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My Pass Christian Diary [Hurricane Katrina Aftermath 2005]
October 26, 2005: It's 7 a.m., we are all (19 of us) just a little bleary eyed while we drink our coffee and get to know our fellow volunteers coming from (Flagler County Sheriff's Office, Seminole County, Volusia County, Lake Mary & Port Orange) who are part of the Mission One recovery effort into Pass Christian, Mississippi. However, we are excited as we anticipate the days ahead and ask ourselves just what will it be like. What does a city look like where portions of the city and some of its grander homes have been totally destroyed? How do you begin to rebuild and restore hope for the future in this environment? We only hope as the long convoy heads out to Pass Christian, Mississippi, that the skills and abilities we have, as local government professionals will make a difference. We also hope that those qualities we possess as humans will also make a huge difference in the lives of folks who have lost everything.
It was a long trip through Florida, Alabama then into Mississippi. We left some of the team in Biloxi to grab some food and I, along with Sergeant Buchanan and Joan Dunn took the big trucks on into Pass Christian, where the town leaders met us at Exit 24 from I-10...the only exit left that allows any access into town whatsoever. It is dark when we arrive so we cannot see what the City looks like. By the time we get the Low Boy with the Front End Loader parked, the rest of the team has arrived. The Pass Christian officials, just a little haggard, from their experience over the last 7 to 8 weeks are more than happy to see the local government troops arrive to assist them with their recovery efforts. Malcolm Jones, the Chief Administrative Officer, briefed the staff on what to expect on our first day and sent us off to our respective domiciles with a scheduled start time of 7:30 Thursday morning.
The men are lodged at a local compound owned by a religious group. The compound has dormitories, but no hot showers, at least for the first few days. A local citizen has provided a home for the few female volunteers-who have hot showers! We are tired, but excited and ready to begin our 12-day Mission here in Pass Christian.
October 27, 2005: Most of us were up well before 7:30 and ready to go. Breakfast at the "FEMA Cafe" run by a catering crew out of Miami was certainly better than the expected MREs. As our caravan weaved through the main street to FEMA Café we began to see the extent of the devastation. Folks have referred to it as a war zone…I am not even sure that adequately describes the devastation. Roadways completed destroyed. Homes have disappeared. They not only cannot find the houses, but also in some cases have yet to find the bodies. There are no businesses left –Wal-Mart and $50 million dollars in merchandise has been blown across the countryside. The Fire Station, Police Station, City Hall, all the school buildings are GONE!! The tax base for this city has been destroyed. This is the most heart wrenching devastation I have ever personally experienced. As Malcolm Jones, the Chief Administrative Officer, drives me through the streets of his City, he is now able to find a light side, but he still chokes up as he views the wasteland before us. It chokes me up, I have tears in my eyes…but how must it feel for the person sitting next to me whose family has been here for generations!
The Public works crews have been put to work clearing debris to make way for more tents and other structures needed to provide the basic services. The Building Inspectors are hooking up electrical wiring in the trailer that will become the Building Permit Offices over the next few weeks. IT crews are spending the day traveling to Long Beach and Gulfport, the County Courthouse, gathering the data necessary to begin the assessment system and GIS database. Their work trailer will be ready by tomorrow morning. Our Finance Officer has completed the FEMA payroll for the City employees for the past week. We are all overwhelmed with emotion and dedicated to make a difference while we are here.
October 28, 2005: Today, we were all a little more rested, and not as shell shocked by the damage that surrounds us…. After several meetings into the night with Malcolm, and an early morning meeting with our building inspectors and IT team we had a clear plan in place for proceeding with damage assessment.
Our Port Orange and Palm Coast Utility teams worked into the night last night trying to cap off a break in a water line and save a road before it washed out. Unfortunately, they did not have all the tools they needed, and a tired, wet, bedraggled crew finally had to give up their efforts and return to solve the problem today.
