Sunday, October 12, 2008

Amid devastation, hope.

So we're here! Our group arrived yesterday afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, to blue skies and a refreshing breeze. I've never been this far south. It's gorgeous country; lots of trees, very swampy, everything covered in Spanish moss. It was an hour drive from the rental car station into Houma, most of which I slept through. Traveling early in the morning doesn't work well for me!

I awoke as we were driving into Houma, because we got lost looking for the Wal-Mart (or any store that sold drinkable water. It's still not safe here). It seems most of the road signs (if there ever were any), have been blown away by the hurricanes. Evidence of devastation is everywhere in Houma. Winding our way through this small city, trying to pick out our way to Dulac, we saw piles of debris and personal belongings by the road side. Homes, a month after Ike, without roofs, walls, windows. Trailers abandoned, condemned. Grass from the bayou in great piles like mountains - signs of the months, maybe years, of recovery work ahead.

Houma, a city of about 30,000, is 40 minutes from where we are staying in Dulac. It's a small (and I mean small) town right on the bayou, home to 3,000 people. It's been harder hit by Gustav and Ike than Houma was. Dulac weathered Katrina and Rita pretty well, Doris (the mother of the community center's director, Jamie), tells me. Evacuated from their homes, and hearing of the devastation elsewhere in the state, they expected the worst, but arrived home in 2005 to find only mud and a few feet of water in their homes. Still, it's damage that's taken years to repair. Most folks in Dulac have raised their houses as a result of the hurricanes of 2005; they sit, like Great Egrets of the bayou, perched on 9-foot stilts. Folks here weren't so lucky during 2008's round of hurricanes. The Dulacians, as they call themselves, were evacuated in late August for Gustav. Many fled into Mississippi and upper Louisiana to escape the storm many predicted would wipe their town off the US map. Yet Gustav, which made landfall just 15 miles from Dulac, was kind to this place - as kind as a hurricane can be, I suppose. Hitting on September 1st, Gustav felled trees, blew power lines, ripped off the community center's roof, and spread mud and several feet of water from the bayou into its gymnasium. Damage, but damage that could be repaired once the flood waters receded with some elbow grease and a good power washer. Ike, which hit less than two weeks later, was less forgiving. It put the entire town of Dulac under 5 to 6 feet of water. The newly built guest quarters of the community center, where our group is staying, was untouched, as it had been constructed on the requisite stilts. But the community center, a vital part of this nation, was flooded, and much of its contents destroyed.

Doris showed me around yesterday. She's worked here long before her daughter became director of the center, she tells me. Her clothing room, of which she was so proud, and which served the residents of Dulac so faithfully, is gone, gutted, with a lone clothing rack waiting in the middle of the room to be filled once more. The library, the storage rooms (which held construction materials for home improvements in the community), the offices, all ruined. There's still a water line visible on the walls, as tall as I am. The gymnasium is full of relief supplies - cans of water, blankets, food - and will have to wait awhile before it sees children on its basketball courts again. And the mud. All around us is the mud. It covered everything, Doris says, three inches thick, stinking, rotting mud. It took days to power wash it away. There are still thick, wet blocks of it under the guest center.

Yet amid all this devastation, we see hope that things in Dulac will turn around, that this vibrant community full of interesting characters will thrive once more. Although there are piles of ruined materials all around the community center, the employees and volunteers that stay here were able to salvage building materials, new appliances, and even a toilet and two sinks. There are three Volunteers in Mission teams in the community center right now - the team from Foundry, and two teams from Oklahoma. Most importantly, the residents are committed to recovery. Recovery of their homes, their community, and recovery of a way of life that they love so very much.

I'm off across the street now, to the Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church on the center's property. More to come later.

No comments: