Ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, I have been consumed with thoughts about the well-being of the people who live there. I read about Katrina and saw the news reports, but to see the situation first-hand, six months later, you wouldn’t believe that so many people’s lives are not even close to being “normal.”
I was one of eight students from GW Hillel’s Hurricane Katrina alternative spring break program, in partnership with Presbytery of Mississippi, to help repair roofs in Biloxi, Miss. The devastation in Biloxi was so much worse than I ever imagined; demolished and damaged houses and Federal Emergency Management Association trailers everywhere. I’ve read that the rebuilding process will take 10 years to restore the 120 miles of communities affected by the Gulf Coast, but the impact of seeing what was left of Biloxi was stunning. I’ll never forget.
We lived in PODS, Portable on Demand Shelters, used Porto-potties, outdoor sinks and showers, and shared communal responsibilities for the upkeep of “our” tent city. We knew, however, that these living situations were temporary, while the people left behind in Mississippi were there permanently.
The week was incredible. It was incredible that students from all over the country, many of whom had never done manual labor before, could learn how to use power tools to put a roof on a house with just a two-hour lesson. It was incredible how well we worked together for nine hours a day. It was incredible how quickly we formed friendships and expressed our feelings and emotions about what we saw and how we felt. It was incredible how we sang songs while we climbed ladders and used power tools to restore roofs to houses.
The week was frustrating. It was frustrating to see how much still needs to be done to help the citizens of Mississippi rebuild. It is frustrating to know that it will be a long time before these U.S. citizens can know a “normal” life; what we take for granted, living in an organized home in an organized neighborhood, going to school, having a library, going to church or synagogue, going to work, going to restaurants, museums, plays and movies, planning vacations and shopping for clothes, gifts and household needs.
It is frustrating to know that Helen, a homeowner whose roof we completed, and who shared her appreciation by praying for us while crying and hugging each of us, lost everything she owned in Katrina. It is frustrating that she lives in a FEMA trailer, and yet, it is incredible that she wanted to repay us with one of her few salvaged belongings; a silver candleholder that was her grandmother’s. It is frustrating to know that she is living in America, but she is living like she is in a Third World country.
I’ll never forget my experience in Mississippi. I’ll never forget what I saw, what we did, the people I met and the friendships we established. I’ll never forget the need to return to help our Mississippi neighbors get their homes, schools, jobs and quality of life back. I’ll never forget GW’s Hillel Hurricane Katrina alternative spring break program in Biloxi. I hope that you don’t forget about Mississippi, the Gulf Coast and all the work there is left to be done.
-The writer is a sophomore in the School of Business.