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Far From Finished: Exhibit Shows Recovery Following Hurricane Katrina



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By Nancy K. Crevier

How do you rebuild a city? How do you rebuild lives?

Tired of hearing about government promises unfulfilled and nagged by news reports as the anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster drew near that continued to tell of lives still on hold, Newtown resident and associate editor of The Newtown Bee Shannon Hicks decided last August that it was time to channel her frustration into action. She made her reservations, and on Saturday, October 27, she joined volunteers from all over the country as part of a Back Bay Mission program to rebuild a home for Biloxi resident Patience Harris, who along with thousands of other residents had lost her home to the August 29, 2005, storm.

Outside of a day or two volunteering with AmeriCares, Miss Hicks' homebuilding experience and mission work was pretty limited. Nonetheless, Back Bay Missions, supported by her local house of worship, Newtown Congregational Church, assured her that there would be something for every volunteer to do if she would come.

"I didn't know what my job would be," said Miss Hicks. "I can swing a hammer, but I wasn't sure what I would be doing there."

She flew into Gulfport, Mississippi, rented a car, and began to survey the area with a reporter's eye, stunned at the wreckage that remained strewn about so many months after the hurricane had made history. News reports had prepared her for the destruction, but seeing it firsthand was startling.

What was as equally surprising to her as the destruction, but in a much better way, was the ease with which she and the 12 other people who made up her work crew gelled.

"We were a high school senior, a college student, an office manager for Pampered Chef, an interior contractor, a dialysis specialist, a cardiovascular technician, the owner of a graphics design company, a freelance broadcast journalist, a genealogist, a landscaper, a deli clerk, a pastor, and of course, a newspaper editor," said Miss Hicks. It was a diverse group with diverse skills, but most importantly, a group determined to work together to learn new skills that could put together a building and put together a life. In a coordinated effort with Back Bay Mission, which has existed as an aid organization since the early 1920s, and Corpus Christi Lutheran Church of Ocean Springs, Md., Miss Hicks was soon at home in the interdenominational gathering that made up Camp Victor.

Under the tutelage of volunteer contractors Bob Hemmer and Ron Picton, she quickly learned to build headers for windows and doors; but when her 7:30 am to 3:30 pm shift was over each day, and despite the heat and bugs, she felt compelled to explore the area.

The results of her explorations can be viewed in her pictorial exhibit, "Katrina Relief: Far From Finished," on display now through the end of March on the second floor of the C.H. Booth Library. "Enough of my friends and family felt that the impact of Katrina was so much more than my individual effort that a photo display would be useful," said Miss Hicks, who had hesitated about putting together a public display of her photography.

The hundreds of photos, just a small portion of the more than 600 photos she took, and several artifacts fill three display cases. The pictures tell the story of a city struggling to recover

"It is not just homes lost. It is churches, jobs, recreation, everything in their lives," said Miss Hicks.

The first case holds a collage-style display of the destruction that is still evident in the Biloxi-Gulfport area. Not only homes and businesses were victimized by the terrible storm. Many of the photographs are of churches and church property damaged by Katrina, not surprisingly, when one considers that prior to August 2005 more than 60 churches and places of worship populated the city of Biloxi.

In the second case, worksite pictures and memorabilia of the workdays examine the building of a crew and of a home. The third case, said Miss Hicks, is a collection of photographs that she believes convey the hope for the future and the good that has happened so far. A small tribute to New Orleans, which she visited as a side trip when the work camp ended, is part of the third case display.

Where Are The Tourists?

"The French Quarter is up and running there. Crime is not rampant, as new reports would have you believe. But where are the tourists?" asked Miss Hicks, who noted that tourism is essential to the recovery of the Gulf region.

The exhibit, she explained, is her way of showing people the work that remains to be done, the work that is being done, and the effect that a few volunteers at a time can have on others’ lives.

"One person and one week isn't a lot," she said, "but all of these individuals coming together, we did make a difference. We started building a house."

Her experience there was at times paradoxical. On the one hand was the destruction that lined the streets and the dismay of seeing row upon row of FEMA trailers housing displaced residents on a no longer temporary basis; vegetation shorn low by high winds and heavy waters and still struggling to come back; historic structures left exposed to the elements; businesses abandoned; and entire casinos lifted from foundations. On the other hand, she found dozens of people extending helping hands; appreciative homeowners; and a world of hope that continues to flourish.

"What was most difficult hardest to see," said Miss Hicks of Biloxi, a city of over 50,000 people before the hurricane, "was the emptiness. Streets were never clogged — there are no traffic jams. I saw no children. The population is only slowly returning.

The only animal she saw was the aptly nicknamed Miss FEMA, a half-blind kitty who lives at Camp Victor .

Her eight days in the Gulf region of the country left her with the knowledge that there remains much to do in order for life to get back to some semblance of normalcy for the residents there. For a country of such vast resources, she found it embarrassing that Biloxi flounders, as do other hard-hit cities, so long after the government promised aide.

The Ohr-Keefe Art Museum is a twisted, surreal sculpture at the roadside. A three-story boat dry dock is perfectly preserved on one half, but the other half, twisted by the power of the receding waters, remains a heap of gnarled beams. The doors to aboveground crypts hang open in graveyards, the bodies washed away. Block after block of neighborhoods is eerily silent, many of the homes abandoned to the mold and mildew. Even government-owned property is not immune to the neglect. At Biloxi's Keesler Air Force Base, remnants of housing languish on foundations.

