Friday, January 20, 2006

Harry Truman and My Trip to Mississippi

On Harry Truman's historic 1948 campaign, more than once during stump speeches, Truman supporters would yell, "give 'em hell Harry!" and he'd reply, "I never gave them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." In the spirit of one of my favorite Presidents and Americans, my first post-Mississippi post will be straight truth. No spin, no politics, nothing but what I saw, what I felt, and what needs to be done.

Simply put, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is destroyed. Standing in the middle of "Beach Highway" (Rte 90) and looking east towards New Orleans, one is presented with an eerie dichotomy. To the left is the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico, with its incredible sunsets and pristine, sparkling seas. To the right, as far as the eye can see, is 150 -200 yards in land of complete destruction. Concrete slabs where hotels, restaurants, and houses once stood. Large chunks of sidewalk thrown nearly half a mile. Cars on top of cars, on top of more cars. Trees covered with debris from the storm that changed the course of history in this region, and this nation, nearly 5 months ago.

Wind damage from Katrina is evident 100 miles inland from the coast. Small, rural towns like Wiggins, Mississippi, sustained incredible wind damage, and are just now digging out of isolation. FEMA trailers are more common than kids on bikes and a blue tarp roof is the norm, not the exception in most neighborhoods. The magnificent coast town of Pass Christian, MS, has been reduced to rubble and replaced by a Tent City, erected by the Navy Seabees, maintained by the good work and dedicated staff of AmeriCorps. Churches, like the St. James Baptist Church of Gulfport, who we had the privilege of working with, are just now starting to rebuild, thanks to the efforts and faith of their congregates.

If you were to go to Mississippi today, you would think that the storm had occurred yesterday, not last summer. This, in large part, was due to the overwhelming need for resources in New Orleans. However, it does not excuse gross negligence in the relief and recovery efforts, at all levels and by members of all parties. Over the course of 7 days in Mississippi, I was not once asked my party affiliation, or who I voted for in the 2004 election. While I was exposed to a drastically different culture from that of New England, or even Washington, DC, I never once was made to feel unwelcome or unwanted. Rather, immediately after mentioning why I was in the area, I was repeatedly thanked and often told stories of how individuals had survived the storm, what they had lost, and how they planned on moving forward. The impressions these stories made on me will stay with me forever because they were so raw, so moving, and so free of any pretension or purpose. People just wanted to share and explain.

No matter the reasons for what happened in the Gulf, be they man made mistakes (the levees in New Orleans, erosion throughout the region due to development of wetlands) or almost purely natural phenomena (as was most of the Mississippi destruction), we, as a nation, are not doing enough for our fellow Americans in need. Throughout the Gulf their are good people, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Jews of all types, young and old, working each day to help the region move forward and find a new sense of normalcy. These efforts, be they faith-based (as much of the work in the region currently is) or secular, need support from other parts of the country where we have been fortunate enough to be spared such suffering.

The images of days and weeks following Katrina, whether you watched them on CNN, Fox, or ABC, were burned into the conscience of the American public. Unfortunately, those images have been pushed to the background and have dropped out of the news cycle. While there may not be a way to maintain the level of coverage we saw in the wake of the event, the level of support must be.

In the coffee shops, bars, and fast food restaurants of the Gulf Coast, folks talk about just about every topic from A-Z. Despite this diversity, there is one question, one thought, that never comes up, and that is, "will the Gulf Coast ever be rebuilt?" Why wouldn't this seemingly central question be brought up, because the answer is so obvious. Yes. The Coast will be rebuilt. While there is room to debate how, there is no room to debate if. Even the most bungled, horrific, pathetic response to a disaster this nation has ever seen could not dampen the will of Gulf Coasters. Their spirit is a shining example of all that is right with America, and it should inspire us all to provide them with everything they need to rebuild their homes, their communities, and their region.

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