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September 05, 2005 || 4:59 pm
Visiting the Gulf Coast

Yesterday we had a very strange day, getting up before dawn and leaving at 5am to drive down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast with donated supplies for the relief effort, specifically for a relative of someone in town who she was worried about, needing baby formula, food and other supplies. When we got to her, she was in fact a middle-class woman living in a middle-class subdivision outside Gulfport, and really didn't need any help whatsoever (power back on, air-conditioning running) so we gave her the stuff from her family and took the rest of our trailer-load of stuff around the area to see where there might be people who needed help.

We drove around Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula, not really knowing where we were going but trying to get a feel for the situation. Firstly, obviously there was an enormous amount of damage. Houses completely destroyed, not much electricity, mile-long lines for gas, shops and services wrecked by the storm. But the flooding had receded and from what we saw, this had enabled the relief operation in these areas (east of New Orleans, for those who don't know) to get underway pretty smoothly. The army were everywhere and the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organisations had set up well-organised centres in carparks, churches and schools for distributing food, water, supplies and helping people get shelter if they needed it.

Also, nearly all the areas we saw were almost all middle- or upper-class - beach homes, condos, expensive houses or even just 'normal' houses, not the kind of poverty we are used to in Hale County. The kind of people who really didn't need help, despite their protestations of how hard it had been for them and how they didn't know what to do. Apart from the areas immediately on the coast, most houses were damaged, some badly, but still standing - so they had roofs over their heads. In many places the owners were getting on with chainsawing fallen trees, re-roofing and clearing up.

Looking for poorer people who might have less capacity to help themselves (a strange kind of way to sight-see), we spied a few trailer parks further to the east. But even there, it seemed like most people had evacuated, and although some trailers were completely and dramatically destroyed, the families who remained and that we talked to seemed in reasonably good shape. It was quite strange, because they were obviously in poverty and really needed long-term help with their housing and economic needs, but for our mission which was to deliver essential supplies to those who had no help, they all were pretty fine, being close enough to the relief stations that had been set up. They didn't complain at all about their conditions, in comparison to the middle-class families who all acted as though they were in desperate, traumatic suffering.

Eventually, we realised our naivety in thinking that we could just find people in these areas who hadn't been helped by the other relief organisations, and took our load of donated stuff to a Salvation Army centre, who were very grateful and who told us that they had been seeing a lot of people who really did need a lot of help. But it was a strange feeling knowing that inevitably, in the areas that we coudln't access because they were cut off by flooding or military roadblocks, there were thousands of people who really did need what we had brought, who had been starving for days, but there was no way for us to be able to help. The extremity of the situation in New Orleans area became all the more apparent - while the less urban, more wealthy Mississippi coast was getting back on its feet and operating, if not normally, at least with order and with the emergency relief that was needed, just a few miles west was a situation which, to judge by what I read of the news today, is still harrowing and pretty desperate.

After we dropped off the donated supplies, we went to help the relative of another local family who had asked if we could load some furniture from his flooded home onto our trailer and take it with us for storage while he rebuilt and straightened out. He, again, lived in a very middle-class neighbourhood and again, we were actually quite shocked by the scenes there. Every house had a huge pile of furniture, appliances and other stuff outside it in the front yard.

What we realised was that these people, whose homes had been briefly inundated by 4ft of water during the storm surge, had insurance, and therefore were getting rid of absolutely everything from their houses knowing that they would be able to pay for new. Fridges, brand-new washing-machines, plasma-screen TVs, cabinets, tables, beds, everything was being thrown away. To us, knowing that this furniture, even with a water-stain, would be invaluable to poor families who are sitting on packing crates because they have no chairs, this sight was a little short of sickening. We could furnish half Hale County with the stuff that was being simply put out for landfill by families who couldn't be bothered to clean it off and keep or recondition it. I wished for a semi-truck so we could take it all back with us.

So it was a strange, and very American, day into the disaster area, taking donated supplies from the richer Greensboro residents who wanted to 'help'. The same residents, one might add, who might not be as incredibly generous to those in their own town who desperately need help every day. It's easier to respond to an 'emergency'; it's less easy to change your ways and the social and economic systems that are at work creating both the black, homeless crowds seen on TV stuck in New Orleans, and the black families stuck out of sight on the back roads here in Hale County, both groups living on nothing and with no capacity at all to help themselves.



One of the most striking things, for me at least, isn't just the loss of life and devastation of lives that the hurricane has caused but the deeper issues that it has brought to the fore.

By Blogger Gordon, at 12:12 pm  

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