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Biloxi, Katrina and Three Young Laurentians

Last fall, three recent graduates, all English majors, made their way to the Gulf Coast to join the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Bethany Taylor ’04, Josh Potter ’05 and Laura Woltag ’05 worked with Hands on USA (HOUSA), a non-profit, volunteer-based relief organization.  Originally conceived in post-tsunami Thailand, HOUSA has been on site in Biloxi since a few days after the hurricane hit.  Conducting its recruitment almost exclusively by way of the Internet and word of mouth, the organization has succeeded in providing an international hub for transient volunteers, free of the red tape and bureaucracy that have hung up many of the larger-scale operations along the coast.  Their reflections on their experiences follow:

Bethany Taylor:

The Tools of Their Trade: From left, Bethany Taylor, Josh Potter and Laura Woltag prepare for another day of relief work in Biloxi, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina. Their t-shirts provide the name of the agency under whose auspices they volunteered.

I had heard the phrase “hurricane-ravaged area” tossed around like Mardi Gras beads.  I had seen the pictures of destruction.  I figured to head South and see what I could do to help. I had no preparation; I felt it was unnecessary. On the St. Lawrence Kenya program I’d slept in a cardboard house in the Nairobi slums, and thought that I was impervious to shock when it came to living situations.

I was wrong. This was an entirely different world, made all the stranger by the fact that it was in the same country I live in.

My first image was of mountains of debris outside all the houses. Everything from family photos and kitchen utensils to sheetrock and flooring had to be removed, so pernicious was the mold. East Biloxi is a long peninsula sticking eastward into the Gulf; the hurricane hit from the south, from the ocean, and crashed through the city. Then the storm surge swelled on the three waterbound sides of Biloxi.

One gentleman I spoke with was, three months after the hurricane, unable to sleep; every time he shut his eyes he saw a 40-foot wall of water. That was the storm surge, the cause of the mold problems. Houses stood seven and eight feet under water, which, as it receded, left so much mud and moisture that mold flourished in the heat and humidity. HOUSA worked to gut the houses down to the studs, and left huge mounds, formerly loved possessions, in the streets. Few things could be saved; the mud and mold were deemed health hazards. Teddy bears and shoes lying moldy and dusty in the streets came closest to breaking my heart.

A few days of shock at this, and then came the blessed dulling of thoughts and emotions. It was normal to see houses off foundations, normal to maneuver around piles of debris in the streets. I worked with Barb Stagg, a nurse volunteering from West Virginia, giving tetanus and hepatitis A vaccines to all who would take them. But more than giving shots or taking blood pressure or checking blood sugar, we did the most good by simply listening as person after person poured out their stories.

Laura Woltag:
The core relief services provided by HOUSA included gutting houses, mold remediation, tree removal, supply distribution and medical teams.   These groups dispersed regularly each morning, working the streets of East Biloxi until the sun set over floating chunks of I-90 and beached casino barges. 
The beauty of HOUSA is that it encourages volunteers to seek individual and unique needs in the community.  When I learned there were no arts classes in the public elementary schools I collaborated with visual artist and fellow volunteer Genessee Klem to teach arts expression classes in four schools.  With the help of some grant money and the full support of HOUSA, we were able to work with over 500 kids. 

Genna and I were touched by the work we saw.  Many children drew “before and after” pictures of their houses, including their renditions of the infamous X’s spray-painted on every front door.  These markings indicated if the structure was secure, how many people were found dead, the date of inspection, and more. We also discovered the universal symbol for the hurricane—black scribble. 
While the students drew they told stories.  One little boy was shoved up his chimney; another girl rode out the storm on her family’s shrimp boat; several children were tied to trees or clung to rooftops.

While volunteering at HOUSA I became interested in volunteer coordination issues and Biloxi City Council politics.  The majority of my final weeks were spent trying to coordinate with other relief groups to facilitate the formation of a homeless shelter.  I was inspired to pursue this project after discovering evidence that people were sleeping in porta-potties outside of the Salvation Army distribution center.  There is still a real need for short-term shelter for those still sleeping in the cold of their mold-infested homes, squatting in gutted houses, finding refuge in urinals. 
The motto at HOUSA is “find a project and go.” It creates an environment that’s the most inspiring place I’ve ever lived, worked and learned.  Evident here is the power of networking resources.  Amidst the tragic impoverishment of this community there is brilliant confidence that anything is possible. 
Josh Potter:
For me, the most difficult task Hurricane Katrina dealt was to explain to my family and friends exactly why the best thing for me to do upon graduation was to travel clear across the country and immerse myself in a potentially hazardous environment where I knew virtually no one, in exchange for only two square meals a day and a roof over my head.  Somehow, though, it seemed unequivocally right.  The support was overwhelming, yet I found myself resorting to generational justifications.  This is my generation’s great calling, I’d say (to myself more than anyone else).  Whereas most nations would require social or military service of a person my age, this is a chance to join a legion of do-gooders driven more by interest and willingness than conscription or financial necessity.

When at last I found myself with a crowbar in my hand and a Tyvek jumpsuit on my back, the rest was just sweat and tears.  We were volunteers, and that seemed to make all the difference.  In very little time it was HOUSA, a motley crew of seasonal transients, pro-bono contractors, vacation-time consolidators and wayward post-grads, that developed the reputation as the ones to “get it done” in the community, more so than FEMA or the Salvation Army.  Arrival was justification enough for a volunteer’s being there; despite the diversity of stories and hometowns, we’d all found ourselves in Biloxi. 

We’d joke about HOUSA headquarters as a type of “hurricane camp” where age, race and region fell away under to a work-hard-play-hard mentality that kept things running with amazing efficiency.  In light of the shortcomings national disaster-response organizations showed, it seemed astounding that something as simple and effective as HOUSA had not been utilized in the past or to such great effect.  The only thing I can remotely compare the experience to is St. Lawrence’s Adirondack Semester, in which the willingness and interest of the participants are necessary to the success of the program.  Only with HOUSA, the stakes were a rung or two higher.

Looking back, I have trouble sorting out whose story will leave a greater imprint on my memory--the elderly woman who floated to safety on her closet door, or the Colorado opera singer who rode 2,000 miles on her motorcycle to help.

East Biloxi did not receive the same national attention as other Gulf Coast cities like New Orleans.  But thanks to the concentrated community efforts made by HOUSA, it is slowly getting back on its feet.  Amidst crowbar thrashing, tetanus immunizations and Re-Jubilation days, the Deep South grew on us in a way no one expected.  The sunsets, catfish po-boys and “God bless y’all’s work,” became as familiar as the sight of endless rubble, the stench of two-month-old standing water, and the battered golden arches of McDonald’s. East Biloxi became our home.  Both the residents returning to their devastated communities and the three of us shifting back into our non-hurricane realities resonate with Bob Dylan, as he belts out in Mississippi, “the emptiness is endless / cold as the clay / you can always come back / but you can’t come back all the way.”

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