I just returned from hell. It can be found in a vast area between Biloxi. Miss., and New Orleans.
I served briefly at a makeshift shelter in a small part of that seemingly endless stretch of utter devastation in a place that was once Bay St. Louis, Miss. While it still has its name, it is no longer recognizable -- at least not in my brothers neighborhood of Cedar Point, where his house along with every house for as far as the eye can see are gone.
The people of the Gulf Coast need immediate help in the form of Gatorade -- they need more than just water to hydrate. They need blue tarps because they need makeshift shelters. Where are the agencies that provide tents, tarps and cots until the long-lost trailers arrive?
They need box fans and extension cords - as the power grid comes back on line they need to move air in still-soaked homes and businesses and some creature comforts in order to sleep.
They need flathead shovels to scrap the feet of mud and silt from the few homes that might be saved. They need mud boots, work gloves, and cleaning supplies sent in boxes, not in plastic and paper bags.
They need cars and trucks for the few established shelters because most modes of transportation were destroyed or damaged.
People in the destroyed areas can not get to the centers set up by FEMA and the Red Cross nor to locations with supplies because they have no means to, and it is too far or too dangerous to walk.
Soon they will need towels, sheets and pillow cases and other bedding. Soon they will need pots and pans and other basic items to rebuild some sense of normalcy.
They do not need any more clothes right now as they have mountains of those with no clean dry place to store them and the rains are coming. They do not need anything sent in glass containers as little of that already sent survived the trip and broken glass represents the possibility of dangerous cuts in a world filled with bacteria.
They do not need boxed cereals as they have no milk and little sugar and no clean bowls or spoons to eat out of.
The mountains of canned goods will be needed later when there are places to store food and prepare meals in homes, even temporary ones, they just do not need more of that right now, as there are precious few dry clean places to store all of what they have already received and not enough volunteers to organize and distribute it.
Mostly, they do not need smartly dressed FEMA reps with no answers, no ideas, no tools, no tarps, no idea of what is needed but plenty of applications to fill out.
They do not need the army of realtors driving up and down shattered neighborhoods wanting people to sell what little is left of a lifetime of hard work at a time when battered and bruised bodies and minds are still in a state of shock and unable to make basic decisions.
Profits off of this disaster will be plentiful for no-bid contractors and others wishing to take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild -- soon but not right now please.
I learned a lot in my brief stay. Others who have been at it non-stop for over twenty days -- church groups, Vietnam veterans, Woodmen of the World, the National Guard and individuals who cared enough to circumvent the unanswered calls to relief organizations hoping to find ways of helping -- have learned a lifetime of lessons.
Some like me went ahead without the required five hours of training and learned more in a few minutes than we ever dreamed or feared. The agencies we funded and leaders we elected promised us a plan of action but instead offered platitudes and plenty of applications.
Private Citizens and caring churches rose to meet the first two in the hierarchy of needs -- water and food -- but cannot hope to meet the third, shelter, without more help.
I also learned that most, except the poor, are ill-prepared to deal with having nothing amid the total devastation. The poor, white and black, understood and appreciated having anything to eat and drink was a major blessing with hot meals provided at our shelter and others by the Woodmen of the World and some Red Cross volunteers.
Others, obviously accustomed to the good life on demand, expected more than the basics. One twelve-year-old boy in particular refused to eat his dinner because there was no mayonnaise.
There are lessons he still needs to learn in life. There are more important ones to be learned by and about our elected officials and relief organizations.
Ideally we also need to re-examine the way we develop the coast. Realistically, expecting any meaningful lessons to be learned from this or the upcoming disaster sequels is, well about as likely as finding mayonnaise in hell.