Letter from Biloxi
Nothing here is untouched by the storm. Anywhere you look you see the signs. "Damaged" doesn't begin to describe some of it. Vacant lots with a set of concrete stairs going to that cool front porch that no longer exists. A front porch that was a place for rest and reflection, where families and neighbors sat in rocking chairs or the glider turned sideways at the end. Cool drinks, passing the warm afternoons before supper. The porch that fronted the old family homestead, where generations had lived, loved and died for their place in the community. Gone now.
Gas pumps lean at odd angles in an open field, like lost drunks looking for home. Long gone is the little neighborhood store where they stood guard, the store where the kids bought soda and candy, mom picked up the milk and the gossip, and dad bought his Camels and talked about the fishing. All gone.
People go from agency to organization to shelters and back. More have jobs and families to juggle with the only hot meals served by walkup kitchens or from trucks driving to the neighborhood. Day after day, they are looking for help, or trying to help. Thousands of them looking. Thousands of us trying to help. We mix in ways we never would have considered a few weeks ago. Doing things we never would have imagined. Trying to put the best face on a difficult situation. We're all the same in that.
When mother nature meets human nature, we're all touched. We build our lives where our community exists, and it exists in whatever form nature allows. We bend nature and it bends us. Sometimes we're at odds and the bends become breaks. In the end, it's the bending and breaking, time and again, that defines the community. So the community lives with nature.
My experience here has been incredible. Sharing this experience with my community of volunteers, helping the local community regain its feet, is rewarding in ways I could not even try to describe. It is broadening me in ways I had never considered and more importantly has affirmed all that I have known about myself. I live in a room with 750 others, in a building housing now over 1,200, all volunteers. All colors, all religions, all walks of life. Within arm's length of my cot is a spinster English teacher from Virginia, a Latino woman with orange hair, a coed from Oregon, a Rastafarian from NYC and a high school dropout from Jersey City. I brush my teeth each morning next to a woman in her seventies, who stands on a bucket to put on her make-up. We do that outside at a line of 10 sinks. I eat with a different group of people each meal. While people wait for their rides in the morning, some do Tai Chi exercises. All kinds of folks, all here to help together and to help each other. There is no class distinction. Blue states and red states mix (does that make green?) Nothing here is untouched by the storm. We are all here together, touched. I'm here, touched.
Jim Pepper, father of five and a builder, has lived on the Vineyard about 22 years. After Katrina hit, he took the Red Cross training offered on the Vineyard. He was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi on October 8, where he is managing three field kitchens, which put out approximately 35,000 meals per day.