Letters from Biloxi
During Livingston CARES' first trip to Biloxi in January of 2006, Sally Fox was invited by our host site, Urban Life Ministries, to interview some of the families whose houses were being worked on by the CARES volunteers. Ms. Fox returned to Mississippi later that winter and continued her task of interviewing and writing up the stories of those families. Livingston CARES is pleased to share this work as part of our continued work with the people of Harrison County, Mississippi. Ms. Fox has since returned to Biloxi on the January 2009 Livingston CARES work trip.
Photos and Stories by Sally Fox
Born and raised in Biloxi, 69 year old Betty Pollard lived in New Jersey from 1953-57, but found the cold and snowy climate more than she could bear. In addition to raising her own three sons, she also brought up three nieces, but this proved no hardship as Betty has always loved being around and working with children. For many years she was employed as a teacher’s aid, then in an after school program, and subsequently for a day care center. Her husband James, also 69 years old, spent his career in a civil service job at the local navy base.
When Katrina slammed into Biloxi, Betty was in Aberdeen, Mississippi, attending a funeral. While there, she saw news of the storm being upgraded and decided she had better stay where she was, calling her husband to leave Biloxi and join her.
It wasn’t until a week after the storm that one of the Pollard’s sons was able to get back to their home and see how they had fared. Calling his mother to report, he was forced to tell her, “Everything is gone; only the walls are left. There’s no water or lights. Please don’t bring Dad home to see all this.” The Pollard’s dream home which they had built with their hard-earned dollars was now only a shell. To make things worse, as for all who had left, they were then kept away by authorities concerned about health and safety issues, leaving what small remnants of their lives that may have remained subject to the scavenging of looters.
Once they were finally able to return home nine days after the storm, they found someone’s bathroom sink lodged up against the front of the house, a random pile of new lumber in the side yard, and a huge sign from the casino a quarter mile away on the nearby corner. But the full extent of their losses was not apparent until they looked through the windows to see mud covering everything inside.
Even then, more heartache was still to come as Betty left her purse on a table in the garage one day, distracted by other matters, and when she went to retrieve it, found it missing, along with her driver’s license, other identification, and a new prescription medication. With so many strangers passing through their previously quiet neighborhood, it was hard to know whom to trust. James’s pacemaker and the stress of their losses, combined with his being allergic to the mold that permeated everything in the hot and humid climate, have taken their toll on his health.
Although they had insurance, they had no coverage for flooding which they had been told was unnecessary. The Pollards received a payment of $4,000 on their heavily damaged roof, which cost $7,000 to replace, but no compensation for the contents of their home. As it turns out, they now have come to learn that had the windows of the house been broken it would have been considered storm damage and the contents of her home would have been covered.
It’s been hard; God knows it has. I didn’t know what was going to happen or how we would ever survive such a blow. But we have been so blessed. Because of Urban Life Ministries, we have been helped by people from all over the country: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Washington, California, New York, Alabama, North and South Carolina. First they provided food when no stores were open. Now the work they have done on our home is so wonderful. Soon we’ll be able to move back in.
By some miracle, a china cabinet that has been in the family for over 100 years, dating back to James’s grandmother, survived the ordeal and is awaiting repair and refinishing by a volunteer coming from Ohio to assist in relief efforts—yet another of the heart warming connections to arise from the misery that was Katrina.
To say that Daisy Guyton is a dynamic woman is a truth that anyone who meets her, however briefly, would agree with. Always moving—a real go-getter. When asked her age, she replies, “Thirty five,” batting her eyelashes coquettishly with a shy smirk on her face, although she is in fact more than twice that at seventy-three. Her youthful vigor and sharp mind radiate an indomitable spirit that seems capable of taking any hardship in stride. Still, when talk turns to Hurricane Katrina, the twinkle fades and her eyes turn aside to a vague place in the distance as she recalls the event that claimed everything she had worked all her life to achieve.
When I returned home the Wednesday after the storm, I hadn’t heard about the water. My first hint of what I was about to find came as I approached the house and saw that the boards we had put over the windows were all gone.
When I looked inside, it was like looking at my mother in her coffin, the way it made me feel. I can’t tell you how terrible it was. The ceiling was down; mud was everywhere. What hurt the most was my new refrigerator I had just bought that month that was now in the bedroom. All I had worked for for fifty years was gone and there was nothing I could do."