One of our biggest concerns is that the area is extremely dry; the fear of fires is ever-present and fire hydrants in the City remain covered with debris. Coupled with the fact that some contractors are beginning to clear private lots and are inadvertently knocking over fire hydrants, we called for additional resources from Palm Coast and have a plan in place to begin uncovering fire hydrants and marking those that work and those need to be repaired. The new team will arrive Sunday and we look forward to the extra and much-needed help for this first mission. They are also bringing more tools and protective clothing that we need in this working environment.
I spent time this morning talking with the Public Works crews from Pass Christian; people are struggling to come to work get the job done each day while they are simultaneously dealing with their own personal losses. Many of them have lost their homes and some of them have lost family and friends. They look at the devastation surrounding them and wonder if their hometown will ever be the same. HOPE is a very small commodity here and our local government teams are learning that this mission is about much, much more than helping this community to rebuild their homes, schools, businesses and churches. It is about holding hands and listening. It is about rebuilding hope and believing there is a future.
Tonight we gathered around the campfire, as a team that is bonding, sharing our war stories and brainstorming creative solutions to the multitude of problems we are facing each day. Tomorrow is another day and we are ready to go!
October 29, 2005: We started off the day on a very somber note as Malcolm and I climbed through debris trying to find the owner of a home that was blocking the road in the Timber Ridge area where our Building Team is working. We peered through a broken window where a desk was washed up against the wall and began to go through papers trying to find the owner's name. We uncovered a birthday card with money inside wishing the homeowner the best on their birthday and for the year to come; but we could not read the address. We finally uncovered a checkbook with the address 108 Fernwood and a phone number. Malcolm calls the owner; I only hear his end of a very emotional conversation as he informs her that we have found her home in the middle of the street and need to confirm right of entry to allow the Public Works Team to move the house out of the street. Malcolm then tells her about the card and money and the procedure to follow to pick up the card at the local police station. With permission granted, the public works team can now bring in the heavy equipment and bulldoze a lifetime of memories into a pile beside the road.
We move on and try to relocate the site where the Building Team experienced a suspicious smell and a possible decomposing body. We are unable to find the site and advise the team to mark the site clearly, so if necessary we can send the coroner back to investigate. We hope and pray it is simply a dead animal when we rediscover the site.
It is only 10:00 am and it has already been a very, very long day.
October 30, 2005: Today is Sunday, the community is quiet as most of the locals are in church and spending time with their families continuing to support one another and heal the open wounds that stay fresh. For some, church is held in an open field and the beautiful sunny weather cooperates. For others, service is held in the oldest church in Pass Christian, there are no walls, the insides are gutted, and the stained glass windows and the old wooden shutters that are recovered and leaning against the building. Folding chairs provide seats for the faithful.
Our Team is hard at work by 7:00 a.m. Our place of worship, our prayers are in our hearts and our minds, but most of all in our hands as we try our best to do whatever little we can do to return this community to normalcy.
Today as we work we are seeing more locals return to town. Slowly they drive down the streets of their hometown, pointing and shaking their heads in awe at the ability of Mother Nature to destroy in one hour what took generations to build. The scenes are heart wrenching, an older couple picking through the debris of their home – all that is left standing is the foundation. They do not recognize the personal items left stranded at what remains of their home – memories that have been blown or washed away from someone else’s home. A young mother, holding one child in her arms, with another by her side; gazes at the ocean as tears stream down her face and she ponders just what the future holds for her family. Knowing only that she holds the future in her arms
As we perform our various jobs in the community we begin to hear the stories.
The stories abound of horror, terror and heroism. These folks just need to talk about what they have experienced. They need to describe in detail the horror of that awful storm and purge the memories from their hearts. They need to talk about what they have lost, and yet, what they still have. They have to point to former landmarks and try to describe in words for us a picture of what was there. It is hard for us to imagine what it looked like; we did not live here, we did not see this place when it was a thriving community. But, you can see it in their eyes, they see the 150 year old elementary school, which covered more than two city blocks – where nothing now stands but the flagpole and steps leading to a front door that is no more. They see the generations of Pass Christian children who passed through those doors where they first learned to read and began to develop lifelong friendships. Those friendships, those families are what sustain the community today. It is that, NOT the erection of new buildings that will rebuild this community. For it is those human connections, that are the community.
