Sunday, January 21, 2007

It’s been a week since I returned and I’ve been in a reflective mood...

I sometimes play a game with myself to make me more aware of who and where I am. It goes like this: focus on your moment, your ‘now’. Take in everything around you: sights, sounds, people, thoughts, emotions, worries, and cares. And then realize that everything single thing you’ve done in your life—every decision big and small, every left turn, right turn, and wrong turn has led you to this one moment in time.

This is who you are. Is this who you want to be?

Never before in my life have I been able to answer ‘Yes’ as fiercely as I was when I was in Biloxi.

I have been a little embarrassed at times since I’ve returned at being congratulated for being so altruistic. The reality is that Biloxi gave me much, much more than I could ever give back. I don’t know if it was the work I was doing or the people I met or the feeling of being part of a community that extended beyond any artificial barriers we humans can erect. Probably all of it, and probably something more that I could never fully understand.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. You can see it on the faces of the volunteers and hear it in the voices of those who are leaving but promise to return. It’s in the food that you eat and the people you’re helping and in the sun dipping into the Gulf of Mexico.

This is why I feel compelled to tell everyone who wants to listen that you should do this. It’s not simply a trip of sacrifice or of doing good. It can change your life and help you come to know the person you always wanted to be. One day, with hard work and grace, Biloxi will be whole again. But there will always be another Biloxi to take its place. Any tragedy carries a terrible human cost, but in paying the cost you will come understand the human you more than you could ever imagine.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Well, here we are at a bar at the Gulfport/Biloxi Airport about 18 hours ahead of our scheduled departure. During lunch today we noticed that all sorts of weather problems were wreaking havoc at Dallas/Ft. Worth and thought, "Hm...maybe we should look into that..."

Our flight was canceled. This was about 3pm. Our options were a flight at 4:10 (for seven of us) or one much later on Sunday. The 4:10 option gave us about negative 5 minutes to get ready and get to the airport. The not-leavers jumped in and helped the leavers and mostly everything got packed.

We made it. And it turns out our plane is delayed so now we're waiting.

This has been an absolutely amazing experience and this is a strangely appropriate way to end it.

It's going to take me a couple of days to collect my thoughts so I can really write about it in a way that I feel does it justice. But the summary is this: You should do this. Soon. Often. I can't imagine not coming back some time.

Thanks Biloxi and thanks to everyone involved with Hands On. I'll be seeing y'all.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Last night we experienced Southern Hospitality and learned the meaning of the term “comfort food” in a way that only red beans & rice, chicked & dumplings, Creole, and Gumbo can demonstrate, as Noelle’s cousin in nearby Gulfport hosted us for dinner. It was an amazing meal with the nicest people you can imagine.

I couldn’t resist filling my plate.

And I polished it all off.

Today was another early drywall day, but more on that later…

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The last two days of work have been really good. Yesterday we were in Turkey Creek removing all sorts of debris from the sides of roads and wooded areas. The list of stuff we found is pretty astonishing—things like bathtubs and water heaters, bottles and tires, toys, diapers, and so on and so on and so on.

People in the community are very grateful to see us there. “Are you the folks from out of town?” “We sure are!” “Thank you SO much for helping us!”

Another fellow needed help removing the leftovers of his garage. He rode out the storm – “It sounded like a train for 12 hours” – and had to look at the debris from his garage for the next year and a half. We pulled all of the lumber out to the curb and got attacked by fire ants in the process.

Today was an insulation and drywall day, only this time it was *really* a drywall day. This is one of the houses that Guiding Light will be showing off so they’re in a hurry to get the drywall up so the moviestars can paint something in front of a camera. We started at 6am and powered through until 2. There was a bit of a ramp-up and a few Paddington moments, but our group was able to finish all of our drywalling and the other groups were awfully close. We’ll be “mudding” for the next day or so.

It feels good.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Let's imagine a day in Biloxi. I don't have to imagine it because I'm here, but I’ll help you by walking through it.

You wake up around 7 when the lights come on and breakfast is being served. You roll out of your bunk (or off of your air mattress on the floor) and groggily notice the dozens of other volunteers dragging themselves into consciousness.

Breakfast and dinner are prepared by volunteers here—the food somehow magically appears in a big kitchen (I still haven’t figured that part out) and groups of 4 or 5 sign up to prepare meals. Breakfast is usually pretty standard, lukewarm pancakes make a regular appearance, there’s cereal, and every now and again eggs or something sausage-related shows up. The groups start heading to project sites at 8.

The activity on site is pretty varied. There are volunteer leaders who run the projects, but of course the work itself can be just about anything. Things always appear to be right on the edge of chaos (in my brief experience anyway), but the leaders keep things under control just enough to get stuff done.

The Salvation army serves lunch to volunteers from Hands On Gulf Coast (us) as well as other groups in the area. Lunch is served in a tent on a big football field where we’re able to play volleyball or soccer or just kick back in the grass and enjoy the sun.

