Everything's broken

Real hurricane relief for the poor is coming not from the government or big charities but the kindness of strangers. It was always thus in America.

By David Weir

Published December 13, 2005 12:32PM (EST)

More than three months after Hurricane Katrina's jagged front edge tore into Mississippi's Gulf Coast like a runaway chainsaw, East Biloxi remains a shattered community of poor people living amid their ruins, facing an uncertain future.

Those who survived the mighty storm still talk about the roar of the wind, followed by a 30-foot-high wave that surged in from the Gulf of Mexico, only to crash head-on into a second wall of water rushing out of the Back Bay from behind.

They say that the two massive waves met with a force that turned this entire slender peninsula neighborhood inside out. It remains so today: piles of rubble, cracked trees, crushed houses, rusting cars, refrigerators, stoves and fishing boats, bits of plastic shredded into the bushes and trees.

"My house just exploded from the wind," says Biloxi City Councilman George Lawrence, who represents the hardest-hit ward in East Biloxi. "Then came the water, and it swept everything else away."

Stark remainders of death are still on display everywhere. On warm days, the stench of undiscovered pet carcasses still seeps out from under the ruins, and mud litters the landscape like dried lava flows. Sheets of plywood buckle over gashes in homes that stand split and crushed, their contents splayed about like guts from rotting bodies.

Someone's desk, its fake wood paneling peeling off, peeks out the side of a torn home that is crumpled into an accordion-like sculpture. The sides of another house are ripped away, improbably leaving a clothes closet unscathed, its garments arranged on hangers as neatly as the day their owner disappeared.

Bits of dried cloth, their colors faded and coated with dried muck, hang rigidly over the trees, acting as sentinels guarding the ruins below. Birds don't land here anymore.

At first glance, East Biloxi looks like a ghost town. But poke around a bit and people start emerging from inside their crushed houses, from tents pitched out back, or from some of the new FEMA trailers that have recently arrived. Most of the survivors still seem to be trying to just grasp the scope of what has happened to them. They are confused as to why so little help has yet arrived. And they're angry.

Despite the rhetoric of government leaders, and large relief organizations, not to mention the massive media coverage in the weeks following the disaster, these people sense now that they are the leftovers, the ones who, if they are going to rebuild their lives, apparently will have to do it on their own.

Lee Smith is one of the locals who's been waiting for months for help to arrive. "Till last week, every time you call them, they got a different lie to tell you," says Smith, 55, recounting his efforts to get answers from his insurance company and from officials at FEMA. "I've just been waiting on them for something to happen."

As others have noted, Katrina laid bare a dirty secret in America -- a secret with many names. We know it's about race and class but it's about other things as well, things less easily labeled. The storm provided a visible reminder that progress in this country for some always comes at a cost to others. One thing about living in a society that regularly scrubs itself of its collective memory is we keep having to relearn the lessons of the past.

East Biloxi, and the other small towns of the Gulf Coast, as well as the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, are places where the poor are poor in so many ways. They can't read or write well, and don't have the skills or clout to get what they need out of government bureaucracies or private insurance companies. They can't see a way out of their traps. Lacking much effective political leadership or advocates, they are dependent on the good people still showing up, willing to help.

Smith, a homeowner, a single dad and a former construction worker, stands next to his small three-bedroom house, where -- until the storm -- he lived with his two teenage daughters. Now the house sits cracked and twisted on its foundation, filled with jumbled and ruined piles of his possessions. The sour odor of mold drifts out of his screened windows, causing him to edge further downstream.

Smith is a diabetic with high blood pressure and suffers from cancer that he has been told is terminal. He needs pain medications and oxygen canisters for breathing. Because of the mold, he can't enter his house to take inventory of what is missing and what remains, for insurance claim purposes.

Looters stole one of Smith's cars and ransacked his house after the storm. Knowing how ill he was, he'd recently poured his life savings into refurbishing the house ("so my girls would have something to fall back on") and on rebuilding several vintage cars and trucks that are one true passion in his life.

But Smith says his insurance adjuster has told him his policy won't cover most losses because the damage was caused by flooding, not the storm itself.

Smith's case is hardly unique. Mississippi state officials estimate that there are 35,000 homeowners whose houses were damaged or destroyed but who did not have flood insurance. Meanwhile, the post-storm grace period for not paying their mortgages has ended, and efforts to extend them federal relief are stalled in Congress.

"The insurance companies, including mine, are telling us it was a flood," says Councilman Lawrence. "But how can you have a hurricane without the wind? This isn't a flood zone. It was wind-driven surge that did this damage."

Into the vacuum, volunteers from the grass-roots nonprofit group Hands On USA are helping survivors put their lives back together. Cutting through the red tape of government and large relief organizations, Hands On USA volunteers are helping East Biloxi residents manage such day-to-day chores as clearing debris from their houses, finding temporary shelter and seeking counseling.

The group, which formed in Thailand last year after the devastating tsunami hit there, set up shop in a Biloxi church soon after Katrina blew ashore. "We immediately put out the word and the volunteers started pouring in," Hands On USA co-director Dave Campbell explains. So far, more than 700 people from all over the U.S. and Canada have come down to work in Biloxi, some staying for just a weekend or a week, others hanging out for the duration.

"Our initial strategy was to stay just three months -- to hit the beach like the Marines and then hand it off to the Army," explains Campbell. "Only problem is, it doesn't look like the Army is going to show up."

