are fifteen miles from the Gulf.

"Did you get out?" I ask the oldtimer.

"The Lord blessed me. I climbed into the top of that oak tree."

He was in that tree for eight hours as 175 mile an hour wind--- with all the dibris it carries--pelted him.

I am shocked that he is alive. What is more shocking is that his little great-grandson was in the tree with him. His granddaughter was in the tree with them. She is nine months pregnant. She has the baby the next day.

Two more houses and the story is the same. The middle-age woman, sitting on her four-wheeler that she has somehow managed to get running again, sat out the storm in another giant oak tree. Her RV is neatly stacked on top of a neighbor's Pontiac.

"Why did you stay?" I ask.

"I wasn't going to leave my animals. Not my horse."

The horse swam under the tree she was in several hours later. The water swept out to sea as fast as it came in. The horse survived somehow and came home the next day. One of her dogs was not so lucky.

Spray paint everywhere and on everything.

"Janet LaGrange and family alive and safe."

"House of broken dreams."

Orange X's on everything, signaling the house or car has been cleared. 0's in one corner of the X--no bodies.

Mostly names and addresses painted in two foot lettering on the sides of what were once houses. Forwarding addresses, cell phone numbers, and messages to neighbors spray painted on anything that looks like a flat surface.

"God Bless America. We will rebuild"

Done clearing debris for the day, we head to the coast.

The closer we get the more the war zone analogy becomes apt. Where we were working it was mortar and Howitzer bombardment. Three miles from the beach it is heavy ordinance. It is like the Navy decided to shell the town from some unseen WWII battleship. The once touristy town is almost no more. Traffic lights in working order already, but almost no traffic.

Half a mile from the beach: napalm. All of the trees either down or dead.

The beach. Fine white sand. Looking at the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in my life I am tempted to jump in.

I turn around, my back to the water. Driveways. Dozens of them. They lead to nowhere. This close to the water there is almost no debris. It is clear and reasonably clean. The houses have all been washed out to sea or are sitting as piles some blocks in.

We should have camped here on the beach. The devestation has made it beautiful.

A six man crew with six chainsaws. We cleared nearly nearly 50 trees from a dozen homes in two days.

To finish the job of just clearing the devestation will require more people. Many more people. Thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people.

And even with hundreds of thousands of more people, it will take years. Many years.

Sorry, no pictures. We are not on vacation and I will not make these people's shattered lives a voyeuristic spectacle.

Addendum: Money will not be enough. The Red Cross is providing food. FEMA is providing shelter. Churches are providing clothing and other support.

What is needed is more bodies on the ground. There are simply not enough people to do the work necessary to clean up, let alone rebuild. If you've donated money to one of dozens of charities, thank you. However, donating your time, skills, and labor would be so much more valuable at this time.

It is really simple to help out. Get four to six of your friends together in a truck, bring chainsaws, shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows (or heavy equipment if you have it) and head on down to the coast anywhere between New Orleans and Florida. Bring tents, there will be no hotel rooms to sleep in. Bring food, it took us an hour to find a restaraunt open and the Wal Mart closed at 7 p.m. because they don't have enough employees to keep it open.

There will be no trouble finding people to help. It is that bad.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 09:14 AM | Comments |