As soon as I returned from the Gulf Region I decided that I have to report on what I had seen there, and that I want to do a good job of it. In fact that was my intent even before I started the trip. Whether I succeed remains to be seen as I am still working on a detailed report. That is clearly taking some time, so here goes a short timeline outlining the details of this trip.
As I have already reported we took off on Monday, September 26. As I have also reported the next day, Tuesday, September 27 I ended up stranded in Tuscaloosa, AL where I spent the following day investigating my options for moving on, trying to decide which way to go, contemplating this world and drinking beer. On the morning of Thursday, September 29, I managed to rent a car - which was not trivial in that area at that time, I got lucky - and drove on down. At about 5 PM that day I got to Covington, LA where I was searched by the military and law enforcement personnel who - and here comes this blessing in disguise - told me that there was a curfew in effect in town and after 9 PM I risked being arrested for just being on the street. So I moved on heading West and soon found myself in Baton Rouge. The center of city did not look particularly welcoming with a massive police and military presence around the emergency shelter - which, if I remember correctly occupied one of the major hotels - and the overall feel of instability in the air. So I decided to get out of there and find a place where I could orient myself and decide where to go next.
I found just such a place within at most a half-hour - a hotel on the outskirts of the city. The first thing I asked them was about the curfew - and, thankfully, there was none. Nor, of course, were there any rooms available at the hotel. But they did have a computer with an Internet connection which they kindly allowed me to use and soon enough I found the new location for the Veterans for Peace relief operation:
Servicing the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana
New location for ALL shipments, drop-offs and volunteer check-in:
Saving Ourselves, 2810 Mill St, Mobile, AL 36607
The structure there may be a little confusing as the VFP is working with S.O.S. and several other groups but that was the central location for the effort. That was also where I decided to go.
And go there I did. To avoid the traffic along the coast I decided to take Route 98 through Missisipi. On the way there, in Columbia, MS I saw vehicles lined up alongside the road. The time was about 11:30 PM. Those turned out to be people waiting to enter the local Expo Center - which I was told was for the most part a rodeo arena - which has been converted into a Red Cross facility. The objective of those waiting in line was to receive an allowance of either $345 or $375 (I forget which as I was a little tired at the moment and the Red Cross has not provided a meaningful answer to my inquiries regarding the mechanics of the situation). As I was talking to the people waiting in those vehicles I was accosted by a whole slew of the law enforcement officers (some had insginia, others did not) who searched both myself and my vehicle. They started out by threatening to execute me. The exchange went somewhat like this.
"Hands on the vehicle, or you'll be shot. Where you from?"
"This ain't Boston here. This is Missisipi. We shoot people here. We shoot the fuck out of them."
Having announced this achievement of note they did not shoot me, did not even arrest me or take any of my belongings - though they did make a mess of them. At any rate, they let me go, and at least at the moment I did not make any waves as I was concerned both for my own safety but more so for the people on the roadside who clearly did not have the resources to just take off and go.
I finally got tired of driving and stopped over at the Inn on the Hill in Hattiesburg. They allowed me to camp out in my car in front of the hotel - as, needless to say, there were no rooms to be had. However, tired as I was I could not really sleep so I struck a conversation with the two people working the front desk, a white woman and a black man. Both of them suffered some damage from Katrina. The woman had sheltered a friend from New Orleans. According to her that man - a Korean War veteran and a diabetic to boot - had to suffer a nightmare of being stranded in the streets of New Orleans, prevented by the armed police from staying on a highway overpass, then lifted to a field somewhere in Louisiana and left with about 150 fellow survivors for three days without any supplies - be that food or water or camping equipment. In the course of those three nighmarish days he witnessed three deaths, all female, one of them pregnant. He suffered snake and insect bites, was airlifted to an Austin, TX hospital and miraculously survived.
His story is, unfortunately, far from unique. I plan on clearing some details by hopefully arranging a direct interview with that New Orleans man himself and reporting on it separately.
At about 7 AM on Friday I took off for Mobile. In about three hours I was at the warehouse. The first day there I spent helping manage the goods as by the time I arrived all the delivery trips had already been planned and I obviously was not part of any of them. Frankly having been awake for over a whole day I was in a state when routine work of moving boxes was about all I was capable of intellectually.
Working with this volunteer operation I met a number of very interesting people. Unfortunately, my stay was short as I left a mere two days later.
They were a fun group. All the nights there were parties. Some may call that excess - but one must have a way of relieving stress even in the best of times - which those in many ways were not. Here are some of the pictures I got to take over the next two days.
You can see the rest of the pictures in this photo gallery.
After the work day was over on Friday - which ended early, at about 3 PM as far as I can recall - Carl Webb and I headed over to a local library to use the Internet. I purchased my return ticket there and then we headed over to the camp - which consisted of two houses in Theodore, AL at the corner of Smith Street and Elmo Ave.
That night the usual party took place. I was also interviewed by Angela Woodall (I have yet to see the footage). Then I guess I crashed.
The next day, Saturday, one of the volunteers, Nikki, and myself went on a delivery run to the Gulf coast of Missisipi. We delivered supplies to a church in Moss Point. That church was a major relief center, having fed about a thousand meals to the survivors in the first week after Katrina hit.
We also drove down the coast all the way to Ocean Springs in an attempt to assess the situation. On our way we found one field kitchen-type food distribution point with which we established contact. The idea was to have them receive supplies from the operation in Mobile. As I left the following day I don't know if that particular relationship ever came to fruition but that sort of approach was how the operation was run - and whether you view it as a success or not, it did manage to deliver the much needed supplies many places where other, more powerful groups - such as the Red Cross or FEMA - had yet to reach.
Ocean Springs, MS
|A house once stood here...|
Missisipi gulf coast
Saturday night was, of course, party night. We were also joined by a very special stray canine guest.
|Stray female dog|
|Stray dog examined by medics|
As I would learn later one of the volunteers, Ken, who is a Florida resident planned on taking her home with him.
The next day was an official day off as for the first time since the start of the relief operation nothing had to be done in an emergency mode. For some of the volunteers that ended up being their first day off in about a month.
The crowd went to a beach in Flordia but I was a bit tired and decided to stay. I talked some more to those who also stayed behind, snapped some more photos and then flew to New York. I was sad to leave but when I arrived to Atlanta for a change over to New York I couldn't wait to finally get there and see a familiar city.
To conclude this I would just like to say that all the hiccups notwithstanding I believe I managed to be of help to those who needed it though not to the extent I would have liked. As I stated earlier I would estimate that I have contributed several hundred dollars' worth of supplies to the effort in New Orleans. (Yes, the cargoe got there, I confirmed that.) Plus I contributed some supplies and work hours to the effort run out of Mobile.
If you wish to aid the grass roots effort of which I was part you can go to this web page to see how to. If you wish to help me reimburse my expenses - which altogether top a thousand dollars - you can do so by donating through my website by clicking on the button. Forwarding this message around and raising the awareness would also be very helpful as the relief operation in the Gulf is far from over still and regardless of how far along the process is the world needs to know about the events in the region.
Once again, let me use this space to sincerely thank all those who helped me and thus made this trip possible as well as those who intend to help. This is a noble cause - or at least so I believe.
by Margie Metzler and Lyn Stueve