Katrina Remembrances Pt. 5: Witness to an Atomic Bomb: The Mississippi Gulf Coast. September 2, 2005

Aerial_image_of_mississippi_1 When the alarm went off around 4:30am, I had only slept between 2-3 hours. I was so keyed up after talking with my parents and getting everything together, I couldn’t get to sleep. I’m notorious about this. Every mission trip I’ve ever taken, I’ve always started out tired because I can’t sleep the night before, my mind racing through possibilities, prepartions, and potential problems (that sounds like sermon aliteration – ugh!). Anyway, I awoke, showered, dressed, packed some final things, secured pre-packed items in the borrowed Dodge Ram truck from my friend, and made it to the church to meet the other guys for 6am. It was a humid morning as the sun was rising, and we were all filled with anticipation. FEMA had not yet arrived en masse on the Gulf Coast. The military had not yet secured New Orleans. Refugees were still waiting at the Superdome and Convention Center for rescue. People in little coastal towns all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast had still not received water or  food, or been provided with a place to sleep. As dawn broke, and we headed out, we would be among the first responders, only 4 days after one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history. Others had arrived before us, to be sure, but we would be in that first wave of a citizen army of compassion. The next few days would be some of the most significant of my life.

We set out on the road, and Mike Brake, a Chief Master Sergent in the Air Force drove the borrowed Dodge. We also had another member of the Air Force, Rob, driving down with us in his pick-up truck. We had good conversation, but I was also trying to catch a bit of sleep before we arrived. I knew that sleep would be hard to come by over the next few days. We drove south down I-65, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive to Mobile, AL from Montgomery. About half way down, Mike got a call from a superior with the Air Force telling him to turn around. They just issued a statement that no active duty personnel were allowed in the disaster zone, even on their own time. It was too dangerous. Both Mike and Rob were frustrated with this, but they had to obey. They got in Rob’s truck and returned home. Our advance team just lost almost 25% of it’s manpower. We were down to 7 people (I miscounted in a previous post), plus the two drivers of the Bonnie Plant Farm delivery truck who would be going back to Alabama when the truck was unloaded. Sigh. I can tell you that I was not too happy with our government at this point.

We filled up with gas again around 60 miles north of Mobile. It was the last gas we would find. Fortunately, I was travelling with an extra 50 gallons, as was every vehicle that would come down. I would need all of it before the week was over. A little later, I received a call on my cell phone from the Red Cross Headquarters in Montgomery. We would be going to Ocean Springs instead of Pascagoula. Ocean Springs was further west and right across the Biloxi Bay from Biloxi. We were being placed closer to ground zero. They gave me directions to the Red Cross command center in Ocean Springs and said that they would be expecting me. They were using satellite phones to communicate with them, and when I passed into Mississippi from Alabama, all cell phone and land line communication would be lost.

We went through Mobile and we began to see damage. Signs were down and some roofs had wind damage. There was flooding in downtown Mobile from the storm surge the day Katrina hit and a lot of damage on the coast. People forget that Alabama suffered too. But, this was just the beginning.  After passing through Mobile, we turned west on I-10 and began to travel toward Mississippi. We weren’t far from the coast at this point and we were seeing many trees down. After crossing the state line, I saw an abandoned Highway Patrol car on the road. It was just left there. We started seeing helicopters flying overhead. A bridge was out and eastbound traffic was being diverted. On another bridge, we saw a tug boat pushed against the side. Clothes and paper were in trees. I thought it was from wind at first, but then I realized it was from storm surge coming up the Pascagoula River and into the bayous. It was at least 15 feet high. This was becoming surreal. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

We turned off I-10 and went south to Ocean Springs. Using our directions, we found the Red Cross Command Center in downtown Ocean Springs. It was a hot day, but everyone was running around town with a job to do. People were cleaning, working, and trying to get things going again. It was an encoraging sight. They weren’t waiting for anyone to come and do it for them. I felt some pride in having grown up in Mississippi and being from this stock of Gulf Coast natives. I hoped I would be as strong as they in the next couple of days.

