On the Beach

By Deborah N. Clark ′07


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Rhodes chaplain Billy Newton ′74, Tim Moreland ′02, Tiffany Merritt ′02, and Sam Thompson ′03

I was studying abroad when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf states on Aug. 29, 2005. Everything I heard through my mother and the European news system was pretty horrific. When Rhodes students and alumni/ae received an e-mail from chaplain Billy Newton’s office this spring about doing hurricane relief in May, I wanted to go. I thought that my mission would be to finish cleaning up the mess left by the hurricane. I was shocked to find that my expectations were almost entirely wrong.

When we arrived in Bay St. Louis, MS, the area was filled with debris and rubble. It felt as if the hurricane had hit about two weeks—not eight months—before. The roofs of houses were flat on the ground, and the buildings that were left standing had been gutted. Entire roadways and bridges were taken out, and the beach was still littered with blinds, couches, shoes, clothes and other domestic accessories.

The first night there, our group settled into our living areas inside First Presbyterian Church, which had been almost entirely converted into housing for volunteers. Our accommodations consisted of wooden bunk beds with air mattresses on top. The room in which I stayed had been a Sunday school classroom. Outside was a tent containing at least 10 more beds. Showers were outdoors. More than 1,000 people from all over the country had come to this church willing to repair the damage. There was a map inside on the wall that indicated all of the places in the United States from where groups came, some as far as Alaska. It was comforting to know that we had become part of an even larger community of people, all gathering at one place to help rebuild the lives of victims.

We ate dinner that night in the kitchen with some of the other relief groups and attended a brief church service that included a home-video taken during the hurricane. The man who shot the video had taken shelter at a local high school. It showed the progress of the hurricane—the water reaching higher up the stairs, people’s cars and possessions washed away. It is difficult to imagine the extent to which entire lives were ruined: jobs lost, houses and possessions gone. We met a woman that night who had been counseling members of the community. She worked to repair the emotional stress the hurricane caused.

We began work the next day. We were assigned to a husband and wife in their 70s who were building a home out of their garage, which hadn’t washed away. The first thing I noticed about these two was their enthusiasm. They were so thankful and excited that we came. We were given snack provisions while on the job, and fans had been set up inside so that it was as cool as possible in the heat of early summer.

We began insulating wooden panels that had been installed six months before by a group from Tallahassee, FL. The insulation was sticky and unpleasant to cut and touch in the heat, but the staple guns kept us all motivated. It became satisfying to staple up a panel. Slowly, each room was insulated. In the meantime, others worked on understanding and installing Sheetrock over the insulation. This was perhaps the hardest part because measurements had to be precise. Getting measurements accurate may not sound like a difficult task, but we learned that leaving maybe a quarter-inch for mistakes was advisable.

After a break, we were whisked away to lunch. A family the church helped to get back on its feet gave their thanks by cooking meals for the groups working every day. We ate, and soon were on our way back to work, some of us continuing the morning’s task, others going on to another house to work on insulation. The second house was even hotter than the first. However, we were there to work, and these people still needed help.

The following two days were similar in routine. We learned a lot about laying the foundations for homes, and we learned about the families and their stories following the hurricane. When the hurricane hit, no one expected the water to rise as far as it did. In fact, the people were told not to get flood insurance because the area had never been flooded before. We looked at pictures of the damage, saw family heirlooms destroyed, pictures lost and people trying to accept the change and move forward. Half the population of the Bay St. Louis area left; others stayed, hoping to rebuild. A new community came out of all of this. Strangers came together. Sam Thompson ’03 felt called to go to the area and help. When he arrived, he didn’t realize that this church would be where he could recruit and hold so many groups to help a community around him. In fact, he thought he would be there for a couple of weeks to help people get back on their feet.

Like Sam, who raised public awareness of the hurricane victims by running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days this summer, I feel driven to let people know what I experienced. I want others to know of the need there. The thing is, natural devastation on this scale could happen to anybody, and it has.