Thursday, May 25, 2006

Going To Waveland

This short that resulted from our trip down to Katrina Ground Zero:

Going to Waveland

Going there is far easier than coming back. When you’re going, you’re eased into the devastation and you haven’t met the people yet. It’s also a solid nine hour drive from Fort Worth to Waveland, Mississippi, so if you leave in the morning, you’ll arrive after dark. As you cross the Achafalaya, you start to see things broken and damaged, but it’s getting dark quickly, as it always seems to when you’re close to the sea. That being the case, the damage isn’t all that evident; it’s like a ghost, a hint of horror and fear flickering at the periphery of your vision that you can’t quite focus on.

Finally, you arrive at what’s left of Christ Episcopal Church; it’s hard to find, because there are no street signs or mail boxes, and it’s quite dark… This is where Kim King lives now, in a travel trailer. She chose this option to avoid having to go back to the ruins of her home every night, and, “So that next time this happens, I can hook up to the truck and get out right now.” Her eyes look particularly haunted when she says this.

The church is a disaster. You’ve seen the website pictures of what it used to be. It was beautiful and peaceful, the epitome of a gentle Oceanside church. There were lush, green trees hung with Spanish Moss, and thick lawns, white buildings with clapboard siding and dark roofs; a chapel, Rectory, school, office, and visitors quarters. Now, flickering in the light of a bonfire, there is blasted concrete, pieces of shrapnel, piles of debris, and twisted, leafless trees with rags flapping in their bare branches. A new steel Quonset hut stands on the footprint of the old sanctuary. A fractured piece of signboard, like driftwood salvaged from the beach, hangs over the door and reads, ‘Christ Episcopal Church, Waveland, Mississippi.’ Inside are folding chairs, a rough altar, and tables piled with staples like toilet paper, paper plates and cutlery, some food items. Nothing else to speak of from the old church survived, so there is nothing much else in the church now…

You’re lucky, because tonight you’ll be staying in Kim’s FEMA trailer. Lots of us who are here visiting are in tents, and it’s raining sideways and blowing hard. The floor of the new Quonset hut church is wet, because it’s not sealed yet – It’s been raining too much to seal, a fact that makes the parishioners very nervous for obvious reasons. The rug for the altar is pulled up so it doesn’t get wet, and everything is piled into one or two of the drier spots until the rain stops…

The trailer is set on the old foundation of Kim and David’s home, a few miles west of the church. It’s bolted to the concrete, so that, hopefully, it stays there through future storms. Kim cautions us not to wander too far after dark, and that “When you step around a building, you need to yell, ‘I’m peeing here,’ because the locals will shoot…” There has been a lot of looting, from the day the storm ended to this very day: This includes the theft of FEMA trailers. The locals are very edgy and downright intolerant.

The King’s FEMA trailer is one of the travel trailer versions, as opposed to the larger and presumably more comfortable manufactured house versions. It is 14’ x 22’; they’re stuffy, claustrophobic and cheap. Kim notes that theirs, “Has a real toilet and a real refrigerator, most people don’t”. The master bedroom has room for a bed, with maybe a foot of space on both sides, and a closet that might be four square feet in size. There are two bunks, and the couch and kitchen table fold down into beds. One step takes you from bedroom to ‘living room’, another to the kitchen, another to the bath. Roughly three hundred and eight square feet of living space, intended for a family of four. Kim notes that, “They want you to be uncomfortable - They want you to hate it so much that you’ll leave.” This trailer is loaned to refugees for eighteen months – After that, you’re on your own. Someone asks Kim if the rubble outside is what’s left of her home: “No,” she smiles ruefully, “Our stuff is miles away, maybe…” The storm surge lifted everything and took in inland, as far away as eight miles, all the way to the interstate. Then all that water came roaring, crashing, tearing its way back to the sea, as hard or harder than it had come in. Kim found a few pieces of her home blocks away from her property. What they recovered of their personal items, “Would fit in the trunk of a car.” They never found their house. Much of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland ended up on the beach and in the ocean. For months afterwards, shipping traversing the coast had to set extra watches and radar sweeps to avoid hitting houses, phone poles, and other debris floating out at sea.

