Rebuilding Pascagoula 

I Am not a Methodist. I do not give thanks to Jesus Christ, though I think I would have enjoyed meeting the man. I’m no maven with a hammer. Not even close.

But my instincts are good. So when I learned Mike Polak, a pretty straight-up guy who served in Georgia’s legislature and has a snappy butterfly to boot, was leading a group of volunteers from Savannah’s Trinity Methodist Church to Pascagoula, Miss., to help rebuild that badly hit coastal town, I said, “Beam me up, Scotty, sign me up, Mike.” Even if the only tools I had were a black-and-red spotted broom and a whisk broom I couldn’t put my hands on.

I can follow directions for a few days. I’m strong. A few casseroles won’t kill me. Neither would a little fellowship with strangers or a few prayers.

It would be just like the October weekend last year when I went to Cleveland to canvass for John Kerry. That’s when I learned anything is better than sitting in front of the TV and bitching about the world and not doing anything about it.

In the grand scheme of things, knocking on doors or phoning registered voters -- as we did in Cleveland -- or snapping line and hanging “rock” -- as we did in Pascagoula -- seem trivial. But I don’t know anyone in our group of 10 who regretted the trip.

Because these people need help.

Nearly three months after the hurricane, if they’re not the lucky ones who received a FEMA trailer -- 1,500 arrived, 3,500 are on back order -- they are living in pitched tents outside their ravaged houses, cooking on open-pit fires, stretching the bounds of family generosity, scrounging around for a plumber, wondering how they’re going to stretch $2,500, which is all the owner of the house we worked on received from her insurance company.

Like many people, she didn’t have flood insurance because the area never floods. Like many others, she makes too much money to quality for a trailer or a grant. She lives with her husband, the high school football coach, in her grandmother’s house. She’s a first-year doctor with a $200,000 debt. Six months earlier, she and her husband finished a major remodeling project.

It’s profound what three feet of water can do to a home and a psyche. And sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. And returning home to a scene of floating shoes, overturned refrigerators, your neighbor’s photographs jammed in the center of your tangled lantana, the school picnic table in your backyard, some stranger’s boat in your front yard and the smell of soggy Sheetrock. And that’s if your house is still standing.

Most of the houses on the street where we worked looked intact. Then we looked again. They were empty, unliveable, waiting for carpenters, plumbers, electricians, building inspectors. Two blocks away 115 trailers occupied an empty lot.

Before I learned to operate the power screw gun, I cleared limbs and threw away shards of tarp, stacked golf clubs, trashed outdoor cushions. In the process, I found a tangled manuscript entitled “Best Friends, The Story of Derek,” a father’s story of his stepson who has Down Syndrome and is a member of the Pascagoula High School football team. Thinking it might be the only copy, I borrowed a phone book from the woman next door in a FEMA trailer who has been waiting five weeks for her Sheetrock.

When I reached the author, Mike Gilly, a production planner at Northrup Grumman shipyard, one of the town’s largest employers, I learned he had turned the manuscript into a book, but that Katrina had claimed most of the 500 printed copies. I bought a book autographed by Derek, who was home watching a movie.

In three days, we went through 50 sheets of Sheetrock, measuring, muddying, scoring, cutting, hanging - and listening to Trinity’s Rev. Enoch Hendry sing four and five verses at a time of dozens of songs, most of them by Bob Dylan.

From the local pastor, Rev. John Tucker of Safe Harbor Methodist Church, we heard about the price of roofing, going from $45 a square foot to $150-$250; about groups of volunteers who arrived from 22 states; about the 10 days after Katrina when they had to go to the top of the bridge to use their cell phone.

And in Safe Harbor’s Verna Presley Youth Room we shared dinners with other volunteers and talked to Pascagoula residents, displaced, shell-shocked but making do.

“You’re in our prayers,” one after another said. “We will not forget what you’re doing.”

Neither will I. It felt good to be doing something, especially in the presence of others. Even if I wasn’t a Methodist.

E-mail Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net


About The Author

Jane Fishman


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