Hurricane Katrina - Relief Trip 10/2005

A satellite image of Katrina as it bore down on the Gulf Coast.

A gas station in Cairo, IL, shows how gas station owners took advantage of America following disaster.

Trees were snapped in half just north of Jackson, MS, along I-55.

 

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Most of the worst damage I saw in Hattiesburg was to signage.

The trees near Moss Point were leaning away from the ocean, as if they were disgusted by what it had done.

The pastor at Shiloh M.B. Church gave us a tour of his church, which saw major roof damage.

Biloxi was in rebuilding mode. The town was full of muscle looking for quick bucks.

It was evident that this storm was like nothing else.

We toured Keesler AFB in Biloxi. This is Keesler's pier with bent lightposts.

Although buildings on the base were destroyed, the Air Force was ready to help the community.

This home in Biloxi was left a pile of bricks. Many people died waiting out the storm.

Boats stranded by the storm in the intracoastal waterway in Biloxi.

What looks like a huge boat beached near Gulfport, MS.

This Waffle House right on the beach in Gulfport is gone.

Although the government was hard to find, churches and organizations like the Salvation Army were on the front lines.

 

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Background: After Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast stunned and destroyed, Forest Preserve Bible Church collected supplies to lift up fellow Christians in need. I accompanied Pastor Rzany on a quick delivery trip to Shiloh M.B. Church in Moss Point, MS, where we saw more than we ever imagined.

 

Traversed: IL, Memphis area, MS, AL, TN, KY

Slept: Jackson, MS, & Birmingham, AL

Travel partner: Rev. Steve Rzany

Transportation: Church van filled with stuff

New Frontiers: First time at Gulf of Mexico and in Deep South

 

Trip Diary: God uses His people and does what is best for them. This was one of those moments for me. I was between my two stints at Northside Prep when Hurricane Katrina infamously hit the Gulf Coast. Like most Americans, I watched it unfold on the 24 hour news networks. At first it was just an exciting storm, then as I saw the destruction of New Orleans... bodies floating in the floods, buildings torn to pieces, families stranded on their roofs... When I saw that, I was moved. Just as we did for 9/11 the American people united as a family and collected what we could. Collections were taken, families were housed in Chicago, and charity seemed to abound. God uses His people to show His own glory.

 

The pastor of my church announced he was organizing collections of needed materials to be sent to a church in need that was hit by the fierce east side of the wall in Moss Point, Mississppi. I had nothing going on, liked to drive far, and was moved to make myself available if he decided to deliver the huge offering himself. I don't think it was his initial plan, but soon we were heading down I-57 in a big white church van full of prayers and a cargo of good intentions and warm feelings for our brothers and sisters down South.

 

This was a marathon trip and Steve was serious, armed with the largest coffee mug I have ever seen. After filling up with the most expensive gas on earth at Cairo, IL, we continued south. It did not take long to get to Southhaven, MS, just south of Memphis. We stopped here to pick up more supplies like mops and buckets and brooms. "The South," as usual, was not in as much of a hurry as we were.

 

I started seeing the effects of the storm just north of Jackson, where the trees that line I-55 were bent slightly toward the north, as if the forest was repelled by the far-away ocean. It was an eerie and evil sight. In Jackson we stopped to meet with a former intern from the area studying for the ministry in town. He told us stories about the night of the storm and described great destruction in the capital city over one hundred miles from the ocean. We had trouble finding a hotel since they hotels had become refugee camps for those whose lives were torn apart on the coast.

 

The next morning we headed down the US-49 toward Hattiesburg, a small city damaged greatly by the huge storm. Trees were snapped in two all over town. Hattiesburg seemed to be an unofficial staging area for those heading south. Government vehicles and trucks carrying building materials clogged US-98. The angle of the trees increased. They seemed tired as the people after two months of rebuilding.

 

We arrived in the poor port town of Moss Point, before long. The town sits on an intracoastal waterway that is the wide mouth of the Pascagoula River. Ships along the shore were damaged and most of the town was abandoned. Every building was covered with big blue tarps since few roofs were left intact. There were many churches in the town doing God's work. Church lawns were places were victims could gather clothes to work in and replace those that they lost. Supplies were kept in sheds and storehouses were filled with donations of food. The friendly and optimistic people at Shiloh M.B. Church, our destination, seemed pleased mostly with our gifts of cleaning products. We talked briefly with the pastor who proudly gave us a tour of his church. The roof was damaged. There were holes in the stained glass. The people of Shiloh, though, were focused on giving to those in need rather than fixing their building. "People are important!" the pastor kept repeating. Shiloh is still offering aid to those in need and in search of volunteers. They take seriously the call to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus. I was impressed with the fact that all over the coast, it was the churches and organizations like Red Cross and the Slavation Army that were providing basic needs for victims. The government was nowhere. In fact, the day we arrived in Jackson, FEMA posted a notice informing victims that they would no longer receive support for their motel rooms.

 

We continued down to the coast in Pascagoula, where the damage grew in scale as we went west along US-90. We were forced to head away from the coast near Biloxi, but we promised a church member serving the Air Force at Keesler AFB that we would visit. While New Orleans was famously damaged by floods, it  was Biloxi that was the hardest hit by winds. It was as if a hand sent in from the ocean and knocked everything over. In D'lberville, just north of the base we made contact with our friend, and he invited us into the city and offered a meeting place. The gas station was crowded with carpetbaggers who swarmed the city in search of high-paying cleanup jobs. Every house in Biloxi was destroyed and were not fit for habitation. Every house was dwarfed in height by the pile of garbage and debris that lined the streets. (I have recently read, two years later, that the people still are unclear about what to do with it all.) Hardly a tree was untouched. Stores were broken into, their parking lots filled with trails of merchandise. Our friend from the base told us that they were locked down immediately following the storm in fear of the riots. Nothing was operating except for the Air Force base.

 

We toured Keesler, escorted by our friend. It was a mess. We were told that the hospital flooded and fish had to be cleared off the base's runways. Several buildings were absolutely in ruins. Most hard hit were the officer's homes. A site I will not forget was of a car that was blown right through the brick wall of the garage in which it was kept. As a member of the military, our friend brought us down to the beach and drove us to Gulfport, which was closed to the public and under armed guard by the government. The beach was littered with garbage. Skeletons of buildings stood in their place. In other places, there was nothing left but foundation. What was once a big tourist trap was now a place of death and destruction. Numbers spray-painted on doors and walls counted the dead and missing.

 

When we were in Biloxi, our host introduced us to his pastor who also gave us a tour of his storefront church. He showed us where the church building had been knocked a few feet from where it previously stood and lamented the fact that the first priority of the State of Mississippi was not to rebuild the homes of the poor people of Biloxi, some of whom were sleeping in the pews of his church, but was to rebuild the casinos. Mexican immigrants and Southerners with nothing to lose, he told us, filled the city and did the grim work of clearing away debris and bodies and the dreams of a city they knew nothing about.

 

We left the area and headed away back toward Hattiesburg and into Alabama, where the forests continued to sweep away from the betraying ocean. After some trouble we found a place to sleep in Birmingham, AL, which also housed many refugees. I was surprised at how hilly the city was and figured I had reached the Appalachians. We raced through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, and returned home late the next day.

 

God works through His people. I knew this in theory before experiencing it in Katrina. The devastation had a refining quality about it. God's people all over the area were tired, but noticably excited to be working for Him in His time and in His place. What a place of faith! I pray often for the people of the Mississippi coast and hope they realize that we have not forgotten them.

 

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All photos courtesy of Steve Rzany and taken 2005 All content copyright 2007 by S. Plencner