In Your Midst

Rebuilding Biloxi

March 2007

More than a year after Hurricane Katrina, the recovery effort has a long way to go

St. James Parishioners in Biloxi

Some members of St. James Cathedral’s first Biloxi team.  The whole team included: Stephen Gannon, Jess and Elizabeth Hernandez, Judy Walker, Kelley Craine, Cindy Eckholt, Mike Bastrom, Pam Shay and David Ireland.

Every year, people in the gulf states brace themselves for hurricane season.  But no one was prepared for Hurricane Katrina in the last days of August, 2005.  The violence of the storm not only broke through the levies of New Orleans, but wreaked havoc across the gulf.  Hundreds were killed, and tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.  An entire way of life was swept away, and literally hundreds of thousands suddenly found themselves refugees in their own country.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was a tremendous outpouring of concern for those who had been displaced by the storm, and our nation became painfully aware of how ill-prepared we were to deal with a disaster of these proportions.  But as the months went by, Katrina faded from the headlines.  And yet, in the Gulf states, the storm is far from over.  In fact, the process of recovery has only just begun.

Biloxi, Mississippi is a case in point.  In the coastal counties of Mississippi, more than 65,000 homes were destroyed, 38% of all the homes in the region.  Another 38,000 homes suffered major damage.  The Catholic Church in Biloxi lost ten churches and six schools.  And rebuilding has been slow.  Even now, some people do not yet have their FEMA trailers, but live in tents where their houses used to be.  The time it will take until the region fully recovers from the storm is measured not in months, but in years.

The Diocese of Biloxi has responded to the need by forming an Office of Long-Term Recovery.  A CYO Center was transformed into a hostel for volunteers from across the country.  In what is lovingly called “The Dedeaux Hilton” (the name is pronounced “dee-doe”) the diocese provides meals, shelter, and laundry to people of all ages and backgrounds who come for a week-long stay and help to rebuild.

In October, 2006, a group of St. James Cathedral parishioners answered the call and spent a week in Biloxi.

“Going to Biloxi was not something I had planned,” Elizabeth Hernandez remembers.  “What I had planned and saved for was going to Ireland.  For over a year I had talked of nothing but my ‘farewell’ trip to my beloved homeland.  It’s a mystery the way things work out, yet they seem to work out so perfectly.  Following Jesus is hard work.  There is little self-satisfaction in Biloxi, but there is great personal sacrifice, and that makes it worthwhile.”

Judy Walker says:  “The presentations put on by St. James absolutely moved me to the core of my being.  I left there like everybody else saying to myself, I must do something.  It became a passion.  That’s all I can say.  I couldn’t not come.
“Without a doubt I would do it again.  I know what to expect now, and I’m sharing my knowledge; I had many, many people asking me about this trip.  I’m hoping we can generate more interest, not just from St. James, but from all over the city of Seattle.  I would love to see more people come down here.

“I have not seen a person in this state that has not stopped me and said to me, thank you, thank you, thank you.  If it were not for the volunteers, we would not be where we are.

“This truly has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.”  t

An Interview with Pam Shay

What motivated you to go to Biloxi?

I was inspired by a presentation one night at St. James when volunteers from other parishes shared their experiences of going to help. For me it’s a part of my faith, Jesus asks us to help others.  I knew this was a tangible way to helps someone else.

Were things in Biloxi different from what you expected?  How?

I was shocked at how vast the devastation still is and the sense of loss and grief.  In many areas businesses, homes, schools and churches - if still standing are in terrible disrepair or completely gone.  People not only lost their homes and personal items, but their support networks are gone too.  The things you turn to when you need help - communities, friends, neighborhoods and sense of history and belonging. Everyone was affected and had terrible loses or witnessed terrible loss – the poor and wealthy.

Any humorous anecdotes about “roughing it”?

We slept in dorm style rooms with about ten other people.  It got quite noisy some nights.  But we met volunteers from all over the country.

Any stories from survivors whom you met while there?

Everyone we met who had experienced the storm, had a story to tell.  One man told me of how he found his house had  moved two blocks away from where it originally stood.  Another man said to make sure I noticed the 30’ tall oak trees because that’s how high the water had been.  One woman talked about living in tents with her five kids and bathing in a kid’s pool in the couple of months after the storm.  People spoke of how isolated and abandoned they felt since the storm, and how grateful they were to the volunteers that came.  We heard many stories of other volunteer groups who had gone down.  The New York Fire department has delivered a new truck to Biloxi because the Biloxi FD had helped them after 9/11.  A group of Amish had gone down to help with the clean-up.

What’s the one memory from the experience that you will never forget?

The homes that were left standing had to be gutted in many cases and rebuilt.  One woman we helped talked about spending Christmas in her home--finally.  We had been able to bring her house to a point where she had hope of living in it again.

What would you say to people who are considering following in your footsteps?

Your help is still needed, there is still a lot of work left to rebuild the area.  You really will make a tangible difference in someone else’s life.  When it’s time to leave, you won’t want to because you will feel connected to the people you help.  This experience will change you as a person. t


Maria Laughlin is the Director of Stewardship and Development at St. James Cathedral.  A new delegation of St. James parishioners will head to Biloxi in April, 2007.  If you would like more information about joining a future trip to Biloxi to help in the effort to rebuild, contact Pat Whitney, 206-654-4640.  You can read more about the recovery effort at www.mshurricanehelp.orgClick here to read more about the October trip to Biloxi and view an album of photographs.

Back to the March 2007 Issue of In Your Midst