Shortly after Hurricane Rita, Virginia Ratliff, a native of Louisiana, felt called to return to the rural Gulf Coast and to help in the recovery. She went home in October 2005 and worked for the Rural Recovery Task Force of Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA—www.SouthernMutualHelp.org). Her work inspired Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, Virginia, to sponsor a group of nine volunteers. The group was deeply moved by its experiences in Louisiana and hope these images and words will encourage others to volunteer when so moved. What follows are excerpts from the journal the group kept in February 2006. Sarah Huntington, Virginia Ratliff, Martha Semmes, Debbi Sudduth, Suellen Beverly, and Sheila Kryston are members of Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, Va. Charles Hatcher, Viki Keating, and Cathy Brown joined them on this trip.
For the past two days we have been getting acclimated to living in one large room with about 20 other volunteers here in New Iberia, Louisiana. We are here to help the local folk rebuild their houses—good, hard, satisfying work. We have visited four work sites—we pried up a whole floor in one house. I have taken several photographs so far, mostly of the work crews, but have been able to sneak in a few portraits. I took one of Burke "Pops" Saucier and his family, and a few of Karen Rosser and one of her seven children. I am looking forward to doing her family’s portrait on Thursday. So far I am really sore and tired, but the work is satisfying and worthy and the people are really wonderful. I’m looking forward to the days ahead.
My first impression was that the land is perfectly flat—how easily the water must have flowed over it. Sugar cane fields are everywhere, and I am hoping that Sarah’s pictures can capture their spare beauty.
Visiting families and their damaged homes has been very moving. The little mongrel dogs everywhere remind me of my own rural home where everyone has them.
The weather has been balmy and beautiful, with an occasional shower. And, of course, there is water everywhere and funny old bridges to span it.
Today I learned what a vise grip is, and how to use it. I also learned how to pull up flooring, pull out staples—things I had never done before. Despite all the aches and pains, I feel good right now.
Today was beautiful, but the beauty is marred by piles of junk and debris lying on the side of the road in front of every house in Delcambe. The pile in front of the house I worked on contained an old toilet, boards, bags of garbage, shoes, boots, air conditioners, and a child’s bicycle.
I also met Simone, a mother of four, busy managing her children’s altered schedules. They now go to school every other day, their grades are not what they used to be, and she is worried about her daughter’s adjusting to all the changes in her life.
Simone told us that she and her family had to get out of their home in the early morning hours, when the storm surge came up 11 feet. She and her husband put their four children, two dogs, and cat into their small boat. They couldn’t go far because the boat was so loaded. The airboat that rescued them capsized. They were all able to touch bottom at that point and got back into the boat, which then took them to land; a dump truck took them to the shelter. Simone’s mother, a school bus driver, picked them up in her bus along with others who were stranded.
They have now moved three times while trying to rebuild. Simone said, "This has brought us together; we will be better now."
Here we are after two days of work, sitting around, gossiping and laughing. It shows me the rewards of coming and the luck of all of us being friends.
We’ve worked together well. Today was devoted to pulling staples out of floors, throwing air conditioners out windows—all kinds of things that had seemed beyond what we could do. But we did them.
I was so pleased to see Karen Rosser and her young autistic son, and the progress that has been made on her house. (I was in Louisiana in October.) She seems worn, but I was touched when I heard that her husband, Brad, had surprised her on their recent 12th anniversary with a renewal of their vows. That he could reach into himself and get a second wedding together among the ruins of their home—and among seven children —was really special.
There is so much to do, so much lost; it’s like the Iraq war: Will we ever be able to "fix" it—make it right for people who have lost so much?
Paperwork! Cathy, Martha, and I have been working on reducing the piles of grant applications. The stack of 32 "site visits" has been whittled down to 14. We heard of some remarkably trying situations: the woman doing baby daycare in her FEMA trailer, the 70-year-old man who used his FEMA check to buy a 5th-wheel trailer "so I’ll be ready to leave next time."
I’m impressed by how many really sick people there are on disability in their 60s. I’m impressed by how polite, helpful, and warm people can be, and how appreciative people are even when asked to keep waiting. And I’m impressed at how remarkably well we get on as a group thrown together. We celebrated volunteer Ben’s 24th birthday. When I went to bed last night, I so enjoyed hearing the laughter from Sheila, Charlie, and the Vermonters playing a game.
Bringing the burdens of a busy, stressful job with me, I have such sympathy for the SMHA staff and want only to try to ease that burden a bit while we’re here. I see them working flat out every day and wish I could match their pace, but it’s the nature of this huge catastrophe that they can hardly slow down to tell us how to help. Yet we are helping, one household at a time, even as we struggle to comprehend the depths of their troubles. These folks who have lost everything have such resilience that I can’t use the word "despair." Their spirit is what kept their special culture alive and what drew me here. I know I’m taking home as much, if not more, from these strong folk than I can give in this short time with them.
Oh what an experiment in social habitat—25 adults in the annex of a Methodist church! It’s amazing to me how well it works.
The amount of devastation is bewildering. Some places look perfectly fine, and then right next door is a ruined house that floated out into a field. The immensity of the situation is too much to take in—so one house at a time is enough. Just to see one family return to normal living would be great. I feel so grateful that I can help someone out of this mess, while experiencing the camaraderie of this great group of volunteers, all with the same goal of helping their fellow humans.
I’m learning to get up early. I’m interested in the dynamics—who talks, who doesn’t; how a crew gets things done—and amazed at how patient people can be.
Suellen and I cut shingles all morning, working outside on a beautiful day with cane fields stretching out all around. In the middle was a little pool of devastation. A family full of houses, all damaged, two totaled, one we are working on. Burke "Pop" Saucier’s house (he is the patriarch) moved 30 feet off its foundation. But they will stay—this is home. Sarah told him it was like the Kennedy compound. He laughed but was pleased.