October 31, 2005: It was like Christmas this morning as the team opened supplies from home. How can two young men get so excited about poly-tubing and parts to help fix water leaks? And the Public Works crew was in heaven, as they attached the much-needed root rake to the front-end loader. We are in business now and feel like we can carry out our assignments far more effectively with the proper tools.
Each team is up and on the job by 7:00 a.m. or earlier and working to well after dark as they face the multitude of tasks before them. They move quickly from one task to the next, eager to fix the problems and accomplish as much as possible during their short stay in this community. All of these dedicated public servants, touched by the magnitude of the disaster this community has faced, say they are willing to stay longer or even return until the work is completed. The toll has been heavy on these volunteers though and I know that the plan we have of rotating volunteers through here on a weekly basis makes far more sense. Burn out would occur rapidly, in this environment, as the job and tasks that must be completed to recover this community is simply more than our small group of 22 can hope to carry out in a week. The recovery of this community will take years.
Another cadaver was found today and as debris removal continues it is not an unexpected occurrence.
As they worked to recover the cadaver, the local police shared their storm story with Lt. Grady Prather…
As the storm advanced, the small police department had to keep moving their department of 11 souls to more secure facilities. They were still trying to save folks who had stayed in their homes even after winds reached 70 and 80 miles per hour. As the winds and water level increased and more rescues became impossible, they retreated to the local library, a one-story building, behind City Hall, believed to be secure from the storm. As the water level rose and the storm surge hit them, they very quickly became trapped with the pressure of the water blocking their exit from the building. In desperation they tried to shoot out the windows with their semiautomatics to relieve the pressure, which would allow them to open the back door and reach safety. The windows would not break. As the water reached ever higher and they began to tread water, they were not certain they would survive.
Finally, one of the police cars floated into the front doors creating a break that began to suck them out. They formed a human chain, found a ledge just behind the building and huddled their holding tight to one another throughout the rest of the storm watching an eerie site as the police cars they abandoned floated by with lights flashing into the angry sea.
November 1, 2005: It rained today! Wonderful, not only does it cut down on the dust, but it reduces the risk and constant worry about fire. We are now in a steady groove. We know what our jobs are and anxiously get going to start our tasks for the day. As one of the Public Works crew says, we are no longer as emotional as we were during the first few days of seeing this devastation, we have not become inured to it, we now just focus on the job and getting it done.
As happens in highly charged situations like this, when you have skilled dedicated people working together, a sense of respect, and a strong sense of camaraderie begins to develop. Everyone is looking out for everyone else and is concerned about his or her well-being in the field.
We have resolved the concern about finding cadavers in the field, as spotters from the Coroner’s office now work beside us to handle any problems that might arise. We are tearing down our second home in the middle of the street, but the emotions are not as high as they were for the first one. The homeowner has assured us that he has removed anything of value that was left and we are free to take it down.
Our most poignant story today is of a family, father, mother, daughter and son, who had to chain themselves to a car to survive the rising waters after their house crashed down around them. They survive the storm, only to lose their mother in the aftermath as she succumbed to shock from the experience and passed in their arms. To have made it through hours of flooding and wind and yet still to perish; fate is truly an ironic master. The family can be seen picking lumber from the piles of debris and gathering other articles they need for their makeshift camp near East Second Street. Life goes on as they work to rebuild their homes and their lives in the midst of this most terrible loss.
November 2, 2005:
I have received lots of hugs in the Pass over the last few days, people are so grateful and it makes me feel very humble. One elderly woman told me today, “I don’t have a roof and everything is wet, but I have more than most of these folks do. If anyone would ask me, I would tell them it’s not about material things, it’s about the people, our love for one another and our strength. And you people who have come to help, she says with tears in her eyes, just reinforce that for me.” With that she gave me a big hug and invited me to come back, when the people of the Pass have their piece of heaven restored to its former beauty.