The local McDonald's has ceased to count the number of burgers served. A sign says they will rebuild, said Miss Hicks, but as of November, there was no sign of activity there.

The project in which Miss Hicks was involved was one of six Back Bay Mission projects in progress the week she was in Biloxi, three of which were in Biloxi and three of which were in the neighboring city of Gulfport. Other missions were at work on yet another 67 homes at that time in the region, with another 400 homeowners on the waiting list to be started.

Raising Walls And Spirits

Watching the walls raised on Ms Harris's new home, walking on a newly laid foundation, and being a part of the creation of a new future for this woman who had lost everything to Katrina, raised her spirits amidst the ruins around them, said Miss Hicks.

"You can't imagine this woman, Patience, running out to greet us in her slippers and robe that first morning we arrived to hug each and every one of us because she was so grateful."

The homes built by Back Bay Mission volunteers are not fancy. The rooms are all painted eggshell white, the floorboards are either padded for the homeowner to cover with carpeting, or are topped with linoleum. The homeowners, who are selected through grants from the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport plus HUD guidelines to get onto the Back Bay Mission rebuilding program, are simply given a starting point and hope.

Her crew did not finish Ms Harris's house in the one week they were there.

"How long it takes to rebuild a home depends on the availability of licensed contractors like electricians and plumbers, and the number of volunteers," Miss Hicks explained. The last she had heard, Ms Harris hoped to move into her new house in mid-February, if all of the contractors could sign off.

There are other homes to rebuild, other lives to support, she said, and if even one person is inspired by her photo exhibit at the library to pack some bags and head to the Gulf region, it will be worth it.

"There is a personal cost to the trip — a $100 fee to Camp Victor, plane fare, car rental, that sort of thing —  but the personal gain offsets all of that," said Miss Hicks. The words of Rev Don Morgan, the associate for volunteer services for Back Bay Mission, spoken during the crew's orientation on her first night in Mississippi, are a battle cry enlivened by her photo display: "You bet we're going to make it, and it's because of people like you. You are our emissaries to the outside world. You are the best form of communication to tell people what has happened here and what still needs to be done."

Miss Hicks went on to say, "I want people to remember that it is not better yet [in Biloxi]. There is still a lot people can do. I don't want people to forget that there are people who have lost their homes. The people there have lost their footing, they were knocked off their pilings, just like the buildings around them."

How do you rebuild a city? How do you rebuild lives? Time, talent, and the willingness for volunteers to step outside the comfort of secure lives. Even so, Miss Hicks understands that full recovery will not happen quickly.

"Baby steps," she said, is what it takes. "Baby steps."

For information about volunteering, visit theBackBayMission.org and select Volunteer Opportunities. Newtown Congregational Church is presently collecting men's socks, underwear, and T-shirts, and hygiene kits. Hygiene kits can include any or all of the following: washcloth, bar soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, shampoo, deodorant/antiperspirant, razors, and shaving cream, all in a Zip-loc bag. Donations can be dropped off at the church office, 14 West Street, Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 4 pm.

Back Bay Mission, which has been helping residents of the Back Bay area of Mississippi since the 1920s, had been operating out of mobile homes for over a year when Newtown resident Shannon Hicks visited the area in October 2006. A collection of photos by Miss Hicks, chronicling her visit to the Gulf region last year, is on view at C.H. Booth Library through the end of March.  (Shannon Hicks photo) 

Biloxi resident Patience Harris welcomed a work crew of 13 people, most who had not met before being assigned to her property, on a Monday morning in October 2006. By the end of the week, "Miss Patience" had the base floor and four walls framed for her new home. Harris was among the hundreds who had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina 14 months earlier.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

The water line less than a foot from the ceiling of an abandoned home in Biloxi, Miss., shows just how high the storm surge was following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

The exterior walls of St Peter's by the Sea Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., to the immediate east of Biloxi, were washed away by Hurricane Katrina. Fourteen months after that storm, the church's lower interior was still wide open to the elements.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

(Shannon Hicks photo) 

The marble sign for St Peter's by the Sea was no match for the hurricane's storm surge. Fourteen months after the major weather event, the damage was still evident.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

Pews are stacked outside a church building on Main Street, Biloxi, in October 2006.  (Shannon Hicks photo) 

A large percentage of Biloxi's population benefited from donations of canned drinking water from Anheuser-Busch. Miss Hicks found a room still full of the donated potable liquid, still being shared among the city's residents, while based at Camp Victor last autumn.  (Shannon Hicks photo) 

A familiar marker on hundreds of buildings following Hurricane Katrina, the red X on the front of this duplex near the French Quarter indicates, clockwise from top, that the hope was searched on September 6; that no hazards were found; both residences were searched, no one was found; and that a team from Arizona did the search.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

A sign taped to one of the front doors of this duplex near the French Quarter in New Orleans says "you gotta have FAITH."   (Shannon Hicks photo)

Within a New Orleans store, one T-shirt shared the frustration — and perhaps resigned humor — of local residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  (Shannon Hicks photo)

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