January 30, 2006
the Gulf Coast's displaced
Erhard is a business analyst for academic and administrative information Technology.
I had never been to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not even in good times, but when my church rector gave a sermon about a camp set up in a hurricane’s aftermath, I had to go.
Camp Coast Care is a joint Lutheran-Episcopal hurricane relief effort in Long Beach, Miss., that distributes free food, clothing, medical care and clean-up assistance. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I joined a group of 12 other church members on a journey to donate our time, our energy and our ideas. On the morning of departure, we hovered over warm cups of coffee as our rector, Mac, spoke to our anticipation, answering our unspoken questions that there would be enough—enough shelter, food, water—that everyone would be cared for (including us).
Still, I could not imagine what life looked like just 10 or so hours away.
When we arrived at the camp, the center of which is a metal building that otherwise serves as a school gym, all manner of people were coming and going. That’s one thing about Camp Coast Care: It is constantly moving. People arrive from everywhere—a woman on a solo road trip from Iowa, a businessman just flown in from Los Angeles. Buses and cars arrive and depart nonstop, filled with hands and hearts from far and wide.
The damage we saw around the camp seemed manageable, but that first evening, stories emerged from those who’d been out “in the field,” helping neighbors salvage what they could. Punctuating the stories we heard were lines like:
“We kept looking for the water line at our ankles and knees and then realized we had to look up—it was eight feet high.”
“There was nothing to save.”
“I felt like I was picking someone’s life out of the trees.”
Assignments for work, both inside and outside Camp Coast Care, are made the evening before. I’m not sure why, but I volunteered for work inside the camp, working on the loading dock, in the main office and helping people park in a clearing that served as a parking lot. (Since some people knew where they were going, while others had never been there, the rules of parking were neither clear nor self-correcting. Chaos was always one car away.) While in the office, I befriended a retired priest, Jim Galbraith, who agreed to take us through the surrounding area to show us the hurricane’s aftermath. The tour would have to be in the daylight. “It’ll break your heart,” he said.
Even now, my heart is still catching up.
We left for our tour around four in the afternoon, the sun dropping low in the sky. As we approached the coast, we began to wrap our minds around the hurricane’s power. Houses were damaged, sometimes completely destroyed. The lucky trees were only missing limbs; many had been uprooted.
We neared the town of Pass Christian. As I describe what we saw, a shift in tense is required. Present tense is more immediate, and also more appropriate—much of the Gulf Coast is still like this:
The town of Pass Christian is abandoned. It stands in ruins, a silent testament to what’s happened. I don’t see any birds and the trees not broken, moved or destroyed are showing recent new growth. It’s like springtime for the trees; following the storm, they had been shorn of their leaves, so even the birds were displaced.
Pass Christian’s buildings and homes are ripped, shredded, moved off their foundations, sagging over their frames, or simply gone. Every edifice is beyond use. Cars and trucks are overturned, some crushed and mangled. Debris is piled along both sides of the road like snow banks. We are the only apparent movement.
At the far end of town, we stop in the parking lot of Trinity Church. To the left is the Gulf of Mexico. To the right stands a church that sustained 17 feet of flooding and a storm surge of 42 feet. The hurricane took everything inside the church, including its pews and carpet. Trinity’s rector appears, as if from nowhere, to greet us, and he and Jim swap small talk outside the bus. “Looks better,” Jim says. “It’s coming along.”
Turning to us: “You should’ve seen what it used to look like.”
There is still plenty of sunlight left, and Jim takes us to his own neighborhood along a Gulf Coast highway separated by a median. In several areas, one of the two bands of blacktop is covered in tree limbs and sand, and a simple “Road Closed” sign warns the unsuspecting with no other explanation.
We reach Jim’s subdivision. His house, he says, is the “third slab on the right,” and slabs are all that is left. Everything of all the dozen or so houses in the neighborhood—the walls, the roofs, the doors, the framing, and, of course, all that was inside—is gone.
We look toward what was once a house, past it and through another, past it and over the road, and we can see the Gulf itself, the sun about to set over the horizon, and I wonder if there are two horizons.
The near horizon has revealed countless lives altered forever. The storm’s power took everything but their memories. Katrina left a tableau of loss. To me, this is what grief looks like.
But the distant horizon is different. It is breathtakingly beautiful—a sun, full of color and resolve, setting as always across Gulf waters calm and serene as far as the eye can see. In this moment, I consider the possibility that we live our lives with two horizons: one deeply personal and profound, the second profoundly infinite.
We returned to camp, sunlight slipping by the minute, at a crawl, driving slowly over debris that made a terrible sound but somehow did not puncture the bus’ tires. The next day, some 2,100 people arrived at Camp Coast Care’s parking area for medical attention, clothes and food. It was my job to park them.
Life, with all its struggles, seemed to play out in that parking lot. There were parents, children, couples, singles and elderly. Some had been there before; others weren’t sure where they were. Some needed to see a doctor immediately. Others came for only a can or two of food. Given the stories that everyone drove in with, it wasn’t orderly or calm, but I tried to make it feel that way. Some seemed resigned to the situation and talked about how they got through the storm, how they would stay to rebuild. But others seemed less certain about their prospects; for them, even armsful of stuff were not comfort enough.
I did what I could to make Camp Coast Care feel normal, while realizing that a few short hours of work do precious little to fix a world that is anything but normal, where rebuilding will require years.
Before we left, Jim asked us not to forget them and to tell their story. I share these words with you so that you might know how much it mattered to be there, and in the hope that, together, we will remain involved with the Gulf Coast and help the people there put back together their horizons, both known and unknown.
For more information about Camp Coast Care, visit www.campcoastcare.com.