I talked to Kathleen Johnson, who runs the Katrina Relief program in Poplarville Ms. I said I was in Apalachicola and would be there in a week. Kathleen, with the directness I noticed from our first conversation, said "We're doing an RFP for 400 homes and we don't have an architect or an engineer to sit at the table when we present in 7 days. How soon can you get here?" I stammered just a bit and said, "In a couple of days." I arrived the next day, at 11:00 a.m.
Along the way though, I stopped in Pensacola, bought some supplies, and made a phone call to a potential client to whom I had sent a sketch a week ago; a masterplan deign for a 130 acre residential developement. The client loved the idea so I described the next steps and a schedule for compensation, which was thought to be very fair. Nice day, Thursday :-)
As I mentioned, I arrived in Poplarville Friday, and though we had previously only talked on the phone, Kathleen and I recognized each other immediately. After two sentences, Kathleen handed me a 2" thick RFP to read, and described a sketch that she wanted me to prepare for Bill and Julie, showing how we might install MEMA housing units in their RV park in a way that would create civilized shared outdoor space, even though the units are to be raised 10' in the air, above the flood plane. I hadn't had a cup of coffee or peed, but said "Sure."
Soon, Bill and Julie were driving me around this part of Mississippi, which had been wiped out by Katrina, along with which they had lost their RV park, 4 years ago. In their late 40's, the English couple had come to America to pursue entrepreneurial opportunity, which they found here in their RV park. Fortunately, they had savings and could rebuild, and they are still here, but the depressed economy has devastated the value of their investment. Bill showed me this overpass and said the water rose above it's roadbed.
He and Julie had left early the day of the storm, but even where they were in Arkansas, some 400 miles inland, Katrina reached them with hurricane force sufficient to rip the roof of of one wing of the the hotel they were in.
I was familiar with some of the images of Katrina's wake, but I had no idea of the extent of the damage that still persists to this day. Here is Main Street, Bay St. Louis.
The wreckage in some places still extends as far as you can see, with a few houses still standing, in shambles, abandoned and untouched since the storm. I will photo some of these in the coming days. Also visible are wrecked homes with inhabitants who lack the resources to repair them. I hope I will be able to photo those too, without intruding.
My host, Kathleen Johnson, the director of the WCF Katrina Relief Program, is a force of nature herself. Australian born, she seems at least 6 feet tall, and in her fifties still has strong broad shoulders and hands. Her tawny hair hangs loosely at the sides of her ruddy face, with light brows and lashes flashing behind thick lenses. She is constantly in motion, and constantly narrating a stream of consciousness about events in her life and the life of her work, which is the program. This is not her first relief effort, I soon learn, as she jumps back and forth in time telling anecdotes about battles with bureaucrats for funding, now and in past positions, and she liberally peppers her stories with detailed recollections of wrongs done by some to others, and sometimes to herself. I don't think she is a vengeful or peevish person, but her memory is long and detailed, and she implies a faith in just outcomes in the long run. I also learn that she knows a lot about construction, including light and heavy trades.
She runs her present organization from a brick facility with two wings, one a brick church about 40' by 100', with a formal but modest interior, and the other a similar size but oriented at right angles to the first forming a T in plan. The second wing has on the first floor, a large dining room with vinyl tile flooring and folding metal picnic tables, and a large kitchen at one end of the room, cobbled together out of various simply but competently built oak veneer plywood cabinets, 3 refrigerators, two microwaves, and so forth. The cabinet doors have hand lettered stick-on labels indicating their contents, and the whole is very well organized to manage the constant stream of volunteers who come and go in groups from around the country. There are ample but frugal supplies stacked and ordered everywhere. In the back end of this floor of this wing are a few offices, including Kathleen's and Laurie's, a case worker here for four years whom I also met briefly when I first arrived; even though it was her day off, Laurie was working on some cases. She and Kathleen share a despondent knowing look from time to time.