Campbell adds that "soon after we got here it was clear there was a great mental health need. Leaving after three months would have had us pulling out between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- not a good time to disappear on these people. So now we plan to stay until the end of January."

In Lee Smith's case, Hands On USA volunteers have succeeding in getting FEMA to deliver him a disabled-access trailer -- after his own repeated attempts had failed.

Relief workers say that FEMA's process for registering storm victims for trailers is confusing and has led to many cases where people like Smith have fallen through the cracks. Victims were asked such ambiguous question as: "Are you willing to relocate?" "Is your house livable?" "Has FEMA assessed your property?" Depending on their answers, many were denied trailers. Victims like Smith just grew more frustrated.

Every survivor presents a new story. William Michael Vanderberg, known to everyone as "Mike," still seems traumatized by what happened when he tried to ride out the storm. He has a broken hand and cracked sunglasses, and his lips tremble when he talks. He keeps glancing over his shoulder at the Gulf of Mexico, less than a block away, as if he fears it may suddenly rear up once again.

"Susan, I ain't seen her. She lived right over there," he mumbles, pointing to a lot littered with debris, all that's left of Susan's house. "She's out there, I reckon," gesturing toward the Gulf.

He turns around. "I had four friends staying in a hotel, over about there. The hotel's gone. I ain't seen any of them, reckon they're gone, too."

Hands On USA volunteers discovered Mike recently living in his car. They bought him a tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, and helped him stake out a spot under a live oak tree. They also are helping him with FEMA, where he has a non-homeowner's application on file for aid. In addition, they drove him to a doctor, who bandaged up his broken hand, and to a psychiatrist.

Mental health experts have indicated that antidepressant medications are needed for survivors showing signs of post-traumatic stress in the storm-ravaged areas. Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that some 500,000 people -- both hurricane survivors and the emergency workers who helped them -- may need mental health services.

In the midst of the devastation, larger relief organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army have been scaling down their efforts. They still have warehouses of supplies but no efficient way to distribute them to people in the poor communities of the Gulf Coast. Both still send out trucks with warm meals, and they are distributing boxes of clothes and other goods from certain centralized locations. But this will all end soon, according to local representatives of the two agencies. The Red Cross has already closed all of its shelters and the Salvation Army plans to stop its meal service before Christmas.

By contrast, Hands On USA is sending out teams every day to strip mold out of houses, remove debris, and demolish structures. (Several religious organizations also are on the scene, doing similar work.) Volunteer teams have cut up and removed hundreds of trees -- live oaks, pines, magnolias, white birch, even a few pecans, though one volunteer estimates there is still "20 years of work left here."

The biggest question hanging over East Biloxi is what will become of this place, once all the debris has been carted away, and the land is finally open for redevelopment. One answer is already evident.

Until Katrina, a series of large barges anchored offshore served as casinos, and were by far the largest employers in the area. When the storm pushed the barges ashore, they cut wide swaths over the land, taking out everything in their path. Today, they sit far inland, with more than a few flattened houses and possibly bodies still underneath.

Soon after the storm, local and state officials announced that from now on they will locate the casinos on land, within the first 800 feet of Biloxi's shore. Some of this new development will cut directly into East Biloxi's worst-hit sections.

Not surprisingly, rumors fly around these neighborhoods: "The remaining houses will all be flattened for new casinos. There won't be a place for any of us to live around here anymore."

The threat seems credible. Amid a total pre-storm population of about 50,000 in Biloxi, the casinos accounted for some 30,000 jobs. The first casino reopenings are scheduled for later this month.

"Nobody -- the local, county or state government -- wants to put anyone out of their home," says Councilman Lawrence. "But it's going to be hard for our people on minimum incomes to rebuild here now. Houses will cost $60,000 to $100,000. It's hard to secure a loan.

"Our old way of life in Biloxi is gone," he concludes. "What we got now is gaming. Where we lived will probably be a prime onshore gambling site now. We will lose a lot of the outer perimeter of East Biloxi."

Now that it's winter, cold fronts are sweeping down from the north, so volunteers from Hands On USA deliver blankets and coats, items the poor of East Biloxi used to own but now do not.

An elderly lady named Cora Reddix, in her 80s, answers a knock on her trailer door from some volunteers. Reddix lost her house and her car in Katrina. She also lost two toes to a gangrene infection that went too long untreated, so now she is virtually housebound, or trailer bound, with no way to get out and help herself.

Like almost everyone in these parts, Reddix is surprised that someone has come to help her. And grateful. Today's delivery includes a new pillow, very nice, donated by somebody somewhere up north, and packaged up by Hands On USA volunteers earlier that morning.

"Oh my, thank you, " says Reddix, tears in her eyes. "I'm livin' uptown now!"

Hands On USA co-director Campbell, contemplating the limits of his group's ability to help the residents of East Biloxi, and conscious that they will all be gone by the end of next month, says he is looking for ways to interest various political figures in their plight.

"After all," he says, "one way or another these folks going to be on the social safety net of the system, however tattered."

As I drive around the shattered Gulf Coast, an old Bob Dylan song keeps playing in my head:

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds.
Ain't no use jiving
Ain't no use joking
Everything is broken.

Katrina may have done all the physical damage down here, but there's something much bigger that's been broken too. That is the wrecking of a social services system that no longer takes care of the most vulnerable among us.

David Weir

David Weir is Salon's Washington bureau chief.

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