At which point I’m going to digress briefly and call out the word “sun”. For example, we don’t have rain or snowstorms right now, just warm, sunny, beautiful weather all the time. (Granted, I’m down here as a result of an adverse weather pattern, so everything isn’t always roses…).

The afternoon always seems to fly past, then we pile back into the vans and head back to headquarters. Dinner is served at 6:30 and, as mentioned, is prepared entirely by volunteers. The “Seattle Group” took over dinner tonight, so we sent a crew back from our project early to fix up an absolutely delicious enchilada feed. It was definitely the highlight meal of the week so far—thanks guys!

After dinner, there’s an all-hands meeting. First a representative from every group stands up and gives a rundown of what they worked on during the day. That rolls into general announcements and a description of the projects that are planned for the next day. The “general announcements” part can take a pretty long time. We then say hello to new people, who have to stand up and give us some personal info (who are you, where are you from, how did you find out about us, what’s your favorite 80s hair band, etc.) and goodbye to people who are leaving. It’s actually quite touching to hear from the people who are going—this experience can have a really positive impact. Most people promise to come back soon.

After a bit more miscellany, the meeting is through. Everything wraps up by 8 and quiet hours start at 10. We’ve been taking advantage of the local sights most nights (there’s a cheesy pub down the road with cheap beer and pool tables) and tend not to roll in until well after quiet hours start. A bit of reading, catching up on e-mail, and you’re done.

All in all, a pretty decent way to spend a week.

PS - To follow up to yesterday’s post, my camera repairs went roughly as well as they usually do…um…which means I’m going to be relying on other pictures for the next few days. But fear not! The picture blogs will return very soon!

PPS - This entry's a little less elaborate than I'd like because we A. took advantage of the local cheesy pub with cheap beer and pool tables and B. are on an "early crew" that leaves tomorrow morning at 6am to go drywalling!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My camera broke today! So at some point I'm going to stop by Wal-Mart to track down an eyeglass repair kit because I'm certain I can fix it. A good 75% of stuff I attempt to fix ends up back together eventually. Of those, I'd say at least half end up no more broken than before. Of the remaining 50%, I'm not sure I've ever gotten anything truly "working" again, but I really feel like this is going to be my big break.

We started the day at a house that needed drywall. Unfortunately, the house was awaiting inspection and the inspector hadn't shown up. This meant that we could only hang one side of every wall. We were pretty good at it.

We even got to use power tools.

However, because we could only hang half the drywall there was only half the work, so half of us headed over to one of the "Guiding Light" houses. I'd like to provide a translation of the following line from the linked article:

...spending a week in the Gulf Coast to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina

Another version may be:
..spending a week getting photographed in front of homes in various states of repair that were prepared by Hands-On volunteers

But I digress. We did some good work, but left the house to sit "partly done" for the next 10 days until the film crew shows up.

That's about it for now. We're collecting to take a trip out to a casino right now--there are plenty of cameras, so hopefully I'll be able to get a few more pictures headed this way soon!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Today we woke up at the 7am. For those of you keeping track, this is 5am “normal time”. Maybe some of you have met me. For those who haven’t, ‘7’ isn’t a number I often see at the front of the clock in the morning and ‘5’ is significantly rarer.

But breakfast was being served and the vans boarded at 8 to take us to our project sites. Here we have the eating and main congregational area that our bunks overlook:

All things considered, the meals and living conditions are excellent. Everyone is very friendly and very accommodating. There are people here from all over the US, many of whom who are visiting for the third or fourth time already.

For most of the Seattle Works group today’s project was going to be some kind of mold removal and control. Our trip to the work site took us down to the waterline where the hurricane hit the hardest. Most places along the beach looked like this:

Except for these:

Interesting, that.

We pulled up in front of a pair of houses. One was mostly finished (or looked to be from outside) and the other had been gutted, but needed to be treated so that mold and mildew couldn’t make a comeback.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but notice the red-on-white sign on the top-right of the porch.

That sign says “water line” and shows how high the water had come. Keep in mind that this was a storm surge—not flooding from broken levees like they had in New Orleans. This water was whipped up by the fury of the storm—like what happens when you aggressively mix liquid in a bowl. The water stayed at that level for hours, accompanied by 120+MPH winds. All along the coast.

The other Seattle Works group (including Noelle) spent the day cleaning up the resulting mess in areas that hadn’t been touched in the last year and a half. They weren’t just cleaning up deck chairs and branches, there were, to paraphrase, “ladles and cutlery…like the guts of the houses were pulled outside and thrown for miles.”

But I digress. Our team was cleaning wall frames and rafters with a special solution, then painting everything with “Killz,” which will keep the mold and mildew at bay. We're a good-lookin' bunch:

I had an incident with a ladder and an air conditioner. This is a dramatic re-enactment.

We stopped for lunch and played volleyball at a beat-up football field where the Salvation Army feeds hoards of volunteers every day. It’s very cool to see so many non-profit and volunteer groups work together at something like this.