The second floor of this wing has the dormitories; about 8 rooms along one side of a long dimly lit featureless hall, perhaps as narrow as 3'. Each dormitory room is about 10 x 12 and contains3 or 4 double-decker bunk beds to sleep 6 or 8 volunteers to a room.
The facility is nearly empty when I arrive. It is the weekend. One group of volunteers left earlier today. The case working staff works 10 hour days, Monday through Thursday, with exceptions as was Laurie's case today, when they choose to work an occasional Friday. But in addition to Kathleen, who is here with me, I soon learn that there are a few homeless people as well. There is at least one homeless couple staying in the church wing, in quarters behind the pulpit. I never see them, but I hear their television through their windows when I am outside in the rear of the building.
M also is living here. He is in his 50's, from Kentucky, and is proud of his seven children and two grand kids. He is melancholy when he says he has not seen them in 4 years. He grins when he says that he talks to each of them every day. He is missing two joints from his pinkie, possibly lost working at his carpentry and drywall trade. His face has a swollen redness that suggests a hard life and possibly some alcoholism, though I suspect it is at least now under control, as the facility will not tolerate any drinking. Dressed in jeans and a green sweat shirt, I see him do occasional chores, sweeping, changing trash bags, and cooking an occasional small meal for whoever is around. I presume these gestures are in exchange for the roof over his head. Mike is reading a book about "keeping children in the faith." "There's Key Lime pie", he offers. "No thanks, I can't eat sugar." "Neither can I, I'm a diabetic" he grins with mirth, knowing Key Lime crumbs show on his lips. M had just moved to the gulf and was living in his trailer when the hurricane hit and rolled him over 4 times.
N is in his early thirties. He wears a hooded sweatshirt with a sports team logo, and I think it conceals a very undernourished physique. Very soon after we meet, he reveals he has lived in his car for a while before landing here, his wife having left him with their new born baby a year ago, and he having exhausted other family living situations. He recites these from his drawn face, and with staring, almost pleading dark eyes that make me feel he want's something as yet unspecified.
* * * * *
I am overwhelmed by everything I have seen so far. I wanted an adventure; it seems I have fallen into a third world country. I am nearly in tears as I sit at a card table as the evening winds down, and I toss and turn most of the night.
* * * * *
Kathleen and I run some errands. She gives me a lift to see if an RV place nearby might have parts I want for my camper (deep cycle battery, isolator, charge controller, 3 way refrigerator, cook top, water tank,.. I must make the bus livable while I have this base of operations.) I pick up a lockset doorknob to replace the passage knob on the office I will use to do architectural drawings. We browse two thrift stores and I pick up some groceries. I later bag these and put them in the bottom of the public fridge to keep them for myself. During our outing, Kathleen and I are largely silent. She seems glad to be away from the place for this short bit of time, I am simply exhausted. But we are comfortable in silence.
We had spoken easily and frankly the night before. I told her what I thought of the RFP, that it was heavy contractor work, not suitable for volunteers, which she knew and she intended to do it to make the place some money, and she freely and insightfully critiqued my napkin sketch design. I also said to her at that time, "I'm not a religious person. Do you have any problem with that?" She laughed and shrugged it off, and added that before she came here, she was not religious either. "We let everyone do their thing, and we keep the chapel as a chapel out of respect for the community's sentiment, but we don't have any services of any kind. I don't think politics and religion should mix." I like her. And today, while we are driving back still mostly in silence in her very noisy van, with her little dog Shorty on my lap, she soon easily jumps back into a story of conflict and vanquishment with local bureaucrats, and her energy returns.
A new group of half a dozen volunteers arrive from Virginia Tech. They tumble into the room next to me, and I am awakened from my nap. They are completely familiar with dormitory routine, and they drop their knapsacks and so forth and head to the common room downstairs. I follow them down, soon, and start to write this. As I listen to their easy banter about games they are playing and music they like, I realize how lonely I am. Soon, two of them return from a trip for groceries and they are cooking an evening meal.