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Despair Follows Katrina

by Elizabeth Bernier

A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes, the majority of the residents of Waveland, Mississippi still live in FEMA trailers. Recovery from the devastating trauma will only come when they are able to return to their own homes. Many are losing hope of that ever happening. Three key elements prevent reconstruction: funds appropriated by Congress to FEMA have not been distributed to the people; insurance companies have denied payment for damages; and there is a scarcity of construction workers. Churches and volunteers have been the only reliable help and hope.

"Only God can help us now,” lamented Sarah, a 75 year-old woman from Waveland. She had lived through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and had been living in a FEMA trailer for the past 15 months.

Sarah is one of many forgotten, but courageous survivors of Katrina I met on a trip to Waveland, Mississippi in December 2006. She was waiting for help to get back into her home — help that was repeatedly promised but still had not come. Now FEMA is pressuring her to give the trailer back, but she has nowhere to go. As her tale unfolds, of broken promise after broken promise from FEMA, her insurance company, construction workers, setback after setback, hope is destroyed and she repeatedly cries, “Only God can help us now!”

The story of my journey to Mississippi began in 1991 when I survived the hurricane now named “The Perfect Storm.” It was a life-threatening experience that left me with a profound desire to help other survivors of similar disasters. At the time, I was a practicing psychotherapist, working out of my home office in Scituate, Massachusetts. I barely escaped before my home was destroyed

At the invitation of a friend, also a retired therapist, I volunteered for disaster relief through the Public Relations Office of the City of Waveland, Mississippi.

We arrived in Waveland on December 7th, 2006 to see a city destroyed. Waveland, a city of 7000 people, is 45 miles east of New Orleans. The city was at the eastern edge of the eye of the storm. The destruction extended 50 miles inland. After the water receded, town leaders found only 12 homes had escaped serious damage.

"We lost all of our buildings, equipment and infrastructure,” said Waveland mayor, Tommy Longo. City Hall is now a complex of 10 double-wide trailers. (1) Broken water pipes, sewer pipes, gas lines, lights and roads all need to be replaced or repaired.

We were assigned to the Public Relations office. The women there are friendly, warm, inviting and very stressed out, some on the edge of burnout. Every day the staff is at work to get people back in their homes. They act as liaison between residents and FEMA, builders, insurance companies, tree-removers, non-profit organizations, volunteer groups, churches, etc. All the while, they themselves are trying to recover from the trauma of Katrina in their personal lives. Staff have lost homes, businesses, spouses, automobiles, friends, neighbors and sometimes, entire neighborhoods.

After 16 months with “nothing happening,” as one after another explains, many survivors are losing hope. There were two suicides in the past two months and more feared to come as the holidays approached.

The needs are overwhelming but the tenacity and resilience of the people is heroic. They are so grateful to anyone who tries to help them. Often we heard, “Thank you, if it weren’t for the volunteers who have come to help us, we would be nowhere. ”And,“ If it wasn’t for the churches, we wouldn’t be as far along as we are.”

A church group was first on the scene the day after Katrina hit, feeding everyone with hot meals. In contrast, the Salvation Army took three days to get to Waveland and the National Guard, two weeks.

Spearheaded by one young woman, an interfaith clergy organization from Northbrook, IL, founded KARING in the aftermath of Katrina. A non-profit organization, they have delivered supplies and volunteers to the Gulf community in no less than nine trips over the past year. It is remarkable what KARING has accomplished since they adopted Waveland back in Feb. 2006. KARING has provided everything from school supplies, to soccer uniforms, home furnishings to brand new computers. In the summer of 2006, they organized a camp experience for kids, providing arts, crafts, and fun trips for the children. In the fall, they treated the City of Waveland staff to a day of rest and relaxation at a spa. They have created a website — www.karing.org to keep members informed. This trip they have brought Christmas for 20 families, and an organ for one of the churches.

Mayor Tommy Longo said, “ Northbrook’s homegrown relief efforts have been a critical part of this city’s slow but steady recovery.” (2)

About 4,500 of the 7,000 pre-hurricane population are back in Waveland. 2,500 survivors are living in FEMA trailers. Most are one bedroom trailers, 340 sq .ft. of space, housing families, some with several children. Many survivors are becoming claustrophobic. Now we learn the trailers may be toxic. (3) "The 2,000 who are in houses are there as the result of groups like KARING," said the mayor. (4)

The economic realities of the post-disaster situation are appalling. When those eligible received their FEMA grants to re-build, the grants were based on the pre-disaster cost of construction. Now, as families begin to try and find contractors to do the work, costs of materials and contractors have soared. The Federal grants awarded can’t cover those costs.

The city must raise 50% matching funds to rebuild the infrastructure, a requirement of the federal government. With the population cut by 50% and the remaining residents devastated financially, raising those funds is another impossible hardship. Plus many residents returned to discover their jobs had disappeared along with their homes. 

There is a huge problem of trying to find contractors who, after starting the job, will not abandon the family in favor of a higher bidder for their services. “Some, (families), who were promised funds, took out loans in order to get back into their homes and attain some sense of normalcy for their families. Those funds have not yet arrived and now the people are faced with creditors calling for their money,” writes Kathy Pinn, former director of Public Relations. (5)

The people feel abandoned. I heard it said, over and over again, “This is ground zero” and “No one knows what it’s like down here.” Many survivors are at a breaking point.

I came away from my visit to Waveland determined to find more ways to publicize the city’s plight. Unless the ongoing struggle to rebuild lives and homes stays in the public consciousness we, the public, assume life is getting back to normal for the survivors of one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. These families are our fellow Americans. Americans are the most generous nation on earth. We can do better. We should do better. They cannot be forgotten. We cannot let them despair that they have been forgotten to struggle alone while the rest of us go on with our daily lives. My hope is that this article may inspire more people to form groups in their towns or churches, like KARING, (www.karing.org), and Wayland to Waveland, (www.waylandtowaveland.org), committing time and resources to help restore homes and restore hope to those who feel so forgotten.

(1) “Waveland mayor visits volunteers”, Feb. 15, 2007, Northbrook Star.

(2) ibid

(3) “Are FEMA Trailers Toxic Tin Cans?” MSNBC, Mike Brunker, July 25, 2006

(4) op. cit.

(5) Summary report from Waveland, July 19, 2006

Sidebar info :

Call to Action, how you can help: Make a donation; write or email your Representative and Senators in Congress; collect “gently used” small appliances; send gift cards from Home Depot, Lowe’s or Wal-Mart; organize your church or community to take on a small project for survivors of Katrina.

Donations can be sent to:

City of Waveland, P.O. Box 335, Waveland, MS 39576

Designate use, for example: To re-build City Hall

For the library or schools, please make donation to:

Hancock County Public Library

Bay-Waveland School District

Contact person:

Betty Robinson, Director of Public Relations

City of Waveland

335 Coleman Ave. Bldg. #8

Waveland, MS 39576

228-467-3425


Elizabeth Bernier is a retired psychotherapist from Massachusetts. Elizabeth and a friend caravanned in their RV's to Mississippi, living in the RV's while they volunteered in the community. She also kept a blog of her journey and experiences. You may email her at ebernier6@verizon.net

 

©2007 Elizabeth Bernier for SeniorWomenWeb
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