Saving Biloxi

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It was midnight before I found somewhere to stay and even though the inn was full, I was welcomed inside. Pastor Bob walked me by torchlight to the last inflatable mattress on the Gulf Coast and there, to the sound of an all-male choir of snorers and the whistle of air escaping through a tiny puncture, I fell asleep on the rapidly hardening floor of the assembly hall in the Bethel Lutheran Church, Biloxi, Mississippi.

At 7:00am I was rudely awakened by a loud clang. Last night’s horrifying glimpse of what had transpired in this town eight weeks earlier was enough to fill me with apprehension and I sprang to my feet, grabbed my pack and prepared to evacuate.

Service in front of a damaged Biloxi church

Service in front of a damaged Biloxi church

All around me people stood motionless. A fire drill perhaps? I didn’t move. My eyes focused on a hand-painted sign on the wall nearest me: ‘Good morning. This is God and I will be handling all your problems today.’ And Pastor Bob led us in prayer and praise.

Breakfast followed. Rhonda had heeded the call for cooks via the Bethel Lutheran website, travelled for two days to Biloxi and had flipped her 400th pancake before I awoke. Impressed by their sheer quantity, I complimented her. She claimed no credit, this is God’s work. ‘He just goes on providing,’ she beamed.

That’s what people down here believe. And it’s no wonder. The faith-based networks represent the most visible relief to the homeless and newly destitute. Hundreds of churches from an alphabet soup of faiths have been converted to support the throngs of volunteers who provide a constant flow of enthusiastic labour servicing the tent cities and surviving households. Classrooms and chapels have become makeshift dormitories; the main halls serve hot meals and offer all manner of essential personal products. Foyers function as free medical clinics to replace the medical service which collapsed when most of the doctors left town.

Judy Bultman is the wife of Biloxi’s Bethel Lutheran Pastor who co-ordinates the Lutheran/Episcopal Disaster Response. We chatted about the relief effort. Rehearsed, political, certain, Mrs Bultman glowed as she revealed that a miracle was taking place, that Katrina had created an unprecedented opportunity.

‘A spot of luck!’ she added as she powered off to an interfaith meeting to lobby for her share of donated funds.

Daylight revealed the full-blown, chaotic reality of government inaction. In fact, it looked like the government had been overthrown. Eight weeks on, and still no sewerage, water or electricity in East Biloxi, home to vast African American and Vietnamese communites.
Life opearates at a subsistence level. Their cars are gone, their fishing boats are gone, their jobs are gone, and their money’s gone. An organic stench hung low over the tent cities and strange rashes were beginning to appear on those people with nowhere to go. Four new corpses were unearthed today, suggesting that the mountains of debris conceal further evidence of a growing death toll.

While charitable zeal abounds, the lack of planning and limited professional training is apparent everywhere in wasteful duplication and gaping service deficiencies. So, where is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)? Where are the co-coordinators, the promised trailers, the pledged money the donated money. It’s certainly not in Biloxi. Not on the front line.

As the preferred brand, the mighty American Red Cross has attracted the major cut of donations. I joined their van and six volunteers to ‘work in the field’ and we drove through the remains of acres of low-cost housing dispensing survival supplies – cookies, bottled water, breakfast cereal, bon mots, toothpaste, anti-diarrohea medication and largesse.

Awaiting a meal at a food distribution site.

Awaiting a meal at a food distribution site.

Eight weeks on and it’s getting harder to give emergency supplies away. Chris, the team leader, reported that it was a good day: ‘We got rid of it all.’ Where’s the logic of abundant toilet paper but no portaloos; torches but no generators; bottled water but no tanks; dishwashing detergent but uncleared, filthy and decayed rubble; tinned meals but no outdoor grills and fresh food. The first case of scurvy was reported yesterday.

Eight weeks on, and McDonalds, KFC and Wendy’s are back in business, banks are trading, Walgreens (the greengrocer chain) and Walmarts are hiring, gas stations are pumping, overhead corporate signage has been repaired and alight. It can be done.

I was reminded of the President’s imposing words of September 2, the day his helicopter set down in Biloxi. ‘We’re going to clean this mess up. The federal government is going to “ will spend money to clean it up.’ He observed that, ‘There is a lot of folks in America that want to help if you want to help, give cash to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross one of the main delivery systems will be the armies of compassion.’

Fortunately for Biloxi, this 300-year-old city has something more valuable than its people, communities and history: gambling. Multi-level barge casinos, replete with hotels, restaurants and bars were washed ashore as if to challenge the local laws prohibiting on-land gambling. They won. Within 2 weeks of Katrina the law was reversed.

And with it came the real estate rush. Piles of rubble now sport ‘For Sale’ signs, houses without roofs are being snapped up and unsolicited cash offers are being made door to door. Prices have jumped 15 per cent in six weeks. The second wave of evacuees will comprise underinsured property owners, those who lost their jobs, the poor and displaced. Just about everyone who really belongs there.

The hapless residents of Biloxi are grateful for the charity. But they have become the victims, not just of a hurricane, but of a government which has abandoned them and of an economic system which has no humanity.

Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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