My thoughts after spending time volunteering on the Mississippi gulf coast: Last week, my 15-year-old son and I spent a couple days doing some volunteer construction work on the Mississippi Gulf coast in Pass Christian, near Gulfport. I posted a set of photos on Flickr. (Update: Dave Winer visited the same area in December and posted a Flickr set then.) Below are some observations that together can be summed up this way: I was inspired by the volunteer efforts of people pouring in from all over the country; and by the spirit of the people I met from the area. I was overwhelmed by the degree of devastation and all that has to be done. I was struck by the thin line between devastation and normalcy, at some places a matter of inches separate the two. I’m concerned with the decisions being made by competing interests in the region.
I really enjoy hanging out with my son. There is no way to comprehend the coastal devastation of Katrina without seeing it. There are times when I’m frustrated with TV coverage of a “crisis” news event because a tight shot of fire damage, for example, can make it appear that an entire city has gone up in flames. In this case, despite endless hours of TV coverage, the extent of the damage cannot be conveyed. It was like being on the set of some sci-fi post-nuclear war film. That said, it is amazing that outside those areas that have been wiped out, life goes one: Look one way, and it’s flatlands – wiped out down to the sand — except for some massive, now leaning, trees. Look the other way and there’s a suburb with yards’ full of azaleas in full bloom. There are armies of volunteers from churches, colleges, civic groups from all over the country. We passed by staging areas of Baptists, Methodists and were working with a group from our church, Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, that is coordinating its efforts through national denominational channels. I was also impressed with the massive support of the volunteers through a effort called God’s Katrina Kitchen. We ate lunch there one day with hundreds of other volunteers. The food was prepared by a group of Mennonite volunteers and others. They must serve thousands each day, and charge nothing. I enthusiastically left a donation for their efforts — and the food was hearty and tasty. Despite the legions of volunteers, the sense I felt when we were back at the house we were working on was one of futility: of being a drop in the bucket of endless need. Our church does one or two Habitat for Humanity houses each year and I enjoy the progress one senses when the house goes up and the neighborhood emerges. Despite enjoying being with my son and other volunteers, I felt little sense of progress being made in rebuilding a neighborhood or community, rather it was more overwhelming what has yet to be done — how what a small dent is being made. Fortunately, there are thousands of other efforts underway making little dents — they’re just so spread out, my personal sense of what needs to be done drowned out the sense of progress made — also, I was not there to see how the massive debris removal process had to precede the rebuilding. I had the fortune of having names and faces to connect with the two houses I worked on. I got to meet family members and work with the people who live in the homes. I’m into the people-to-people approach of solving things. On the macro level, I kept looking around, thinking, what a great opportunity to start all over: to be able to reboot a whole region, neighborhood by neighborhood. With what is known about urban planning and zoning and engineering today, the chance to rebuild water-front neighborhoods could only enhance the quality of life of residents of the region, at many levels of the economic ladder. However, it looked to me that there is a mad dash by some to throw back up what was already there. In ten years, will this stretch of the Mississippi Gulf Coast look like a re-creation of what was there before, complete with a water-front Super Wal-Mart? Will the potential for some smart zoning be trumped by the desire by some rich folks to re-create faux-antebellum mansions with modern plumbing and Internet access? I feel certain the locals will resent any suggestions from “outsiders” on how they should rebuild the area, but as long as we all are subsidizing the insurance system and the post-disaster management infrastructure and systems that enable houses to be rebuilt in flood and hurricane zones, all U.S. tax-payers are insiders. I can’t imagine how many decades it will take to sort out all of the conflicts among governments, insurance companies, corporate interests and individuals. There are young lawyers, associates in law firms in the region, who will spend their entire careers following the threads of Katrina. Did I mention that I really enjoy hanging out with my son? (I also love hanging out with my daughter, but while her brother and I were in Mississippi, she and my wife traveled to another corner of world).
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