Daisy had lived forty-one years in that house, raising her five children alone after her husband died, and sending each to college. “It was rough, but it was good,” she says of her struggles to do right by them. In fact, Daisy went to college herself, along with her children, having gotten married just out of high school. That’s when she and her husband moved to Biloxi and both found civil service jobs at Keesler Air Force Base. After twenty-four years working in the base exchange, she then spent another eighteen years as a social worker with the Head Start program in Biloxi.
Before Katrina hit, Daisy evacuated to Hattiesburg, but “it wasn’t far enough,” she shivered in remembering. “Trees were falling all around.” After finding her home virtually destroyed, she made her way to her daughter Gloria’s home in Lyman, Mississippi, about forty-five minutes from Biloxi.
"Mama, what are you doing here?” her third-born blurted out upon seeing her mother.
"I have no more home,” came the tearful reply.
"Mama, you can stay as long as you want; this can be your home now,” lovingly declared the high school history teacher.
It would be two months before her FEMA trailer arrived, but Daisy was determined to return to her home, along with her fifty-three year old son, Thomas, a diabetic who had his lower leg amputated just two months before Katrina’s rampage. In the mean time, she commuted daily to hold on to her job as a school crossing guard. Still, the gas required for the trip consumed every penny she made through her part time position, especially with the elevated gas prices following the storm.
"Thomas and I had only what was on our backs. I went everywhere to relief and distribution centers. It was so hard. I have always had to do everything on my own, and never looked to anyone for help. But I always had faith in God; I just know there is a God. And then God sent this man to me, a total stranger named Reverend Don Barnette of Urban Life Ministries. He walked up to me one day at a relief center at Beck Park and just started talking to me, asking me questions. Then he said, “I’m going to help you.” He doesn’t look like much, I said to myself. What can he do? “What do you need?” he asked. Everything! was my answer. The first thing he did was pull $50.00 out of his wallet and give it to me saying, “To start with, that’s for gas.” I didn’t know whether to cry or kiss him.
I thank God for him every day. He and Urban Life Ministries have been such a blessing. I have always known there were good people in the world, but I never thought I would meet so many of them myself—total strangers from all over the country. Places I have never heard of and will never see. And there is no way I could possibly thank them all. I don’t even know most of their names."
Today a volunteer crew from western New York comprised of college students, university staff and faculty members, adults using vacation time from work, retirees, and elected officials who have formed a long-term partnership with Harrison County, Mississippi, where Biloxi is located, are gutting Daisy’s home, carrying soaked dry wall and insulation out to the curb for pick up, as Daisy watches through the window of her trailer on the now-empty adjacent lot.
"I don’t know how we would have done it with no money or resources. It would have been so overwhelming. I thank God every day for such a blessing."
When the work is complete, Ms. Daisy’s home will look as good as new. In the meantime, her mother’s rose bush has flowered with a beautiful red blossom symbolizing the renewal of hope and life in this ravaged city. One other blessing that was granted to Ms. Daisy—her family photo albums were found safe on a high shelf above the flood waters. With a peaceful smile, she lovingly pages through her collection of memories.
Deborah and George Parks
As Deborah and George Parks crossed the Back Bay Bridge to return to their home in Biloxi three days after fleeing Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, a sense of disbelief came over them. “It felt as if we were entering a war zone or a third world country,” Deborah recalls. They had experienced many hurricanes in the past, which made it even harder to absorb what they were seeing…and more. “It was the most unbelievable smell,” she shudders in remembering. “Like death.”
Turning the corner onto their street and seeing their house of twenty-eight years not only still standing but apparently undamaged filled their hearts with elation and thanks to God, but those feelings soon turned to despair as they opened the door to find the storm surge had left its mark on everything inside.
“Don’t worry about it; let it go,” she told herself. “All that really matters is family, and we’re all okay.”
Those are the values instilled by her mother who raised her brood of seven children alone, giving them all a sense of what is most important in life—family. The losses suffered by the Parks’ and so many others had to be put in perspective.
Deborah and George’s home sits on slightly higher ground than those around it, a difference that made it a refuge for neighbors who had stayed behind to ride out the storm. Using a tree that had fallen on the house as a ladder, they scrambled to safety atop the only roof not under water. The Parks also found a certain irony in the fact that their Dodge Spirit, left behind in their flight, had saved another life as a neighbor who was being swept away by the powerful surge of water was able to grab onto the car and eventually be helped onto the rooftop by the others.
Sifting through the decimated interior of her home, Deborah did not feel any sorrow over the furnishings and “stuff” they had accumulated through the years. Her only concern was for the personal items embodying their family history and memories. When her sister moved to Germany a few years previously, the mantle of family historian had been passed to Deborah and the weight of that responsibility hung heavy on her heart. Finding nothing salvageable as she slowly made her way through the muck and mold, her hope was sinking fast when she opened a closet door and discovered a family photo album on a high shelf. The wealth of memories it contained brought a deep joy and comfort, feelings that were later tempered by those of guilt that so many of their closest friends had lost virtually everything. Still, all had come through alive, with their families intact, and, as Deborah says, “That is the glue that holds life together and gives it meaning.”
Delphine E. Smith
Delphine Smith has lived all of her seventy-eight years in Biloxi where she raised four children and worked her way up to laundry supervisor at the Sheraton Inn which became the Treasure Bay Casino. Widowed for twenty years, Delphine saw her dreams come true twelve years ago when she moved into her tidy brick home on a quiet side street.
After safely riding out Hurricane Katrina with friends of her daughter in Arkansas, she returned home to what she refers to as horror. The storm surge of water had swept through her home, leaving a thick sludge. Everything she had was gone except the clothes on her back, but this was still her home and she was determined to stay.
For two full weeks, Ms. Delphine slept on the only piece of furniture that remained—a soggy recliner—with no lights, water, or gas to help her through her misery. Her children were either too far away to fully grasp her plight or they had enough problems dealing with their own situations and she refused to be a burden on them.
During the first few days, caring neighbors stopped by every day to check on her and bring food and water. But after a while, the others left their uninhabitable dwellings and Ms. Delphine had to fend for herself as best she could. Fortunately, by that time, relief organizations had made their way to the area and began to pick up where the now absent neighbors had left off. She states quite frankly, “Without them I would not have survived. They were wonderful.”
The dark, empty nights were the hardest as she was unable to sleep. Plus, the combination of stress, hot, humid weather, and its inherent mold, along with contaminants carried in by the flood surge, aggravated her arthritis and poor circulation, causing her legs and feet to swell to the point that she was unable to walk.
"I felt dead inside—no feeling, no appetite. You can’t imagine how hard, really hard a battle it was to fight alone. Looking out into the darkness, seeing only candles or oil lamps, no air stirring in the heat. Every morning, I’d sit in my chair watching the sun come up and pray to God to make life better. Then, one evening as I watched the darkness come, I thought about ending it all. That night I had a terrible dream…a terrible dream. It is all such a painful memory; I wish I could push it out of my mind.
The next morning I prayed again, but this time I decided to seek some help. My daughter Tina kept calling FEMA until 2:00 a.m. to get my name on their list for a trailer. That next day a man came to the door and said, “Where would you like us to put it?” As soon as I got that trailer, my life changed. The doctor got me a wheel chair but the trailer was too small for me to use it inside. When I told the FEMA people that, they said it would take 3-4 days to get me a larger trailer, but when Tina brought me home from running errands the next day, there it was all set up. Still, I thought my heart would break when they gutted my house because I had no money. I imagined I would just have to let it go, sell it, and go to the nursing home. But these wonderful people came to help…strangers from all over. From that point I knew that everything was going to be okay. And now I know that I am even going to be better off.
I’m not a quitter, but I’ll tell you—if another storm comes, you can be sure I’ll leave."
Gloria Jean Kemp
Gloria Jean Kemp has lived in Biloxi all her life, raising her two daughters as a single mother after her husband, a maintenance worker at Keesler Air Force Base, died in 1983. Gloria was able to make ends meet, and even buy a tidy home, by working her way up from cashier at a fast food chain to bookkeeper in a grocery store and, ultimately, the business office at the Lady Luck Casino.
As Katrina grew in strength and evacuation orders were issued, Gloria was not particularly concerned. The last such dire warning hadn’t amounted to anything, not even any rain, much less the gale force winds and destruction that had been forecast. Besides, she had a small business on the side making desserts for special occasions and was tired after delivering a 50 th wedding anniversary cake that Sunday afternoon. Rather than making preparations for the storm, she lay down to take a nap.
Gloria’s father had had a long-standing tradition of staying put through anything and the family would gather at such times at his home where they weathered many a storm together. And so, holding to that custom, family members drew together once again at the family home. At daylight that Monday morning when they looked outside, the water was coming over the sandbags surrounding the den which was on a lower level than the rest of the house that was raised on cinder blocks. Some of the men scrambled to move their cars to higher ground around a nearby school while the others started moving household belongings as high as possible off the floor.
As the water continued to rise, Gloria didn’t want to believe what was happening. Looking out the window in the hall, she could see the water was now above the sliding doors of the den. Before long, the hapless group consisting of her brother, two daughters, one with her husband and the other with an 11 month old infant and four other children under the age of 12, a granddaughter and her boyfriend, in addition to Gloria, found themselves taking doors off their hinges and laying them across the floor joists in the attic to have someplace to sit. Gloria insisted that she be the last to go through the attic opening so that she knew all were accounted for. Once there, she began to organize who would sit by whom, and saw to it that an adult was assigned to be responsible for each child.
With the house shaking in the heavy wind, she assured everyone that all would be fine, although she didn’t believe it. Looking out through the attic vent, she saw the water wash over the roof of the house across the way and knew that they were living their final moments.
"It was a weird feeling, knowing that we weren’t going to make it, but I had to be strong for the sake of the children, so we started singing and passing the baby around for all to cuddle and comfort."
Just as she had been the last to enter the attic, she was also the last to find the strength to go downstairs to see the furniture afloat and mud marking the eight foot height the waters had reached inside.
"I never again want to go through anything like the 6 hours we spent in that attic before the waters started to recede. That night we slept sitting up on a plastic table and chairs and saw bugs like nothing I had ever seen before. I was so glad to be alive that reports on what had happened to my neighborhood didn’t matter. They said there was nothing left, but I shed no tears."
Gloria Jean spent three days sleeping in the car of a sister who had evacuated to higher ground. Warnings were issued to be on watch for loose dogs roaming the area and she awakened one morning with a start to see three large strays in front of her vehicle sniffing the air mattresses on the hood where some were still asleep.
As soon as help arrived, Gloria Jean went to stay with a cousin in Houston. When she returned a month later and went to sign up for a FEMA trailer, she found there were four thousand people ahead of her on the list. Fortunately, her trailer was delivered within a couple weeks to her family’s property in another part of town, as her own lot is too small for it.
Gloria’s solid brick home is structurally sound although all the contents were destroyed and it needed to be completely gutted due to the toxic mold resulting from the flooding, against which she, as with most others in the area, had no insurance. Thanks to the strong community network, her struggles were noted by a friend of her daughter’s who placed Gloria Jean on a list of volunteer projects being coordinated by Urban Life Ministries.
"Strange as it may seem, all of this has been a blessing in many different ways; first, just living through the storm, and second, meeting all these wonderful people working on my house. God works in many different ways. I would never want another Katrina; that experience was something I would never want anybody to have to go through. Not a member of my family had a house left to stay in, but we had our family left. After seeing others whose houses were completely gone, you feel like you were spared. It makes you think. You feel bad because you’ve lost so much, but you know that if you survived, then God has a plan for you.
God is working through these volunteers. They work so hard. They have a lot of love in their hearts …and many of them are so young! These young people are learning so much, and my granddaughter is learning to cut dry wall! This is great! It’s like Christmas every day when I come and see what is being done on my home. If this never happened, we wouldn’t feel like we do now—so blessed, so grateful. I can’t tell you what it really means. Just your being here is a blessing."
Twenty-seven year old Justin Lopez had always stayed in local shelters during previous hurricanes, but this time something told him to take his wife, Bridget, and three-year-old daughter, Olivia, and leave town. Justin’s parents had invited them to stay at their home on The Point in Biloxi, as traffic was snarled up and people were having trouble getting off the peninsula, but Justin convinced them they should bring his eighty-four year old grandpa and evacuate to northern Alabama where Justin’s parents had friends who would take them in until the storm passed. It was a good thing he stuck to his guns as his parents’ home was completely swept away by Katrina’s record-breaking passage.
When they tried to return home the day after the storm, they got as far as Hattiesburg where they found that power outages had created long lines at filling stations unable to pump gas and rest rooms with overflowing toilets. Through the magical bond of shared adversity, a stranger invited them to stay overnight at his home. There, for the first time, they saw television coverage of the devastation wrought by Katrina, including the area where Justin’s parents’ home had been located which was now eerily swept bare.
Running low on gas as they made their way back to northern Alabama, a service station came in sight ahead at an isolated intersection, but without electricity, pumps were still not working in many places. As they approached, the station’s trademark insignia flickered, then brightened into full illumination. “I was never so happy in my life to see a neon sign,” Justin chuckled, shaking his head. Then the question arose of whether there was any gas left to pump. Nearing the crossroads, the car’s engine sputtered and stalled, but responded to the key and the weary family rolled into the station on their last drop of fuel.
Finally returning home a week later, the county highway department employee could only compare the experience to entering a war zone. The only lights to be seen were those flashing on utility trucks and emergency vehicles. For now, the family is living on Justin’s parents’ lot in three FEMA trailers which they received two weeks after signing up for assistance.
As part of the Hurricane Katrina coverage, CBS Broadcasting contacted the Biloxi Fire Department for a human-interest story. Since Justin’s father is a fireman, CBS flew his parents to New York to be interviewed on The Morning Show. As a result, CBS later chose them to receive its Dream of the Week by replacing their destroyed home; but, in a cruel twist of irony, the new home had to be rebuilt on the same property. The Lopezes had already decided to find a more suitable site in the area for a new home than the one which had proven so vulnerable. With the big gambling casinos rapidly buying up properties along the ravaged coastline for highly attractive prices, the Lopez’s new house will be built only to be torn down.
A more uplifting outcome of Justin’s parents’ TV appearance was that a couple in southern Illinois saw the broadcast and wanted to help a specific family rather than just contribute to generalized relief efforts. They sent toys, a doll, dress-up clothes and play jewelry to Justin’s daughter, along with a $100 gift card and disposable camera to take pictures of the family, if they didn’t find it too much of an imposition.
It was amazing to have total strangers take such an interest,” Justin states in mild disbelief. “The hardest part in all this has been having my little girl lose all her toys, but things are getting better every day.”
Justin’s reaction is not unusual. In times of great loss, sometimes the best way people can cope is by focusing on one manageable aspect of the disaster. To see your child take delight in new toys can relieve a bit of the heavy burden, at least for a while.
Lerrie and Ruth Sanders
Lerrie and Ruth Sanders moved to Biloxi in the spring of 1971, raising their three sons through his work in construction and her job as a cook at Keesler Air Force Base and then at a local high school.
When storm warnings indicated that Hurricane Katrina was gaining in strength, they decided it would be a good idea to go stay with friends in Gulfport a couple miles inland north of Interstate 10. As they prepared to head out, Lerrie and Ruth boarded up the outside windows on their 100-year-old dwelling and debated whether or not to take both their car and truck or leave one behind. Fortunately, they finally decided to take both vehicles, despite the inconvenience.
Although their friends’ home sustained minimal damage, they watched in shock and wonder as a neighbor’s roof was blown off by the high winds. Returning home the next day, they had no idea that the water had risen to the roof line until they saw the skim of mud covering everything and a tree fallen through the roof of the back porch. Still, they held out hope that the boards over the windows had been able to hold the flood outside.
The reality of what the storm surge had done inside was a heavy blow as they found furniture swept into different rooms and the refrigerator, freezer and washing machine all lying on their sides. With all their belongings ruined, Lerrie returned to stay with the Gulfport friends while Ruth moved in with their granddaughter until their FEMA trailer arrived in late November. Although they had insurance, as for so many others, it did not cover flood damage, so the settlement offered did not come close to covering their losses.
"I thank the good Lord for the fine people who have come to help us, first from Hands-On Ministry and then from Urban Life Ministries. It makes you feel good to see so many folks fixing and cleaning, with no expectation of anything from us."
Ruth is showing her appreciation and solidarity with the many volunteers coming to the area by volunteering her time and food service talents at the Urban Life Ministries Volunteer Coordination Center on the former VFW site on Howard Avenue in the heart of East Biloxi.
