Story Circle Network

Catastrophe, Survival, and Recovery: Stories from the Storms

Pictures, Photos, and Images
Ed Morse, Ohio

I have just returned from a second week trip to Biloxi. The work is at the very elemental level of residential restoration. We take pictures of mountains and other features in part because we have a appreciation for the grandeur we attribute to them. We take photos of the works of humankind wrecked to ruin by natural forces in awe of those forces unleashed. Perhaps we also take these photos because we feel that these works of brick and stone are more durable than the people who inhabit them. This is about those people, those who remain.

Over a year has passed since the forces of wind and water laid waste to the coast of Mississippi. During the last week of October, which includes Halloween, families and couples emerged from their homes to share with others in community festival. What was abnormal has been accommodated. Children pass piles of debris to attend school, use Xeroxed lesson sheets, do homework on whatever surface is available, sleep, dream and awaken. You see, that which was abnormal, has become the new normal.

It has been more than a year since Hurricane Katrina deconstructed Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. Many visitors and most news organizations focus on the scope or scale of the event, bypassing the damage sustained by individuals. After such an event many individuals are in shock or escape into a shroud of denial, or hyper vigilance. In the vast majority of the population the human brain simply cannot sustain a peak level of alertness generated by the catastrophe. The fight or flight impulse must subside. Homeostasis, a mediating function reasserts itself. In most of the population, as day to day activities push the memories of the catastrophic event into the past a more normal sense of wellbeing replaces the despair. Individuals who suffered varying degrees of shock or despair have rebounded from the darkness of the storm into a transfigured dawn. They emerge and find themselves disconnected from their familiar infrastructure.

In that new day a new consortium has emerged, that of the re-builders. Taken as a synoptic structure, a gestalt if you will, the new enterprise cooperates to rehabilitate the area. The re-builders have its genesis in a group of denominations, among them Unitarian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, Samaritan's Purse, and UCC. Drawing on donations from a wider society or with purchased materials, each completed task adds to the restoration of the whole. Just as water, flour, and yeast transform into bread, so labor, materials, and funding transform into restoration of homes. With a bare minimum of intra-group communication each attends and completes as many concurrent tasks as resources permit. Donated labor, materials, and cash, become the limiting factors in the speed of reconstruction. Changes and restoration are occurring continually. Able and willing volunteers have come for a week or a month and through a coordinating group, attend to a family's damaged home. While some might question the order of work, e.g.; "Is a road to a casino more important than a road to a hospital or is construction of a new monument a better use of funds than building a firehouse?" work goes on.

However there are less philosophical, questions; Will I spend another rainy winter under a blue tarp roof? Will I spend another month in a house with wrecked siding? The most likely answer is "yes". However, there are fewer blue tarp roofs, than when I visited in June. There are more houses with new siding than when I worked in the houses of Biloxi.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) author and philosopher observed "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Education or at least the creation of new knowledge comes from working so close to the primitive needs of others. Those primitive needs are 1) shelter, 2) occupation, and 3) someone to listen to their stories. Each person is challenged not by some question of justice or causality, but by fundamental questions of recovery, shelter and community. You see we, human kind, are durable and optimistic.

For some, despair is replaced by a kind of resignation, a resignation that nothing more can be done by their own efforts. Each person has done what he or she can to recover. So when a volunteer team shows up to do some task the real beneficial effect is to reaffirm that these storm tossed families in a ravished home matter to others. There is a real joy and thankfulness that someone, anyone takes an active interest in their destiny.

In approaching the task each volunteer needs to be "open and affirming" to these persons impacted directly by Katrina. We affirm their existential value, we are open to their stories and the pain of their loss. We come into their lives not having experienced the same loss, we come and in some inestimable way, affirm that "they" are us. As we fix their homes, we repair their connection within the human family. We take our photographs, and if we could image the human heart, we would make different pictures.

In time of stress one might ask, "What has God done for me lately?" And with that question begins a new journey to respond to that question. Eventually that journey may lead to an answer, or it might lead to a better question. The starting place for such a journey is gratitude. Start with a sincere attitude of gratitude. A duality exists, and the first part is that each person is unique, expressing unique capabilities and having unique experiences. The second part is; that each is in peer-ship with every other person.

Because this peer-ship has its source outside ourselves, this peer-ship is absolute. Because the creation is external, it exists with every other created being. While you may deny it, you can not opt out of this peer-ship. It is duty that obligates us to be open and affirming to each of our peers.

Last updated: 12/11/06