Our guys are rebuilding, instead of demolishing today. They are on a high, as they work to create order from chaos in this world that has literally been turned upside down. You can see the smiles on their faces as they smoot
The rest of our team is working hard at assessing the extent of the damage; three teams are in the field. In some cases, there is nothing left standing on the lot and they simply make an X on the paper to show total and complete destruction. In another place, they find 4 houses all piled together on one lot and they have to figure out where they came from and just how to fill out the paper work on it. In other places, the residents are already gutting the core of their houses removing the sheet rock, insulation, electrical wiring, etc. and prepping to clean up and destroy the mildew and mold so they can get a permit to rebuild from the foundation up. There are 5300 vacant lots, where once stood the homes and businesses of the Pass Christian community, which must be assessed to determine the total cost of the damage. Before we leave we hope to have finished the assessment of 3000 of these properties. The next Mission will focus on permitting and inspections as the rebuilding process begins for this community. You can see the smiles on their faces as they smooth out out the area that will be the future parking lot for “The Village”, a tent city set up just outside City Hall to provide housing for the homeless. Not even a broken down dump truck can disturb these guys as they finally have a chance to build instead of demolish!
The Water & Wastewater teams seem to have the most difficult job, as there seems to be no end to it. As the team fixes one leak, the increased pressure causes another leak up the line, or heavy equipment clearing debris breaks a main water line. For now we have been capping the broken fire hydrants, but the Chief Administrative Officer is trying to find the funds to purchase a few fire hydrants so the utility teams can replace them instead of capping them. Fire continues to be our biggest worry. The little rain we had yesterday is already dried up and gone!!
We carry on with our work and as the IT guys say, we are in the zone now and making steady progress. We are only here for 12 days and are but a very small part of that recovery and rebuilding process, which will go on for many years to come.
November 3, 2005: It was a long day; we worked into the night on a project at the Harbor. The whole team worked. We circled the Public Works crews with our vehicles to provide light as they worked to fill a crater and create a flat area to place the Harbor Master’s new headquarters—A FEMA trailer scheduled to arrive next week. We ate pizza and maintained a watch to make sure that the workers were safe as they operated the front-end loader and backhoe with the superb skills they have exhibited all week.
The Building Inspectors and I attended a Council Meeting to present the concept of Expedited Permitting to the alderman. Emotions were high as some folks from this very insular, self-sufficient community argued whether they needed the outside help or not. This is a small community use to taking care of themselves. Some still do not understand and some are still in shock and just do not realize the magnitude of the disaster. The majority recognized that they did indeed need the help and were apologetic for the conflict. Ultimately, the alderman decide that help with rebuilding and issuing permits and accomplishing inspection in a timely manner must come from outside. Folks are already frustrated by how slow the process has been and have started rebuilding without permits, creating possible future safety risks that will only be visible when the next Katrina hits this small community. The team is tired at the end of this long day
It has been a fulfilling week but frustrating dealing with the local politics and trying hard to accomplish as much as possible in the face of many obstacles. The one shining star in this whole operation and the person who has the ability to lead (or pull) this community toward recover is Malcolm Jones. He works tirelessly trying to finesse, cajole do whatever it takes to bring his community back from the brink of ruin. Malcolm knows he must move fast with only two to three months of operating cash left to run this City government, he is desperate to acquire any and all ‘free’ resources and help he can get. Our team has learned to respect and admire this selfless man who has been our guide through the morass of this community over the last week.
Friday November 4, 2005 The politics continues, I walk into City Hall to find that the building official angered, hurt and disappointed with the Alderman’s decision the previous evening, has stopped taking permit applications and has sent them all to City Hall. The City Hall employees come to me in tears and ask me to handle the long line of citizens waiting to get answers and submit applications for permits. I call Malcolm and cannot reach him, so I go to the Pass Christian Web Site print off all the necessary applications and begin acting as “the building department” sitting and talking with folks giving them applications and asking them to return on Monday for permits. By then, the issues should be resolved and the Building Official coming from Palm Coast and the new building team members arriving will be able to address these issues.
