Monday, May 15, 2006

Gulfport Revisited

by Kristin Hutson

I have just arrived home from a second trip down to Gulfport for hurricane relief. Joining me on the trip were Ashley VanDyke `05, Kate Taber `06, Jen McArdle `08 and Scott Pateros `09. We made the drive down in one LONG day, arriving at the Orange Grove PDA Camp at 2 a.m. last Monday (May 8). So as to not wake anyone at the camp, we slept on the church floor. Here are some reflections about what has changed or not changed since our March trip:

First of all, while much is the same at the camp, much has changed. The large tents where most of the students stayed have been moved to the very back corner of the camp, near the campfire. This serves to open up the center of the camp, extending the football field several yards up the hill. The sinks, showers, and "daytime" port-a-potties that were in the front of the camp near the church have been moved to the very top of the hill, behind the "nighttime" port-a-potties, to the left of the tool sheds. The showers have been much improved with two separate "buildings:" one for women and one for men. Each individual shower has a dressing room with a built in bench and hook. The water is warm on demand and there is no real risk of running out of warm water (I am not sure why this is, but it is). They were in the middle of setting up an air conditioning system for all the pods while we were there and in anticipation of a very warm and humid summer (it was about 80 during the day and about 60 in the evening during our visit). All of the three-person pods are still located in the same place as before.

The eating-gathering-meeting white tent is pretty much the same – with the new set up that was done during our March trip by one of our crews. While meals are still being prepared in the fellowship hall, the finishing touches on a new stand-alone kitchen were being made while we were in camp. That kitchen is located behind the white tent and is in a wood building. It will have all new appliances. The camp director no longer works out of the fellowship hall, but instead, has her own tent adjacent to the white tent. PDA is trying to give the church back to the church and function independently (in a way) from the church, hence, all the moving back away from the church property.

Our week at camp was very different this time – mostly because there were only 20 of us in camp. In addition to our team of five, there was a team of five from Seattle, and a team of seven Americorps volunteers who are there for several months. We got to know everyone fairly well and we enjoyed the intimacy and sort of low-key environment – but we missed the energy of a full camp! Devotions took place in the church and there was no morning meditation. Our team had two projects: the first day we painted a woman's room and then the rest of the week, we finished drywalling a woman's two front rooms. Both projects were in Gulfport. We were also responsible for cooking one dinner and one breakfast. We thought our enchiladas turned out great, and so did our scrambled eggs and bacon. You will be interested to know that there was no oatmeal all week!

As far as comparing then and now, the biggest thing I noticed was that rather than seeing a whole street of collapsed houses in varying degrees of devastation, you are more apt to see a whole street of empty lots (not clean lots, just no more houses). There are still very few houses being rebuilt, and other than the casinos, there are really no commercial buildings being rebuilt either. The churches on highway 90 look like no one has touched them since March and the beaches (with some exceptions) still are littered with junk and debris. Businesses in downtown Gulfport seemed to be coming back to life, including a diner we ate lunch at one day. Business north of Interstate 10 are recovering well, although the Taco Bell near the camp is still closed and most establishments are closing early due to lack of employees. There are help wanted signs everywhere.

Traffic is still crazy, the bridges are still out, blue tarps still scatter the neighborhoods, and people are definitely worried about the upcoming hurricane season.

We remain in awe of the massive amount of work that still needs to be done and wonder how in the world things will ever "get back to normal."

Thank you again for your participation in the March trip. I hope you will seriously consider returning to the region as the work seems endless. Please know that all it takes to volunteer is to call PDA at 866-732-6121 or visit the Web site and register online. Anyone can register at anytime, no matter what the size of your group.

If you want to go back to Orange Grove, specify that to PDA when registering. Then, all you have to do is get yourself down to the coast. So, why not gather some friends and/or family and commit a week of your summer to as week of service? (My family is tossing around the idea of a family service trip over winter cool would it be to turn a summer family reunion into a service opportunity!!!)

Kristin Hutson is chaplain and director of religious life at Coe College.