I am getting to know my friends in a different way. Sarah is a wonder to watch as she takes pictures—she so engages the people.
A favorite quote overheard in the annex last night: "I won’t sleep with pliers in the bed!"
Many volunteers are leaving; some of us are staying a second week. The Cincinnati group left expeditiously, expecting snow as they neared home. The Vermonters leave early tomorrow. Debbi, Martha, and Sarah are pulling themselves together slowly for their overnight in New Orleans before flying home. It’s sad to say goodbye to some of our group, but I also look forward to some peace and quiet here.
It’s been a remarkable group—low-key, friendly, helpful, working on a common cause.
It’s hard to leave. There is, it seems, an infinite amount of rebuilding to be done—miles and miles of misery—and stories that tear you apart. But the incredible joie de vivre of the Cajun and Creole folk and their sense of community lift our spirits. They are so resilient, so gracious, so grateful for whatever little help we can provide.
I leave changed and enriched and anxious, all ready to return.
It has been a fast and productive week. I was glad to assist on the work crews when I could, though I am an unskilled carpenter. I learned how a house is built and how the group of people working together can get an amazing amount of work done in a day. I have particularly enjoyed getting to know the families and photographing them in the midst of all this: the Caldwells, the Sauciers, the Rossers, and Van Ella Vincent. What great spirit they have. It gives me much inspiration and hope. This whole experience has been profound for me both as a photographer and as a human being.
My Virginia quilt-makers donated quilts to benefit SMHA, and Cathy and I began by photographing the quilt collection with the intention of helping to get them sold.
This afternoon I joined the work crew at the Caldwells, and I swept and cleaned nails from baseboards in the bathroom, placed and trimmed new linoleum in a bedroom, and put faceplates on electrical outlets. It feels good to be active and involved.
Though it is hard to say goodbye to part of our group, it will be less crowded, and there will be much shorter lines for the bathroom. The door is open and the building is getting cold. I’m glad my shower is over and I’m snugly warm.
One little girl, 13, runs track, is talkative and friendly, and likes to help rebuild her bedroom. She’s lost all her "stuff"—her full collection of Barbie Dolls, everything. But she is smiling and going on with her life. So it feels good to have hammered and set the nails in her room.
So many things to laugh at: Simon getting lost, Viki overwhelmed by Sean’s snoring, jostling for the one shower stall.
It makes me sad that some volunteers are leaving and I may never see them again. Then I think that some day, in some unexpected place, I’ll remember a face and how we camped out together at the annex of the Methodist church in New Iberia, Louisiana.
I am so tired—but how good to see the Saucier house beginning to seem possible. Raven and BJ—nice youngsters—help by shoveling up the mess left on their lawn. They are surviving and apparently, in good shape, sharing their parents’ gratefulness for people helping out.
We saw one elderly couple who were having their FEMA camper installed that day and were expecting to stay in it that night. The wife did not realize she had to have electric, plumbing, and sewer connections and a final inspection before they got to go in. That sometimes takes a month—at least it had for a couple we saw later that day.
Our hearts go out to the man who lost all of his tools and can’t find work. He had his own business doing carpentry and lawn work. "I did just what they told me to do when I put them all together, and the next morning they had been cleaned out—stolen." His wife is a kidney transplant patient. Their home was totaled. They bought a house but now have to get it moved and they don’t have the resources yet. Her health is slipping. She told of their circumstances quite calmly, until a mention of her 17-year-old son brought tears. He has "lost his direction." He has gotten in with a bad crowd who live near their rented apartment. He is experimenting with drugs.
The next home we went to was that of an older couple who got an insurance payout to fix it up. The man has had a quadruple bypass and is trying to work alone. He needs someone to help him. Can we put two and two together? We were able to match the two men. Fred, who lost his tools and is strong, willing, and able to work, with Clarence, who needs help.
The first week I installed paneling in the Caldwell house. They seemed depressed, even though floodwaters from Rita had receded some five months earlier. I learned that they both have health issues that add to their load.
Steve and Ollie Caldwell were very appreciative of what others were doing for them—gutting and disinfecting the house; buying new appliances and fixtures; installing new insulation and drywall; fixing electrical outlets; buying flooring, etc. Ollie fixed us lunch each day and it was always delicious. Steve joined in the work. I returned to the Caldwell house on Friday to redo their new front door, which had been poorly installed. Steve was there to help, and I took a picture of him and his daughter, Angela. I wished him the best, but worried about what another hurricane season might bring. The Caldwell house is built on a concrete slab and is only six feet above sea level. Raising the house would be very expensive, and Steve, a shrimper, and Ollie cannot afford it. We need to pray for them.
Two organizations touched our lives every day. Southern Mutual guided our work, purchased most materials, and provided us with housing. Judy Herring, director of their Rural Recovery Task Force, is really dedicated. And First United Methodist was our co-host. They owned the annex, our home, and provided many wonderful meals. I am a lifelong Methodist and have known many warm and caring Methodist congregations, but none outshines this church.
The local extension agent said that we need a whole new attitude toward the Mississippi River and its wetlands. We cannot keep making mistakes with a river that winds through such a large part of our country and with the Gulf/Delta region, where so much of our food and oil come from. Wetlands are no joke. Neither is the fact that without silt to shore it up, New Orleans is sinking.
I remember an exchange that took place at the Yellow Bowl Restaurant. When I was talking to the cashier she questioned me about what we were doing there, and her attitude seemed to ask why we’d want to be doing it. I blurted out that I felt compelled to come because I felt that in losing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we as a country were in danger of losing not just a region, but part of our national soul.