Also, it was sunny. This is a happy departure from monsoon season back home.

The painting phase of our project highlighted interesting personality differences in our group. These two (Julie on the left and Marty on the right) were doing the same thing all day:

I looked more like Julie. So did Jan:

We worked hard and the Gulf Coast was thankful:

We got a lot done today, but there is so much more that needs to be done. I heard an estimate today that, at the current pace, it would take 28 years to rebuild all of the houses that were destroyed. I guess you can’t do anything except to keep doing the same thing.

Word on the street is that we’re diving into drywall tomorrow. Stay tuned.

PS - If you're interested in reading more about what the Seattle Works group is up to, take a look at Noelle's blog and the Seattle Works blog. A number of different people from the group will be posting at the SW site, so it's a great place to hear other voices tell our story!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I’m drunk.

Well, not anymore, but I was a few hours ago and it seemed appropriate given the last 24.

The last 24 hours started with the most ridiculous football game I’ve ever seen. That also turned out to be the most normal part of it.

We got onto an airport shuttle (kindly organized by Kalindra) that took us to Sea-Tac at 9pm. Our plane wasn’t supposed to leave until midnight, but being a little early wouldn’t hurt.

We found a fun place to drink.

As it turned out, our plane was 20 minutes late. No big deal.

As it turned out, our plane had a faulty starter and required an on-tarmac repair while we were already boarded. This was a big deal.

Two hours later we were finally taxiing to the runway. On the plus side, we were aided by a 130kt tailwind (hey, that’s what the pilot said) and still made it to Dallas/Ft. Worth in time to make our connection.

Our ride into Biloxi was a little bumpy. Our pilot did a good job avoiding the huge cumulonimbus clouds that covered the area.

The airport was closed due to weather about half an hour after we landed.

After a quick stop at our ultimate headquarters...

...we decided we were deliriously hungry and set out to find food. We settled on a little place I like to call “the greatest restaurant of all time.”

I met a nice local guy who ran a car dealership. He said that the town was starting to come back now, although things were still rough in some areas. His entire inventory had to be written off, but, he admitted somewhat sheepishly, business was pretty good in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. He wished us luck and thanked us for coming.

After plowing through some sort of “Ultimate Meal”, we returned to headquarters... drop off our things and hopped in the vans for an afternoon trip to New Orleans.

I was stunned by the devastation that surrounded us in every direction.

Then we got to the bad part.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like. I can’t imagine a time when people lived there, even though it was less than 18 months ago. Row after row, block after block, mile after mile of destruction and chaos. It’s not only in a few concentrated areas. You could drive for hours and not see the same place twice.

But they all look the same.

When we were numb, we decided to revitalize ourselves by heading into the French Quarter.

It was simply impossible to comprehend the disparity between the two areas. The Lower 9th Ward was desolate, desperate, and looked like nothing had or could have lived there for years. The French Quarter was lusty and alive and looked like nothing bad could have happened for many lifetimes.

And they were five minutes from each other.

It turns out I love New Orleans. We stopped at Café Du Monde and I had a Beignet and a Café Au Lait.

We walked down Bourbon Street and I drank a Big Gulp-sized “Hurricane” drink.

We stopped at a gumbo restaurant and I ate seafood gumbo and alligator sausage (delicious).

That’s the part where I got drunk. And that’s the part where this story ends.

Tomorrow we start the real work.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I'm the worst packer on the planet. Every article of clothing in my apartment seems indispensible, even for a week-long excursion. Here is a picture of my first pass:

I did manage to condense this into one bag that can be described using words like "absurdly heavy" and "extremely awkward."

Of course, our accomodations are somewhat meager, so a big chunk of the bulk comes from my air mattress, pillow, quilt, etc., etc. Then there's the issue of the BYOSTB (bring your own steel-toed boots) policy. Turns out the ones I brought from home didn't fit, so I had to buy some today. I had no idea Skechers does steel toes. Here is a picture of my fancy new steel-toed Skechers with his new Skechers friends who already lived in my closet:

I'm sure they'll get along fine.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

If you found your way here I probably don't need to explain why this blog exists because I probably sent you an e-mail or something and you're reading this out of the goodness of your own heart. If not, the short version is this: A group of volunteers organized by Seattle Works is heading down to Biloxi, Mississippi to help rebuild houses devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

I have no idea what to expect.

Tonight a group of us got together to watch the second half (Acts III and IV) of Spike Lee's film "When the Levees Broke: A Requium in Four Acts." Not exactly a feel-good movie, Lee tells the story of the devastation wreaked by nature and the equal devastation wreaked by incompetence through the voices of people who were hit hardest. Editorializing isn't necessary when the truth speaks so clearly.

My goal is to update the blog regularly while I'm in Biloxi. Normally I don't find anything in my life quite fascinating enough to write about on a regular basis, but I think this might be an exception. I've spent my whole life blissfully untouched by this sort of catastrophe and I hope this experience can help open my eyes, if only a little.