Monday, April 16, 2007

Mississippi Center for Justice

“New Orleans had a flood. It was a man-made disaster caused by inadequate levees. We [Mississippi], on the other hand, suffered a hurricane…and the country failed to notice.”

--Mississippi resident whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina

I spent spring break volunteering with the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) in Biloxi. Specifically, five other volunteers and I helped residents of Gulfport and Biloxi complete applications for grant funding to rebuild or restore their homes which had been damaged or destroyed by the Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. The grants were distributed through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. MCJ sought to encourage and assist low- and moderate-income owners of small bungalow and shotgun-style houses to apply for these funds in addition to the owners of homes that tend to qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

My spring break experience was amazing because it allowed me the opportunity to drive all over the area, speak with people, and see first-hand the extraordinary destruction that remains a full nineteen months after the storm. Most of the people I met owned very little besides their homes. When these were damaged or destroyed—and FEMA, insurance, or other funding was insufficient to rebuild or, in most cases, completely absent—they truly had nothing left. I visited homes in which pieces of plywood covered gigantic holes in the bare floor, the walls had been stripped to sheetrock, a tarp served as a roof, and bare wires hung from the ceiling. And these are the ones that are “liveable.” Many folks are sharing the homes of friends and family or living in a tiny trailer placed beside their unlivable house.

Despite the dissatisfaction, cynicism, or even anger that seems to underlie the above quotation, the primary attitude I encountered was an overwhelming sense of loss combined with a commitment to rebuild and absolute gratefulness for the few hours I was able to assist. And pride—in what they owned, in what they had survived, and in what they had rebuilt.

At least, this was the attitude I experienced as a volunteer. Apparently, many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents now use the word FEMA in place of another four letter word beginning with F.
~Melanie C.

Molly, Melanie, Katie, Margaret Melanie and I spent our spring break week on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The 1st Gulfport United Methodist Church, whose members were kind enough to provide us with several meals and a great deal of southern hospitality, provided our housing. Without their generosity our trip may not have been possible.
While in the Gulfport and Biloxi regions we worked at the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ). The organization strives to provide legal services and help for low-income Mississippi residents. Since hurricane Katrina MCJ's workload has increased greatly. As volunteers in the Biloxi office we were assigned to a grant application project. We assisted low-income resident of Gulfport and Biloxi complete applications for grants that will help Mississippians restore their historic homes. The grants will be awarded to those people whose homes are historically significant to the community, the state or the country. Our work allowed us to meet families and individuals through home visits and phone conversations. Additionally we were able to see historic shotgun and bungalow homes. Family members have passed many of the homes down for generations. On our final day in town we were able to submit 52 applications to the historic preservation offices.
We are hopeful that our clients will receive grants so that they can preserve their homes and lives on the Gulf coast area. MCJ was incredible and they gave us a great deal of responsibility, hands on training, and lovely Easter gift bags. The people of the Gulf Coast were incredibly welcoming and eager to share their stories about the storm and life on the coast before the storm. Sadly the reconstruction effort has been slow and in most parts of both Gulfport and Biloxi it looks as if the storm hit two months ago rather than nearly a two years ago. While our grant project is complete, it is clear that MCJ and the Mississippi Gulf coast is in need of more volunteers and attention.

We worked for the Mississippi Center for Justice, helping put together grant applications for residents to get funding to repair some of the damage Hurricane Katrina had done tot their homes. It was an amazing experience. We got the chance to go out into the community and talk to its citizens about the true effects of the hurricane. Many of them were living in trailers, with friends, or in deplorable conditions. To me, it revealed the devastating effect of the storm on poorer areas of the community. Despite facing a mountain of challenges, I was amazed by the residents of Gulfport and Biloxi – their spirit, positive attitude, graciousness and concern for others. The conditions around the cities, even in the more affluent areas, were unbelievable. It seems as if the Mississippi coast has been all but forgotten in the relief effort. It was sad and a little eerie to walk down the deserted beaches, or through the ravaged downtown area of Gulfport that was obviously once vibrant and thriving. There were signs everywhere left over from restaurants or stores, but with only a pile of rubble underneath them. Houses were covered with blue tarps, as their roof still had not been fixed, or there was a FEMA trailer sitting next to a half-demolished structure. I hope that our efforts at the MCJ were at least a small step towards helping some people rebuild their shattered lives. Personally, I was profoundly affected by the experience. It helped me to put my life in perspective, and realize how truly lucky that I am. It also made me realize the great need for a continuing effort to help the people in the Gulf Coast rebuild. Although time and most of the country has moved on and seemingly forgotten Mississippi, I think I can speak for all six of us that went – we will carry the memories of our experience with us. I hope to go back next year.

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