You sleep fitfully, unsure of the sounds you’re hearing outside; is that wind, or surf, or... The mattresses are horrible, despite Kim’s incredible kindness in making the place as homey as possible. The thing is cheaply made and cheaply put together; it did not work right when it got there, and some things still don’t. You can put in a request for service, and they might come. If they do, they do so without warning or a set appointment, and you have to be there and let them in. If you don’t they leave, and they probably don’t come back…

When you wake up and step outside for the first time in the light of day, the full impact of what has happened hits you. It is sunny and very quiet. It looks like a picture of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, the one which showed ground zero, with the skeletal framework of a building surrounded by complete devastation. There are no birds in the trees, no squirrels, no cats or dogs, no happy sounds of children, no adults talking quietly over a cup of coffee. There is only the wind and some heavy machinery down the street starting to work. You turn slowly and look around: Before the storm, Kim’s house had a wrap around veranda and a white picket fence. The last picture they have was taken the day before the storm, because David was worried about the fence maybe being damaged and decided that a picture would be a good idea, in case they needed to make an insurance claim. In that photo, you can see the lawn that David was rightfully proud of; he described it as, “Just like a golf course.” Katrina not only destroyed their house, it ripped their foundation out of the earth and carried most of it away with the rest of the debris. You snap a picture of a statuette of the Blessed Virgin Mary left beside an up-tilted chunk of concrete foundation. Sand, mud, debris and twisted, uprooted trees have replaced David’s lawn.

As you’re taking pictures, you quickly realize that you’re just shooting the same thing over and over – Piles of rubble, ten to twenty feet high, twisted trees with shreds of clothing in their branches, mangled cars, tilted and fractured foundations, as far as the eye can see. You go for a walk, and look cautiously at the things around you. As far as you can see, there are FEMA trailers and travel trailers and tents, home made sheds and structures, tarps and dirty cars and trucks, piles of trash and debris and twisted wreckage, blasted trees, sand, dirt, mud and broken pavement. In Kim’s neighborhood, there is nothing being rebuilt. There are houses blown off their foundation and into trees, ripped in half or squashed by other houses. In one of these houses, where the entire back wall has been ripped off, there is a perfect bedroom, with the bed made, and clothes still in the closet: No person did that - The storm did, in a perverse twist of fate. There are squashed, smashed, twisted and flattened vehicles everywhere. The storm surge here was estimated at thirteen feet in depth. At the church, that depth was more like thirty six feet...

By each former home site, there are small piles of things pulled out of the general mix; here a lawnmower, there a plastic baseball bat or a scooter. These pieces were seemingly abandoned after being separated from the general wreckage, as if the searchers became discouraged and just walked away. There are empty gun cases and safes, broken china, clothes, furniture, and appliances. Underneath the surface of the wreckage, people’s lives lie ruined and abandoned; clothes, furniture, pictures and papers, mud, sand, dirt and debris, twisted metal and fractured wood, broken plastic and blasted concrete…

There are large painted X’s on the ground, street, or on houses themselves, with numbers next to them. These indicate that bodies were found there, and how many people had died. There are far too many Xs in this community: Kim estimates that one hundred and fifteen residents of Waveland lost their lives in the storm.

You drive toward church, and the full extent of the damage is overwhelming. At the end of the street, there is a small circle of broken bricks surrounding three or four plastic flowers, with a hand-made sign behind them that reads, “Winner of the garden contest!’: You’re struck that these folks still have a sense of humor, but there is also a wistful sense of loss in this little vignette that is absolutely heartrending: The land has been poisoned by all the salt, sewage, and chemicals spread by Katrina, and nothing will grow here now. Just down the street is the ‘Hurricane Proof House,’ built by two local doctors to withstand anything Mother Nature had to throw at them. They rode out the storm in the top floor, and miraculously survived. The first two floors are blasted away, the third irreparably damaged. A sign at the driveway reads, ‘I’m still here’. There are many such signs, ‘We’re OK’, ‘Still Here’, ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’, ‘Not Giving Up’, and ‘God Bless America’. Many of the homes that stood here were raised on piers and set on beams of wood or steel. Many of the piers and beams remain, but the homes do not. At one site, you stop and check something you see: It is a 12” steel beam, with webs 8” deep, perhaps 40 feet long, and it has been deflected six feet by the storm, twisted into a grotesque sculpture, bent by the wind and the sea…

At church people drift in prior to the service. They have made an obvious effort to look nice for church, yet there is a look of shock and resignation overlying their features that is disconcerting. You have seen this look in the faces of crime victims, and on those who have survived great trauma: It is pervasive here. You are welcomed with great warmth, grace, and appreciation. These people are hungry for contact that doesn’t involve disaster, eager to speak with somebody about music, family, food; anything that doesn’t involve the storm. Out of the blue, after speaking with you briefly about where you’re from, one person touches your arm softly and remarks that, “It’s so nice not to be talking about where to find propane, or who still hasn’t been located…” and without another word they turn and walk to a seat in church. You play and sing as we always do at Trinity, but here, there are many more tears and emotions run very close to the surface. People listen to Father Bill preach. He speaks of hope and Christ’s presence. You can tell that they appreciate it and they believe him, but the pain and fear does not leave their eyes, not even for a moment.

People stand around and join you after the service, for a little lunch and some companionship. You’ve let people know that you’ll be there all day, that they can come by and visit some more; some do, but not as many as you’d hoped would. The people are kind and obviously touched and pleased that you’ve come, and they demonstrate this in every way possible; and yet the pain and fear never leaves their eyes or their voices.

Carefully, tactfully, you ask what life is like now. Most have nothing. Most had no flood insurance, so they will get nothing. They still have mortgages and owe tens of thousands of dollars on homes that are gone forever. Many say that even if they did have proper insurance, the insurance companies are making concerted efforts, “Not to honor our claims, one way or another,” and they note how hard it is to fight a big, powerful company when you are just one small person in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely nothing to fight back with. There are those, like Kim and David, who did have flood insurance, and they are supposedly, “Better off.” They got insurance money and were able to pay off their mortgages. Now they have blasted, poisoned, ruined pieces of land covered with debris that they own free and clear. No one will accept this land as equity or collateral to allow them to get another mortgage. No one will come to build it, even if they did have the funds. There are many parishioners who have homes that could and should be repaired, that need to be repaired. They have the materials purchased and ready, but no one will come and make the repairs. You are told that contractors place their emphasis on, “The rich people who can afford to pay whatever is necessary to get them to come.” The same people note ruefully that, “We can’t afford that…”

You leave with some new names and faces and stories and email addresses. You’re driving out in daylight, and now you can see the full scope of the damage. As you were told, from the beach to the freeway, a distance of about eight miles, pretty much everything is destroyed. You’d asked how far east and west this extent of damage was done, and you were told, “Pretty much from the Florida coast to the Texas coast.” And it’s true. On the way back, you go farther west, to Lake Charles Louisiana, where the damage from Hurricane Rita takes over for Katrina, and you find that what you were told is absolutely true.

Six months after Katrina, this is what you’ve seen. In Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, “Nice towns, beautiful places to live, where everybody knew everybody and life was really good,” perhaps ten to fifteen percent of the residents have returned. Too many have died. Many have left and may come back, depending on what happens this year. Many have left and will never come back. Their whereabouts and status of an alarming percentage is simply not know, and may never be. Leaving Waveland, you now have images and facts and people in your heart and mind and soul, and so, as I mentioned, it’s far harder to leave there than it is to arrive. What you are sure of is the fact that ‘The Right Thing,’ whatever that may be has not been done for these people and these places. You are certain that you will go back again to visit and to help, in any way you can. God has written that on your heart, and it’s impossible to ignore.

Perhaps the most disconcerting memory you have is this: By far, when asked, “What will you do now,” most people stare off toward something that the rest of us can’t see, and say, “I don’t know, I just don’t know… We’ll wait and see what happens this year.” The 2006 hurricane season is less than three months away.

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