Linda McGlothin has lived all of her 57 years in Biloxi, Mississippi, raising three sons by working her way up in the food service industry to her current position as sous chef at the Boomtown Casino. The last ten years have been the only time since she was thirteen years old that she has not worked two jobs.
As with many in this part of the country, the family home is the foundation and heart of her tight-knit family. In fact, Linda's grandparents rented an earlier home on her current property for seventy-five years before finally being able to purchase it for $750 in the 1960s during the height of the civil rights movement. Moving in after her grandmother's death just prior to Hurricane Camille in 1969, Linda finally had that house torn down in 1983 to replace the worn four-room structure with a modern “dream” home thanks to a Neighborhood Improvement grant
Having ridden out Hurricane Camille, Linda had no intention of ever sticking around through another such experience, but somehow it happened—for reasons she cannot understand or explain. All her careful preparations to stay with her husband's family in Meridian, Mississippi, were complete: car packed with food and supplies, kitchen and house cleaned, everything in order, but something seemed to hold her back from leaving. Her sister called and was surprised to find Linda still at home, exclaiming "Why haven't you left yet?" “I’m not sure,” came the reply…and then it was too late.
At 6:00 a.m. the day Katrina made her mark on Gulf Coast history, Linda's son James stood in the front doorway and asked, "Mama, where's all this water coming from?” "Go unplug the drains in the street, James. They must be clogged" she reasoned, unconcerned. But the water did not go down. "Don't worry," she assured him. "It won't come in; we'll be fine." But that soon proved not to be the case.
Before long the water was up to their knees as everyone hurried about putting furniture and possessions as high as they could manage. As the water continued to rise, it became apparent that they had to leave, but by then the force of the storm surge made it impossible to open the front door, so going out through a window was the only option. With the water inside now up to her armpits, Linda grabbed a bag with her insurance papers, snagged her dog as it swam in circles, and was pulled outside by her son who seized her by the shoulders.
When asked if she was afraid, Linda stated matter-of-factly, “No, I wasn’t scared. When you’ve got God with you there’s no need to fear. You just make preparations and then step outta the way.”
Making their way hand over hand along a chain link fence, heading for a neighbor’s second floor apartment across the way, Linda’s thoughts turned to others in the neighborhood who might be in trouble. Once upstairs, she sent her sons James, 21, Daniel, 33, and Thomas, 37, back out into the storm to commandeer a neighbor’s motorboat to rescue others. The boys found the boat, but there was no motor or paddles and it proved too unwieldy to control in the wind and strong current with only the broken boards they were able to grab.
As if in answer to their unspoken prayers, a flat-bottomed skiff floated by which proved much easier to control, especially with one person paddling and the other two swimming alongside hanging onto the gunwales. Venturing around the neighborhood retrieving people off rooftops and out of attics, the brothers collected groups of three and four at a time until eventually there were forty-eight bedraggled souls and Linda’s dog in the second floor apartment.
The building rattled in the heavy gusts of wind, a shed from a nearby yard banged repeatedly against the side of the dwelling, and the door latch seemed about to give way to the tempest, creating a tension that led some of the inhabitants to start arguing about what best to do. In the face of such an overwhelming situation, it was decided that their best and basically only choice was to pray, which they began to do in earnest, with Mr. Al, a regular church-goer, offering up what all agreed was a prayer that brought comfort and hope, settling people down for a while.
Still, the water continued to rise and the wind was blowing so hard that the latch and door frame broke, after which the porch caved in, while the shed continued to bang against the shaky refuge. As everyone became increasingly alarmed, some started once again to disagree and argue, at which point Linda grabbed Ms. Roxanne’s bible and began reciting The Lord’s Prayer to which all joined in. From there she went on to lead them in the 23 rd Psalm, and then continued praying whatever came into her heart, speaking directly to the Lord. Prayers continued and helped to keep everyone calm until about 1:45 p.m. when the waters finally began to recede although the wind was still blowing fiercely.
When the storm surge abated to the point that Linda and her family could make their way outside and back to their home through the slippery mud, they found everything “tossed and turned” with many of their possessions half outside. There was also a strong unpleasant odor that grew more disagreeable as the storm gave way to the late August heat and humidity. Flooded cars were dead, and in any case, there was nowhere anyone could have gone with all the debris and downed trees.