Establishing the Red Cross Shelter at Christus Victor Lutheran Church, Ocean Springs, Mississippi

We parked our big truck and the rest of the convoy in a parking lot down the street from the Red Cross and Charlie and I drove over there. I left him in the truck and I went in. The building had electricity because it was near the government buildings that had gone online that morning. They were in a meeting of some sort and were trying to establish shelters. They only had a couple set up at this point. When I walked in, a lady came up to me and asked, "Are you the group of 30 from Montgomery ?" Our reputation preceeded us. I said that I was a part of the advance team of 7 and that around 25 more would be here around midnight. Great! She told me to go to Christus Victor Lutheran Church on Hwy. 90 and set up a shelter. SET UP A SHELTER??? I was under the impression that we would be helping in one already set up! "How do you set up a shelter?" I asked, wishing I had paid attention to our training the night before. "Make it happen," she said. Great.  We were the Red Cross. They didn’t have the means or capacity to do anything. We were it. They didn’t even have badges for us.

Christus_victor Charlie and I drove to Christus Victor. Again, I walked in and there were a few ladies working to get things ready. A lady walked up to me and asked, "Are you the Red Cross? Great! We’ve been waiting for you! Tell us what to do!" At first, I started to tell her that I was just a pastor and didn’t know what to do myself. I saw confusion start to come over her face, and I realized that they needed leadership, not excuses. I would fake it! I started acting like I knew what I was doing. She gave me a tour and I got the lay of the facility. It was huge. There would be room to house  and feed around 100 and be a distribution center for supplies. We were also given the assignment of turning it into a special care unit for medically at risk patients and we had to receive people with pets.  This was going to be one of those days.

We went back and got the team. Charlie’s brother-in-law was with us and he was a VA hospital administrator. He would be the shelter director. Charlie was in charge of supplies. Everyone had a job, from set up, to registration of people, to medical issues. There were only 7 of us, and people would start arriving within 2 hours. We had to hurry. We all went back to the shelter and started working. We divided up the rooms, found sleeping quarters for the team (and the rest that would come that night) sectioned off a medical area, a fenced in area for pets, and a general sleeping area. We unloaded half the truck to supply the shelter with food and water for the next couple of days. They had already received supplies and were not in desperate need, so I went with the guys driving the big truck back to the Red Cross to get rid of the rest of our stuff. The rest of the team continued with set up and started receiving people. Hwy. 90 got electricity that day, so we had power. They pulled computers out and set up a registration area in the lobby. Each one of us were functioning as a team. It was amazing.

The Red Cross sent our half filled truck to a nearby Methodist church that was to become a shelter. They were expecting 200 people within the next couple of hours. I went into the church and only found a lady in her late 30’s who was the daughter of the pastor. She was trying to get things ready, but they had no food or water. I asked her what she was going to do, and she, quite overwhelmed, said she didn’t know. Well, would a truck of supplies be o.k.? Absolutely! We started unloading against a wall in the fellowship hall. When we were almost done, I looked over at her and saw her crying. I went up to her and asked her if she was alright. She looked back at the pile of food, water, baby supplies, etc. in paper bags and boxes and she said, "This just came from regular folks. Not from companies or the government, but from people wanting to help. I can’t believe it." I looked back and saw it. Tears came to my eyes as well, as I realized that this was the stuff that families in our church had brought by. This was the stuff that people in our city had provided to help people they didn’t even know. Well, it would feed people tonight who had nothing. Emotion overcame me and I had to turn away. God was using His church to make a difference. I got to be a part of that. Praise God.

