Our first morning in Mississippi, we loaded some food and household supplies into the trucks and piled into the vans to deliver it to a nearby distribution center. As we drove down the street, the light of day instantly revealed what the night had so well hidden: destruction. There were trees down everywhere. There were boats in yards that weren't on the waterfront. There were refridgerators and ovens on the shoulder of the road, with no evidence of a house nearby.
As we pulled into Waveland, the people in our van became silent. Destroyed buildings lined what used to be the business district, some with a roof still intact, while others had no walls. Many were simply flattened or washed away. As we pulled into what used to be a shopping center (with a Big K and a movie theater as well as several other stores) the reality of what we were dealing with was realized. Huge circus style tents had been pitched on the parking lot of this plaze and we began to unload the goods into one of these tents. Next to the entrance labeled "Volunteers only" there was a whiteboard hanging that said "Items needed to pray for today: Diapers". I quickly said a prayer for the need and then thought "How could a place in the USA be in need of diapers? After all, they are a basic necessity for children..."
God uses a lot of things to answer prayer, and in this case we were the answer. After taking several items into the tent, we found a bunch of diapers in the back of the trailer. now it wasn't a ton of diapers, maybe a couple of hundred, but it was an answer to the prayers of many people. We then found out that this complex of tents was run by volunteers, who had just been praying in their daily group meeting that God would send help. There were five people to run the food tent, the clothing tent and cook the food that they serve every day to over 400 people. They had said "Amen" and had begun to get ready to open the tents in faith that God would provide help or give them strength to do what He had called them to do when we pulled up with almost 20 people. We stayed and helped man the distribution tables in the food tent.
For two hours we stocked tables with peanut butter, jelly, toilet paper, baby food, canned vegetables, soap, deodorant and everythign else that you might need to survive day to day. The people entered the tent at one end and worked their way around the horseshoe-shaped setup, placing their items in the K-mart shopping carts that would never again roll across freshly mopped tiled floors. In order to make sure there was enough for everyone who needed it, we had to ration certain items: 1 roll of paper towels, 2 rolls of toilet paper, one jar of peanut butter, 12 baby food jars, 12 cans of vegetables per person. Do you know how hard it is to tell someone that they cannot take as many rolls of toilet paper that they want/need or that they cannot have both crunchy and creamy peanut butter because you might run out? I never would have thought I would have to do that, but I did and it was a terrible experience.
I saw children with no shoes on their feet - not because they didn't want to wear them, but because they didn't have any. I saw mothers trying to figure out how they could feed their families with the meager portions they were allowed to take. I was told that most of these people come to the food tent everyday to eat and get food and supplies for home. With scary normalcy, almost every other person through the line asked me if I had any cleaning supplies, which I didn't. (Some of these people were living in what was left of their homes, without being able to clean them up because they didn't have any supplies.)
Perhaps the most heart-rending aspect of this whole activity was the way the people would look at me and thank me. They have lost their homes, family members and jobs and here I am just pushing a jar or peanut butter across a table to them and they are thanking me?!? The tenderness and vulnerability in a lot of the people was simply overwhelming. Twice I found myself gazing around the tent at the people and beginning to get choked up. But I wouldn't allow myself to cry. Not here. Not now. Not in front of these people.
It's not because I am too proud to cry in front of people, I'm not at all. It's just that in those moments I thought to myself about what these people had already been through and how, after three months, they were trying to move beyond the disaster as best as they could. If I were them, I wouldn't want to show up for food everyday to see a new volunteer crying over me. I wouldn't want to have to deal with that. The sorrow and helplessness that surrounded this tent complex was more than an ever-present reminder of what had happened to these people, they didn't need another one inside the tent.
One of the most touching moments of the day for me happened when I noticed an elderly couple enter the tent together and join the line. I watched them as they made their way through the line, picking items off the tables and gently placing them in their cart. The gentleman was quite dapper in a suit jacket with matching pants, a nice fairly pair of shoes, a tie and a hat. The lady was wearing a dress adorned with lace and she had on a pair of dress shoes that mathed. As they came to my table I said hello and commented on how nice they both looked in their fancy dress. I was thanked by both immediately and then they shared the following with me.
"We left in our car the day before (Hurricane Katrina made landfall)... When we came back our house was gone... So we went to our church, but it was gone... We drove to our favorite restaraunt, but there was nothing left... So we slept in our car for a couple of days, then found a tent and slept in it for a couple of weeks. We have nothing left... We got all of these clothes at the clothes tent next door... We just got a trailer on loan the other day and this morning we went to a new church and they didn't mind that we were there..."
How do you respond to that? How do you reply to someone telling you that they have lost everything? I'll tell you how I responded. I fought back the urge to cry, placed my hands out for them both and held one of each of their hands in mine. In that moment, all I could say was "Well, I'm glad your here." And that was true and they knew it. They talked about how greatful they were that people were trying to help them. We talked briefly about how God is still blessing them through it all and blessing us for allowing us to come try and help.
They refused to take a jar of jelly, because they thought that there might be children who would want it more. Instead they took 5 packets of jam (the kind you might get at Denny's), a roll of paper towels, some toilet paper and then thanked me again as they walked on down the line... A few minutes later, I though that I could have asked them if they would like to come back to Missouri with me. Lisa and I could provide them with rooms, food and care. But I didn't ask, because in that moment I hadn't thought of it. We had room in the car, we could have brought them back. But something tells me they wouldn't have accepted my offer, for the same reason they didn't accept the jar of jelly- someone else could use it more.
We ate lunch in the meal tent and then loaded up in the vans and left the complex. There were more than a few of us who would have gladly stayed all day and worked there all week, but it wasn't why we were here so we moved on. I'm thankful for the chance to talk to some of the people of Waveland, MS and they will always have a special place in my heart.
We took a driving tour of the area for the next hour and a half, and what I saw was unbelievable. Entire sbdivisions erased from the earth, without a single brick or wall left standing. You could look down a road and see foundations, but nothing else. There were houses that remained standing, btu they had been flooded and damaged beyond repair and it was obvious that they would have to be torn down eventually. We drove along the beachfront and sat in unbeliefe as the devastation rolled by mile after mile. I found myself so overwhelmed by it all that it became almost routine to see mattresses, clothes and appliances 20 feet up in the trees that had somehow withstood the onslaught. The piles of debris that stood 15 feet tall everywhere became commonplace.
We drove into Biloxi and saw the damage to the downtown district. We saw the casinos that had been ripped apart. We saw the hotels that had their bottom three floors completely swept clean of beds, lamps, tables and anything else that had once been held between the walls that were no longer there. We were dumbfounded by the perfectly intact Waffle House sign (not a letter broken or missing) that stood above a lot that now only held a concrete foundation with some tile still intact. We marvelled at the casino barge that was moved a half mile and placed on top of a two story hotel, utterly crushing what had been left of it.
And I wanted the tour to be finished. I had seen enough in the first 15 minutes to appreciate the enormity of what happened here. I visualized the lives that had been forever altered and the ones that had been lost. I knew why I was here, and I hoped to be an active participant in somehow helping to begin the process of healing for someone. I wanted to do something other than sit and gawk at the misery and destruction around us.
I was shocked by what I had seen in my first day in the gulf coast region. The mountains of debris still blocking some of the roads... The tents that some people were still living in on their property surrounded by what had once been their homes... The people still standing in lines for food, clothing and the everyday necessities of life...
This isn't what you expect to see 3 months after a disaster. This isn't the way things are supposed to be in the United States... Yet they were. And I was glad I was here to try and be part of a solution...