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Moving Ahead in Mississippi

  • June 20, 2006

Ten months after Hurricane Katrina, the recovery is moving ahead in Mississippi, fueled by a combination of true southern grit and generous American spirit. Recently, AmeriCares made more than 35 grants totaling $1. 6 million to local organizations that are assisting Katrina survivors.

AmeriCares communications manager Elizabeth Walsh was in Mississippi in late June to meet some of the grant recipients and see the latest stages of the recovery. Here are a few highlights from her trip.

Day One:
After a week of heavy rains in the northeast, I was glad to fly into New Orleans and see sunshine!

What I hadn’t expected to see so clearly was the somber reminder of Katrina’s toll. Heading east from the airport to Slidell, LA, we drove for miles along the highway, passing desolate stretches of abandoned houses on both sides of the interstate. Empty streets with not a person in sight, empty parking lots fronting vacant major retail stores, abandoned cars, the skeleton of a Six Flags roller coaster off in the distance—these were all sobering reminders that much work remains to be done here.

Last stage of the Joy Fellowship Church “drive in distribution center” In contrast, we found much joy at the Joy Fellowship Church in Slidell. AmeriCares has given this church a $25,000 grant to upgrade its kitchen facilities. Since Katrina, they are serving approximately 300 meals a day to residents who are still recovering from Katrina, meals coming from a kitchen not built for commercial use. The pick-up arrangement is ingenious: It is a “drive through distribution center.” Residents come in their cars, which are admitted a few at a time. Volunteers load each car at several stations: first with a sack of bottled water and canned goods, then with personal care items (mouthwash or diapers, for example), then with clothing.

The last stop is lunch, where the recipients are handed a Styrofoam container containing a hot meal: when we were there, it was red beans and rice.

“This has helped me 100%” said Marsha Fontenot, who is now living in nearby Kentwood after being forced out of her home in Lake Charles by Hurricane Rita.

“I need everything I can get,” said another visitor, Katherine Turner of Pearl River, while waiting in her car. “My house is being worked on, the roof needs to be fixed. Its in bad shape, and its going to cost me about $30,000 to put the roof on.”

Volunteers upgrading a house We left Slidell for a long drive to Moss Point in Jackson County, Mississippi, and the Calling All Christians Church. Just as in Slidell, we found more volunteers helping out, this time a group from Pennsylvania whose members had given up their vacation time to pitch in. An AmeriCares grant here is also focusing on upgrading the kitchen facilities, since an adjacent FEMA trailer park has added 78 families into the community, many of whom are relying on the church for meals. One of these is Yaleca Shelby and her 18-month old daughter, Karima. Since the hurricane, Yaleca has been moved from one place to another, finally ending up here, while she hopes to find permanent affordable housing. In the meantime, she lives in the trailer with limited resources and without a car, no way to get to the grocery store. For her, the meals that the church provides are a necessity, not a luxury.

Day Two:
It is clear to me after just one day here that it is volunteers from across America, working directly with the Katrina survivors, who are rebuilding the state of Mississippi.

Hope Crisis Recovery Network is one group that is coordinating volunteer efforts in Gulfport. They are focusing on home repairs, having completed 9 new houses and 72 “home rebuilds” since they began operating here last year. Their volunteers have ranged in age from 12 to 72 years old, most of whom come for a week at a time. When we were there, it was a high school group.

Renovations through Hope Crisis Recovery “We have to teach our kids how to serve others,” says Kevin Cox of the Hope Crisis Recovery Network. Cox has been overseeing the efforts of the camp, and says that Hope Crisis has made a five-year commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

The AmeriCares grant is helping the camp cover its operational costs for the first year.

“Your agency is fulfilling a tremendous need here,” says Cox, explaining that volunteers can contribute a lot but there are still financial costs associated with housing and feeding them.

Day Three:
It seemed as though we drove all over Mississippi today, but our last stop was the most uplifting.

Appliances arriving in Bay St. Louis In Bay St. Louis, we stopped at the St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, which has been working to help thousands of local residents with their individual recovery efforts, according to Father Sebastian Myladiyil, the parish priest. The church is doing a lot – home repairs, volunteer support and other types of programs, and they are the only local group providing appliances to those returning home. An AmeriCares grant was used to purchase 84 appliances: 20 refrigerators, 20 stoves, 20 washers, 20 dryers and 4 dishwashers; thus helping to complete home restorations for many of those living in FEMA trailers.

“I lost everything I had,” said Mildred Shaw of Bay St. Louis, pictured here with her daughter, Ellen Colbert. “I was evacuated to West Virginia and when I came back, I couldn’t believe it.” Shaw had been in her home for 36 years, having moved in right after Hurricane Camille in ’69. She’s been in a trailer since September of last year but the foundation has been laid for her new home and construction is underway.

Mildred Shaw and Ellen Colbert “I had just put $5,000 of improvements into the house before Katrina,” said her daughter Ellen. “I lost everything. I’m now living in a FEMA trailer on my mother’s property. I’ve had to remove 18 wheelbarrows of mud from my house. You have to clean the house yourself if you want to get the flood grant. But I’m staying.”

Both mother and daughter explained that they just couldn’t imagine leaving Bay St. Louis, and that they were determined to rebuild better than ever.

I left Mississippi again via New Orleans, this time seeing more clearly the stark contrast between the pace of the recovery effort in the many small communities I had visited versus Louisiana’s largest city. In July, AmeriCares will finish a second grant cycle focusing on mental healthcare and primary healthcare, with much of the money being distributed in Louisiana. I hope to see the difference this can make on my next trip.