As Linda set about trying to put some order to her home, she found that some of the furniture had floated and remained relatively clean and serviceable. Plastic covered mattresses were dragged outside and leaned against the fence to dry in the sun. With night falling, she gathered candles and matches from the supplies she had prepared for leaving. She even had enough on hand to give presents to the others who had shared the apartment.
Everyone slept outside that night on truck and car hoods. Looking up at the clear sky, Linda recalls that she had never seen so many stars. Lying there in the quiet darkness, Linda told stories to the two children of her son’s girlfriend.
Now came the question of when help would arrive. Ever resourceful, Linda was able to gather a butane turkey fryer, a gas grill, and two Coleman camp stoves, rice, seasonings, and odds and ends with which she was able to conjure up hot meals for all at hand. “When I cook, I cook,” she proudly proclaimed. “I regularly feed the whole neighborhood.”
The second night was spent initially listening to the radio, but the troubling reports of the storm’s effect grew tiresome after a while. Then someone found some gospel music tapes which got the weary group singing, laughing, and crying in release and relief. One woman wept over losing everything, to which Linda responded, “You lost nothing; YOU are still here. The rest is just stuff.”
On the third day when her sister was finally able to get through, she pulled up in front of the house and hugged Linda as she had never been hugged before. “I knew you porch monkeys were gonna make it, despite what they were saying on the news,” she cried.
Ms. Linda’s home is now being dry-walled and painted by volunteer relief workers, after having been gutted and treated to remove the toxic mold that arose following the flooding from the storm surge. When asked if she would like to express her thanks or gratitude to those who have helped her reclaim her home, she offered the following thoughts:
"Thank you ain’t enough. The distribution centers that were set up were good, but many of those needing help lacked transportation to get to them, so relief workers came by on four-wheelers passing out ice, water, food, and other much-needed supplies. They were so wonderful; they even brought food for the pets, diapers, first-aid supplies, and things you wouldn’t think of. It’s good to meet people like that. I always gave to the United Way and other such groups, and sometimes thought, “I ain’t getting’ nothin’ back from this. Now I see where my money went, and I’m so grateful for all they have done, especially the hugs and kisses which meant so much."
As for her thoughts on what the hardest part of the whole experience has been, Linda stated with assurance:
"There ain’t been no hard parts. All I lost were material things. God only lets us use them for a while. Now everyone has been put on the same level. People are people. We don’t have the right to judge or condemn. I’m no devout Christian, but I believe in God, and I believe we’ve all been baptized again by this. God did this for a reason. Some will be better off, and some worse. Man can’t change man; only God can change man. When God is for you, can’t nothin’ be against you. And I’m still here."
Eighty-two year old Olivia Kemp is truly a phenomenon. While others her age might consider their life work complete and be content to be taken care of, she continues to nurture successive generations of her sizeable family, even going so far as to legally adopt three of her twenty-five grandchildren. She also raised another grandson, John, who now lives in Georgia, and has provided for Olivia by purchasing her present home in 1980.Reflecting on her lengthy history as a mother, she smiles, “I’ve enjoyed them all. It’s been hard, but it’s been good.”
Raised in Alabama, Olivia and her husband moved to Biloxi in 1949, where they produced a family of fourteen children, including two sets of twins and a set of triplets. While Olivia embraced her role as homemaker, her husband made ends meet through jobs as a mechanic and maintenance worker, until he was brutally murdered in his taxi cab 1972 while there were still seven children left to raise. Olivia was able to find employment at the local Housing Authority where she spent seventeen years before “retiring” to work another five years as a VISTA volunteer.
Evacuating before Katrina to stay with a friend of her granddaughter’s three hours away in Jackson, Mississippi, she watched televised reports on the storm until the power went out, leaving her with no news and no one to call for updates on what was happening. One grandson and her youngest son had stayed behind with a friend, swimming to a neighbor’s two-story home where they were pulled onto the roof to ride out the storm.
Returning to her modest brick home three days later, Olivia had no idea of what she would find.
Everything was ruined, but someone had already patched the roof. I felt terrible, but I accepted it. A lot of things have happened in my life; there have been a lot of good days and a lot of bad days, but I’m still here. The good Lord doesn’t do things to hurt you.
