There are jobs, but there aren’t enough. There is housing, but there is not enough. Yet there is growing optimism as well. There is progress, albeit slow, and there is a brighter future on the horizon, albeit distant. And there are volunteers here — people of all faiths, people from all walks of life — bonded by a common determination to bring this battered city, along with the entire Gulf Coast, back to life.
Underestimate the Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD) if you want. They like it that way. You won’t know what hit you until you’re facedown in the turf, inhaling the scent of fresh-mown grass and Alabama soil, staring at the final scoreboard, which illuminates your flawed logic. ASD, billed as “home of the champions” and winner of four national football titles against hearing and non-hearing teams, is one of only 30 deaf high schools in the US playing 11-man football. The team shows up ready to compete.
Kelly Taylor-Forgar, emergency services director of the Central Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross hopes she never again experiences what she went through Monday night. Red Cross volunteers reported 42 families affected and four homes destroyed in La Salle and Rapides parishes. Meanwhile, their colleagues found themselves in need of assistance as well when high winds slammed trees into their office and tore away part of the roof. Taylor-Forgar, who was in the building at the time, said even though she grew up in Texas and spends her days assisting families touched by natural disasters, it was frightening to witness a storm in progress.
Lorraine Finch stares nervously at the blue tarpaulin covering her 85-year-old mother’s roof. It’s not raining today in southeastern Florida, but as winter sets in, nighttime temperatures are dropping into the low 20s, and the worn plastic does little to shield the home from the elements. It took less than a week in August for Tropical Storm Fay to take 36 lives and leave $180 million damage throughout the state, but recovery is moving far more slowly, frustrating both residents and the organizations trying to help.
One by one, the names were called, amid a backdrop of noise and confusion Monday afternoon in the Sylmar High School gymnasium, where survivors sought shelter following four weekend wildfires, which blackened more than 42,000 acres in southwestern California. It was a seemingly endless roster, tinged with both hope and despair as families waited to learn which van would take them on a 10-minute tour of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Los Angeles County — the white vans, for residents whose homes were left standing; or the black vans, for those who had lost everything. The black vans stayed busy.
Mink wrote to eight schools, knowing it was the longest shot he’d ever taken. Weeks passed. No one replied, not even to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then coach Randy Nesbit called from a small college in Harriman, Tenn., 35 miles away. Mr. Nesbit was willing to give Mink a chance. Most of all, Nesbit was intrigued: He wanted to know if Mink was serious.
The rental trailer wasn’t in great condition before the muddy rivers spilled their banks in Columbus, Ind., but it provided a home for the family of five. The parents worked in the fields and their baby played happily on the kitchen floor in the evenings, surrounded by the chatter of the two elder siblings doing homework and the smells of supper being prepared. Then summer came, and with it came flooding rains — 11 inches within seven hours. Levees broke. Dams failed. Much of the Midwest was left underwater, with places in Indiana seeing the worst flooding the state had experienced in more than a century.
Contreras hadn’t gotten the phone call from her supervisor yet, but she didn’t care. She looked out the window again. Television reports indicated her area was out of danger, and though many roads were closed, she could make it to San Fernando High School, one of four shelters opened by the American Red Cross. Frantically, she ticked items from her list one by one. Play-Doh. Check. Coloring books. Check. Watercolors. Check. Puzzles. Check. For the hundredth time, she was grateful she always kept the blue suitcase packed with her Kit of Comfort. It made it easier to get to disaster scenes quickly.
The live oaks that sprawl across the Southern landscape are like no other tree. Their trunks are massive, the limbs long and twisting, drooping to the ground, stretching to the sky, spreading to touch other trees. Most are hundreds of years old. Some thousands. They’ve seen floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes. And still they survive, the wood growing harder, stronger, more resilient, through every trial they endure. In Pearlington, Miss., they’re everywhere, a fitting symbol for a town that refuses to die and 800 residents who bend, but will not break.
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.
A few vehicles dot the parking lot of New Hope Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta, but there’s no sound except the rumble of idling motors. Slow rain becomes a torrent, blowing in wide sheets, obscuring the pastor standing on the church steps as he delivers his sermon. Drivers flick their windshield wipers to life and stare straight ahead. They won’t leave their steel cocoons any time soon. They won’t need to: The sermon booms from their radios like Carrie Underwood.