The empty delivery truck returned to Alabama and I went back to Christus Victor.  Things were starting to take off. My job was to get people from the registration desk in the front lobby and down a maze of hallways to the large room in the back where most people would be sleeping. I talked with them on the walk, heard a little of their story, oriented them to the facility, and basically tried show kindness and help them feel more comfortable. I did this all day and into the evening. On several occasions, again, I had to turn away as we walked so they would not see tears in my eyes, as I heard their story. They were people just like my family. That could have been us. Most came in with all their belongings under their arm. They had lost everything. That walk was so significant, because I got a chance to take scared, unsure people and let them know that they were welcome and we loved them. I provided a sense of warmth that I hoped would make for a better stay.

The day was controlled chaos. We had several nurses assigned to us later in the evening and they began to help with the special needs folks who were being sent our way. These ladies were from North Mississippi and they were warriors. They had been here since the day before the storm. They had a good sense of humor, but tears were never far away as they dealt with the tragedy of loss. People had lost everything. There was debris all over the town. The storm surge had taken out homes and the winds had torn off roofs. All day long, we heard story after story. People had to talk about it. I missed lunch that day and had a bowl of beans, rice, and ham around 8pm. It was the best food I’d ever had. I had tried to leave around 6pm to go to Picayune, but there was a curfew I didn’t know about, so I had to turn back. All in all, I’m glad I did, because I really feel that God used me that night, and the team definitely needed all the help it could get.

I had been walking around all evening talking with the shelter residents, hearing their stories, answering their questions, getting what they needed, and praying with them. Around 9pm I had an idea. What if we had a Bible study? I walked and asked if anyone would like to join me? 9 people did. I talked about building your house upon the Rock of Jesus, instead of on the sand. People started sharing and rejoicing that God had saved them. A 14 year old girl said her birthday was yesterday, but it was her best birthday ever because she was alive. God met with us that night. I prayed for them and told them that since they had been ministered to, they needed to minister to others in the days to come. They agreed. God was working.

Our reinforcements finally arrived around midnight. We went to work unloading a great deal of supplies they had brought with them. People were eveywhere. 7 of us had established and run a shelter for around 90 people for almost 12 hours. We were exhausted. We quickly assigned everyone to jobs and they relieved us. The shelter, on that first night, was a 24 hour operation, as people kept coming in. There were so many people and stories of tragedy. One elderly lady was beside herself in tears over keeping her dog outside in the fenced in area with the other dogs. She was angry and scared. I told her I was a pastor and I prayed with her. God’s peace came upon her and she began to calm down. She hugged me and thanked me over and over again. She held on to me like I was a life preserver. When I saw her throughout the evening, her sorrow was replaced with a smile and she thanked God and thanked me for ministering to her and helping her. Again, God was working.

Around 1:00am, I crawled onto my sleeping bag on the floor, exhausted in every way. I would be taking a couple of guys to city hall early the next morning to try and secure MRE’s for the shelter residents. After that, I would take off to Picayune, my work in Ocean Springs done. I have never been so tired, physically or emotionally. I didn’t just help people with their physical needs, but I also tried to carry their burdens emotionally and spiritually as well, pointing each one to Christ as their only hope. He met us in that Red Cross shelter on September 2 and glorified Himself.

A new day awaited me on which I would head further west. I had no trouble sleeping that night. I basically passed out.

Tomorrow: Katrina Remembrances Pt. 6: Picayune, Mamaw, and Sorrow Upon Sorrow

3 Responses to Katrina Remembrances Pt. 5: Witness to an Atomic Bomb: The Mississippi Gulf Coast. September 2, 2005

  1. Alan, I wanted you to know I read a large part of this post to my SS class today. The lesson was about Joshua being thrust into service after Moses’ death, and concerned times we have to step up and fill bigger shoes. Your article nailed the thought dead-center.

  2. Thanks, Bob! I was wondering if anyone was still reading them, or if these stories were too long. I decided to keep writing so I can have that record of the event. There will be 9 installments altogether, with a possible summary of what has happened over the past year. Thanks for reading and sharing.