With her home uninhabitable, Olivia stayed with a daughter in West Biloxi for four months while waiting for her trailer, although her grandson in Georgia had signed her up with the local agencies and FEMA during the first week after the disaster. The temporary dwelling sits in the driveway of her gutted home where volunteers are replacing electrical wiring, dry walling, painting, and making things good as new. Olivia spends some of her time watching the activity from the new rocking chair sent by a granddaughter and assembled by members of a visiting work team.
The people here have been wonderful. I never would have imagined. And look at what I have gotten out of it! The twenty-five year old stuff in my home wouldn’t have lasted much longer and now I’m going to have a whole new place when they finish working and all new furniture. I tell you, it’s been something.
Arthritis has slowed Olivia down considerably these days, and she gets stiff from being inactive too long. “The best therapy is kids,” she confides with a warm smile, “‘cause they keep me moving.” She can be duly proud of her current batch. Twenty-four year old Kizzy has just received her degree in elementary education from the University of Southern Mississippi, where eighteen-year-old Honoree is enrolled as a freshman. Twenty-year-old Lawrence works at a child care center while waiting for a place in a local school to become a barber. A few remnants of her family history survived the ravages of the storm and now hold places of honor in the refurbished home, including her husband’s junior college degree, two sons’ birth certificates, and Honoree’s high school baseball trophies. As for the rest, Olivia prefers to look ahead to a bright future with her loved ones around her.
“After all,” she declares, “family is the only thing that really matters.”
Weldon "Boot" Babuchna
Good Morning, America! Good Morning? Who would have thought, on the morning of August 29, 2005, such a tragedy would happen? The homes, businesses, industries, history, landscapes, beaches, GONE!!! But mainly the hearts broken and lives lost.
My wife and I were born and grew up here on the Coast. We are the parents of six children. All our children are married and we have ten grandchildren. Four of our children live here on the Coast. We were all blessed to have only minimal damage except for one, who lost everything. They have three children, the youngest being ten years old.
I work for Harrison County. My job through all this has been to keep all FEMA Points of Distribution clean of debris, food waste, etc. At my work center, Beat #1 D’Iberville, Mississippi, we lost everything with the exception of a few trucks and some heavy equipment. We have since rebuilt our building. To save cost, we did it ourselves. Fifteen of out twenty-four man work force lost everything or almost everything. Out of five Beats in Harrison County, Beat #1 was the hardest hit. Through all this, we all show up for work. So I say “Good Morning America” to every day I go to work and see the progress, the help, the love, the giving of oneself. It’s GOOD! Good to meet friends I never knew I had—the friends who have helped me to help others with food, clothing, gifts….
We have since rebuilt our building. To save cost, we did it ourselves. Fifteen of out twenty-four man work force lost everything or almost everything. Out of five Beats in Harrison County, Beat #1 was the hardest hit. Through all this, we all show up for work. So I say “Good Morning America” to every day I go to work and see the progress, the help, the love, the giving of oneself. It’s GOOD! Good to meet friends I never knew I had—the friends who have helped me to help others with food, clothing, gifts….
Thanks to our friends at the Salvation Army for food and hygiene products for family, friends, and co-workers and food for our work center.
Thanks to our friends at Compassion Central for all their help.
A special thanks to my friends Carl Keyes and Kevin Beck at Urban Life Ministries (ULM) for their help with clothing for family and church members who lost everything. Remember—don’t throw anything away until you check with me…Ha-Ha! Carl, thanks for the sunglasses; they went to our work force, and for the teenage Christmas gifts at our church. Kevin, thanks for your help with my granddaughter through a friend of yours and now mine whose daughter gave her own Nintendo to someone she doesn’t even know. WOW, what a Child; what a Friend; what Love!
Thanks also to Apache Mike from ULM. Hard Worker, Great Coffee! Keep it up! YOU GUYS ARE GREAT!!!
To think what these towns are going to be like. Putting homes back together, families and friends back together, young and old working together from all around this Great Country and abroad. We need to put lives together first. Everything else will come back… “ONE DAY AT A TIME, SWEET JESUS.”
GOOD MORNING AMERICA…AND THANK YOU—VERY MUCH!