Remembering Hurricane Katrina

February 21, 2008

By Liz Walz

San Ramon Valley UMC Youth Program


Remember Hurricane Katrina? When it hit in late August of 2005, we all watched the news and read in the paper about the destruction and havoc created by this category five hurricane. The nation pulled together, responding in great numbers to help those affected. Schools raised money and collected food, water and clothes to deliver to people whose lives were washed away with the receding water. Colleges opened their campuses to students who no longer had schools to return to. The Red Cross reported that more than 200,000 people volunteered to help out their neighbors in need. 


A little more than two years later, as FEMA moves to collect the government owned trailers many people still call home and disaster relief groups start to dwindle, I look around and still see a large number of buildings deserted, holes where part of the roof should be, and windows boarded up, in stark contrast to the brand new McDonald’s restaurants and Wal-Marts dotting the streets. Except for the occasional story, the media no longer covers the relief effort and for most Americans the hurricane is a distant memory. 


Listening to Dee, the camp host in Biloxi, Mississippi, part of the larger United Methodist Committee on Relief, I learn that this organization has opened 700 cases – people who need help rebuilding their homes – and have only finished about 350. Far from over, the recovery effort is predicted to last 10 years, and Dee says with pride that UMCOR is prepared to stay until its services are no longer needed. I came to Biloxi, Mississippi with 25 other youth and adults from my church, prepared to help mud, prime and paint until our arms dropped in fatigue, yet unprepared for the realization that the people here still deal with the effects of Hurricane Katrina day by day. 


Mr. James Nettles, the owner of his house since 1976, evacuated his home because he did not have the energy or the body, having hurt the fifth disk in his back, to stay through the hurricane. He returned home the same day the roads were opened, to find that the rain and winds had torn off the roof and water had ruined the two upstairs rooms. Standing underneath the sloping ceiling of his kitchen while washing the newly picked, wilted radishes from his garden, Mr. Nettles shyly tells me his story. “I knew everything would work out,” he says, then points to his chest. “As long as I have God in my heart, I knew that even if everything was gone, I’d be okay.” Listening to his raspy voice, taking in his calm demeanor and inspired by his constant faith, I work into the afternoon with a new strength. I forget that my weary arms ache from painting his ceilings and walls; instead I focus on getting the job done.


Vastly different from my experience of mission work in Los Angeles, where there is chronic need, the sudden damage created by Hurricane Katrina altered the lives of these people forever. Especially so for those who stayed, wide-eyed and fearful as the water came through the floor into their living rooms and kitchens, taking refuge in attics and higher ground. They then waited to be rescued, wondering whether they would escape this nightmare or whether family and friends were safe. As the rest of the nation moves on, these people still need help now, more than ever. They need someone to listen to their stories and lend them a hand, as they continue to try to rebuild their lives. 


At this point I am undecided in what I want to do with my career, but I do know that an important part of my life and career will be helping people. When I help people like Mr. Nettles, I feel that God has given me a purpose in my life – the opportunity to use my education and skills to make the world a better place.