Editor’s note: Kyra Nead is a senior communications consultant in Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit organization. Since 2006, the organization has led Kaiser Permanente volunteer teams to the Gulf Coast to repair or replace homes and buildings destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. A team has just arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“Most of the people here are demoralized, with no money and no time. They work regular jobs, then come “home” to face the endless task of trying to put their lives back together. I have yet to see a government worker gut a house, put up new drywall, or clean out someone’s refrigerator. If it weren’t for the volunteers, we would have just folded like a cheap umbrella during a downpour.”
-Excerpt from Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina by Ellis Anderson
Yesterday, the application process for the Kaiser Permanente 2014 Gulf Coast
Rebuilding Project opened. In a period of two hours, more than 300 people applied. I know, from experience, that in a few short days hundreds of employees and physicians from Kaiser Permanente will apply (one year, more than 1,600 applications were received).
I recently returned from Mississippi on one of these volunteer trips. I needed to experience this myself and see what all the fuss was about. The folks I know who have gone on these trips will talk about it months on end, longing for the opportunity to do it again. Some are quite emotional when they return, feeling the loss of new friends they left behind, or how much more work they could have completed if only they could have stayed a few more days.
On my trip, I not only had one of the most memorable volunteer experiences of my life, but returned with a deep appreciation of community. I was so fortunate to have met many residents, who suffered through so much, but displayed such remarkable resilience and spirit. I ached with jealousy of what it must be like to live in a small town like Bay St. Louis. I met people who knew all their neighbors, and couldn’t take a walk through downtown without a handful of people stopping them to chat about this and that.
During one recent outing I took to tour some of the areas hardest hit by Katrina, I found myself sitting on the couch of Pat Davis and Richard Waldsmith, longtime residents of Bay St. Louis. Katrina drove a 35-foot wall of water into Bay St. Louis, not leaving much of this 300-year-old town behind.
I surveyed their living room. The floors were clean and shiny and every knick-knack and art piece hung in its proper spot. Through the screen door I could just see the backyard, and it was lush and green; the air still, quiet and warm.
If it weren’t for the proof from photos they showed me, I thought they were exaggerating when they told me that their home was completely submerged under water (minus the attic) during Hurricane Katrina. While the house remained standing, what was left was covered top to bottom in mud and would take months of intense cleaning.
I learned during the day how fortunate these two were. So many of their friends and family would loose their homes completely, with only a few bricks remaining behind. I obsessively peppered them with questions, several of them perhaps a bit childish: Did the cemeteries overflow? How did people get food? Were there a lot of children who remained behind? What happened to all the animals?
Most of their responses were met with a simple, “I don’t know. You have to understand we were completely cut off from the outside world; there wasn’t any electricity.” In fact, it was quite some time before Pat and Rich would learn what happened outside their own neighborhood.
They took me on a drive, pointing at areas and reminiscing about what so-and-so’s house used to look like and the people who lived there but never returned. And then there were the tragic and heartbreaking stories about people who drowned from being trapped inside their attic or not being able to swim to safety.
Perhaps the most eerie experience for me was when we would drive past vacant driveways, behind them only patches of weeds and grass where homes once stood. It was like looking at a cemetery, while newly built homes sat on either side. Crazy to think of the families that lived there and how it must have felt to have their whole world flipped upside down.
“My husband, architect Larry Jaubert, says that so many of the city’s teeth are missing, but the ones that are here are bright and shiny. That pretty much sums it up,” said resident and author Ellis Anderson.
Ellis witnessed the hurricane firsthand, and became very important to several individuals as her home became a safety net for those who had nowhere else to go. A truly gifted writer, Ellis blogged about what she and others were experiencing. These stories would spread across the country shortly after Katrina.
Her book Under Surge, Under Siege, published in 2010, was short-listed for the International Saroyan Book Prize by Stanford University Library, among other honors. It’s not only an account of her own survival, but about the force and spirit of community that would ultimately help Bay St. Louis get back on its feet. When I spoke to her about Katrina, you could honestly feel that heaviness and sadness in her voice, as if it were yesterday.
“The fact that volunteers still come is so amazing to me, that people haven’t forgotten,” Ellis said. “A large segment of the population here took an incredible beating, both emotionally and financially. Most of my artist friends are way behind the eight ball financially compared to where we were in 2004. Whether it’s a combination of Katrina, the oil spill, economic woes nationally, it’s hard to say – probably a combination of all three, a toxic economic brew.”
There is an excerpt from Ms. Ellis’ book that I have gone over several times.
We’re already forgetting our town.
A few days ago, I found a photo of Bay St. Louis before the storm. A friend had taken it last winter, during a sunset walk on the beach. I enlarged it on my computer screen and sat before it staring.
Hannah, who’s just turned ten, walked into the room with her mother, Kimberly. They’ve been living with me in the four months since Katrina destroyed their home. They were surprised to find me crying and checked out the photo causing my grief. Kimberly understood immediately. Their home had stood a block from where the picture had been taken. Now their house was gone. All the houses in the photo were gone. The image of our old, familiar town had already faded, and we were both stricken by a renewed sense of loss.
But Hannah didn’t get it. She peered more closely at the picture.
“That’s beautiful!” she said. “Where is it?”
Her mother started crying, too.
I think I’m so drawn to it because while the neighborhoods are beautiful and full of life, I could tell that underneath all those shiny new teeth, as Ms. Ellis’ husband pointed out, there was a place I’ll never be able to see.
I am deeply proud to work for an organization that has stood by its promise to commit to the people of the Gulf Coast. In just one short week I fell in love with the people of Bay St. Louis and Biloxi. It’s a community unlike any I’ve seen and I am honored we understand that the sense of community is the most undervalued asset in this country and we need to protect it.