As I work with these folks who are applying for permits, including temporary permits to put FEMA trailers on their lots (where no habitable home remains), I hear so many tales of sorrow and hardship, and I find myself holding back the tears once again. I thought I was past that, but I find I am not. I took a break to get some fresh air and make some phone calls outside City Hall and find myself helping an elderly woman who has just returned to town from Alabama. She looks as though she is about to pass out, as she stands in the middle of the parking lot, her car loaded with all her worldly goods and her two dogs and she cries and mutters, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I comfort her and lead her inside where the paper shuffle begins to assign her to a tent in “the Village” so she can begin to rebuild her life.
We work with a family to get the electricity on in their FEMA trailer before nightfall, as the children still fear the dark and do not sleep well since Katrina came. At end of day we have permission from Malcolm, to finish the inspection and have power to the family by nightfall. One of the building inspectors has come in from doing assessment damage to help me as the numbers coming in for permits has become more than one person can handle. However, everyone is patient and exceedingly grateful for the help they are getting. We have been able working with homeowners to teach them how to clean up the mold and mildew which has taken hold in their formerly pristine homes, given directions on stripping the electric wires which must all be replaced and guidance on retrofitting the straps weakened by exposure to salt water. Some did not realize the extent of the repairs that their homes would need, but they want to do it right for this is their home. Others aren’t as ‘lucky’ and are requesting permits to rebuild the entire structure from the pad up. They are all strong-willed folks who are determined to rebuild and stay in Pass Christian where their families have lived for generations.
Saturday, November 05, 2005: With an air of excitement, we begin our last day knowing that tomorrow we return to the arms of our family and friends who are anxious for us to be home. But, we also feel guilty, as we know we have homes and families to return to and many of these folks with whom we have worked have no homes and have lost friends and family members. We are also anxious, we desperately want to work as hard as possible for however long it takes today to complete the priorities that Malcolm has set for us and to leave the incoming team with a clean slate to start their week of work and their assignments. I reassigned equipment and personnel to maximize our resources for our last day in town; and began the process of documenting and preparing outlines of tasks for the incoming team.
As the day progresses, we realize it will be another long day as the team replacing us is only just west of Tallahassee by noon CST. You can see the disappointment in the eyes of our team members who hoped they would be able to head home tonight and arrive early enough to spend time with their families before returning to their regular jobs on Monday. As team leader, I am torn between allowing them to leave and ensuring their safety; I know how worn out, both physically and emotionally, they all are after 11 days in Pass. We have had no accidents or injuries during our assignment; and I want to make sure there are no accidents heading home for this group of volunteers who are tired and very weary at the end of our tour.
We are proud of our accomplishments this past week as we show the new shiny-eyed team of volunteers the ropes. We implemented a state of the art GIS program to track properties, both damage and rebuilding efforts, we have assessed more than half of the 5300 properties, we have the water pressure up to 70 PSI, all the fire hydrants cleared of debris, and have made significant progress on clearing public property and roadways. This team has done a good job and is ready to leave the work to the incoming team of fresh bright-eyed volunteers as we wearily head to bed with dreams of returning home tomorrow.
Sunday November 6, 2005: I-10 heading East toward the sunrise and Florida, what a beautiful site! We cannot wait to embrace our families and hold them close to our hearts and give thanks for what we have. We are resolved never to gripe and complain about the little things, for there are others who have far less than we have. Pass Christian is in my heart and will stay there. I will not forget this town, these people or Malcolm Jones like Moses leading his people to a better future. Our team is resolved to continue to assist this community in its recovery efforts. Even though we head home, we will continue to work to get the resources and people here that are so desperately needed by this town and these people. Some of our team committed to returning on future missions. Many of them want to return in a few years, to see this community after they get back on their feet again. Although, all of us know it will be longer than a few years before this community totally recovers from the disaster of Katrina, we hope that in a few years progress will be truly visible.
We know this Thanksgiving that we will be truly grateful for what we have. I arrive home embrace my husband, my daughter and hold my grandchild in my arms and know I will be forever grateful and forever aware of the losses fate can inflict on us mere mortals. I will remember to say I love you every day to my loved ones, for in reality none of us are exempt from a similar tragedy when it comes to "Mother Nature" and the whims of fate.