Mac students venture to Gulf

By Matt Won

I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough, Megan Cochran ’08 said of the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “We drove down I-90, and saw the upturned bridge where the 30-foot swell hit. There were 300-year-old trees uprooted, six-story barges on top of churches; it was very emotional.” Cochran joined 20 other students and nine staff who traveled to Gulfport, Mississippi from January 12 to 21 to rebuild communities devastated by the hurricane.

Students’ reasons for making the trip varied, from feeling powerless to just wanting to help people by swinging a crowbar.

“I felt so incapacitated, just sitting here and not understanding what was going on,” Anna Lifson ’06 said.

The group stayed at a volunteer camp in Gulfport created by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). The crews commuted to work in Biloxi, Mississippi daily.

Each day, a foreman would hand out work orders filed by area residents.

“We took community requests, which involved less arrogance. We were doing what the community asked us to,” Lifson said.

The Macalester group divided into several crews, some adopting names, like the “Pedestrian Wrecking Crew,” a warping of “Presbyterian.” Much of the work involved clearing debris from yards and “mucking out” homes: gutting interiors irreparably infested with mold.

“A lot of homes looked good on the outside, but were demolished inside,” Nadja Hogg, the community partnership coordinator for the CSO said.

“We tore out all the drywall down to the stud, for all the walls. It’s a pretty big job, taking out hundreds of nails, and hammering above your head,” Kate Slivko ’06 said.

“I tried to think of an analogy for swinging a crowbar into drywall, but I couldn’t think of one other than swinging a crowbar into drywall, you just pull and hope it comes out,” Sarah Brumble ’06 said. “You’re just swinging above your head all day, inhaling dust and fiberglass.”

The physicality of the work was a demanding change from the Macalester environment.

“Some people began getting the Katrina cough,' because of the mold getting into their systems," Cochran said.<br /><br /> "We tookunion breaks’ for 15 minutes of every hour just to keep on going,” Brumble said.

The thanks from area residents, however, provided a steady stream of fuel.

At a supermarket, a local resident whose house was largely undamaged “gave two staff members a $100 bill, and told them It means so much that you're down here.' He was tearing up, and left before they got his name," said Hogg.<br /><br /> "The people of Biloxi welcomed us like none other. A small business traveled 90 minutes and cooked over 400 BBQ meals all night before Martin Luther King day," Brumble said.<br /><br /> Some volunteers were unsure how to respond to the constant thanks of residents.<br /><br /> "Being thanked was challenging for me," Lifson said. "I could only come because I was privileged, and had the resources to come down as a college student during break, but I felt like a drop in the bucket. They thanked me profusely, yet I didn't think I deserved it."<br /><br /> Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's accommodations were modest, but livable. "We lived in tents calledpods,’ large structures for 10 people to sleep enclosed in big, plastic, white walls and ceilings. The shower stalls were separated by trash bags, and the water was either freezing, lukewarm, or hot,” said Lifson.

The strong faith-based element of PDA’s efforts was jarring for many.

“It was highly suggested that we go to their [religious] services twice a day, and you don’t eat until they say grace,” Brumble said. “The church was one of two places consistently warmed. There would be moments in the devotionals where they’d say `You all know this song,’ and the Mac quadrant of the church would just sit awkwardly, with some trying to mumble the words.”

The organizers began planning the trip in October, and fundraised $10,000.

“We are so thankful to the Mac community, who came forward so generously,” Hogg said. To reach this goal, many students wrote individual letters seeking sponsorship.

“We didn’t want to just take a trainload of people and drop them off. We wanted to teach context, reflection, and how to work in ethical ways,” Hogg said. “We had small learning groups who did research before going. We took time to process the experiences, and asked a lot of questions to which we still don’t have answers.”

The devastation left many stark and troubling questions.

“Five months later, it looked like this had all happened yesterday. The government is supposed to provide for the public good. We’re spending billions in Iraq promoting democracy, but over here, a part of our country’s been attacked, albeit by a natural disaster,” Goodman said.

“It was clear in the rebuilding that commerce was being prioritized,” Lifson said. The homes are still destroyed, but the casinos are up and running. I find that problematic.”

The participants will host a presentation on Tuesday, February 7, from 7-9 PM in the Hill Ballroom in Kagin Commons, with videos, pictures, and a student panel. Some students will discuss plans for an unofficial trip back for Spring Break.

“Mississippi has been forgotten,” Cochran said. “Being there is amazing, you can’t believe you’re seeing it. We’re so far away, but it’s still affecting people, and it’s going to take years and years of rebuilding.