I just met one of the guys who returned from the relief mission to Mississippi. Here is a report.
Aafter our week in Mississippi I would like to try to describe the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina here by the gulf coast as well as accurately convey the absolutely amazing outlook of the people here (especially the Jewish community) and the approach they have taken to dealing with this tremendous disaster.
We are helping the Jewish community with anything they need. This has ranged from providing them with self-heating kosher meals, to talking and comforting those who need a kind listening ear, to cleaning and trying to salvage homes, discovering the whereabouts of missing friends and relatives, landscaping lawns, cleaning pools, cleaning up the Jewish cemetery and assisting and helping transport salvageable belongings to storage facilities. We also have a satellite phone for those who wish to call friends or relatives and let them know they are safe. We have a list of people that were visited by the Chabad "Peace Corps", Chabad rabbinical students who travel to numerous small jewish communities around the world spreading Jewish awareness. We are checking up on these people and making sure they have what to eat and where to sleep. We are offering flights and other forms of transportation for those who wish to travel to friends or relatives for long-term settlement. Chabad is the only Jewish organization on the ground in Southern Mississippi.
No newspaper pictures or TV footage can come close to showing how terrible this area has been hit by the hurricane. During this update I have tried to describe the horrendous scenes I have viewed. By now the streets have mostly been cleared of debris. There are piles of wreckage all along the sides of the streets. Electrical power and water has been returned to most areas. The mail service is up and running for a day or two now. Phone service is still down in most neighborhoods and where it is already running there is sporadic service. Clean-up crews are working hard and some rebuilding has already begun. I have not seen any acts of violence or crime and this can be at least partly attributed to the curfew that begins at 8pm each night (on Tuesday it was extended to 11pm). National Guard troops patrol the streets throughout the day and night. In order to visit the beachside neighborhoods you must pass through checkpoint manned by the National Guard and state police.
The reaction of the Jewish communities in Mississippi has been amazing. Everyone is focusing on the silver lining of this terrible disaster. They speak of how the entire Jewish community has rallied to their side; offering support and assistance. They focus on rebuilding their homes and synagogues. The community is looking after each other, numerous times we’ve been told "so and so needs help with such and such but don’t tell them I sent you." They look forward to rebuilding their homes, businesses and in truth their lives. Some signs we have seen say "received lickin’, but we’re still kickin’", "we’ll rebuild even better than before" and most commonly; "the south will rise again". They look out for each other making sure every community member has what they need or is provided with what they need. They question how something like this can happen but their faith has been strengthened because of this catastrophe. Some people have found us during the past few days who have been living here for years and were never previously interested in connecting to the Jewish community.. The fact that we are here for them means so much to them. They are extremely appreciative and keep repeating over and over again how grateful they are. Everyone we see on the streets thanks us for coming.
Sunday, Jackson, MS
@ 8am sharp we arrived at the Jackson HQ of the Mississippi State Police. Captain Kevin Myers will "escort" us down to the coast. We stopped off to fill up our 4 5-gallon containers with gas we now have a full tank of gas and 30 gallons altogether in containers just in case of an emergency. At the gas station a man driving by stops to thank us for going down to the coast. We pass a car on the highway with paint on the back window "the south will rise again". We were supposed to have received our letters from the Mississippi governor but the cop who picked them up got into an accident on his way back from the governors office and is in the hospital. Officer Myers promises to "take care" of us. On the way down we start to see the calling card left behind by Katrina. Huge trees snapped in half, buildings missing roofs, and signs and billboards ripped from their posts. The closer we get to the coast the worse the damage gets.
We arrived @ 11:00am and spoke to the president of the Jewish community. He put us in contact with the caretaker of the local Jewish Center. We were directed to go to the Jewish Center. On our way there we drove through total devastation! Words cannot begin to describe what we saw. Complete blocks of houses a mile or more away from the coast were wiped out. On the beach everything is decimated. Along the beach only the foundations of the building were left every other remnant of buildings was destroyed. Across the street from the beach the massive hotels were destroyed. Even the road was destroyed in a number of places. Every 20 yards or so is a huge pile of debris. National Guard troops were guarding the I-90 (street along the coast) and without our escort we would not have been allowed there. Driving by we could see all the way through one hotel, every wall and all of the furniture had been sucked out by Katrina leaving a gaping hole all the way through.
At the Jewish Center (which is only blocks from the beach) the brick façade was lying in crumbled heaps in the front yard. Debris littered the entire yard. We met the caretaker and went inside to help clean up. Amazingly the sanctuary was practically untouched, only one window had broken. In other parts of the Jewish Center ceiling tiles had fallen down and wires were exposed. We got to work straightening up. Meanwhile a member of the board and the president showed up and we spoke w/ them for a while One of the people wanted to put on Tefillin.. They all expressed their immense gratitude to us and Chabad in general. "Having you here is like having my family come down", exclaimed the president (who is also the director of tourism for the Gulf Coast).
As we were at the Jewish Center an Israeli fellow pulled up (he noticed our RV/Mitzvah Tank). He had lived nearby for a number of years but never stopped by the Jewish Center. Since Katrina hit he drove by the Jewish Center a number of times every day to see if he could help out his fellow Jews in any way. Every time the Jewish Center was closed, today he finally met someone by the Jewish Center. He was very excited and grateful to meet us. We put on teffilen with him, spoke for a while and gave him a bunch of kosher meals for which he was extremely appreciative of. We also put him in touch with the president of the community. Before we parted he took out his wallet and showed us something he always carries with him… a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He also asked for the fax number to the Ohel which we gave him. We also put on teffilen with the president and caretaker. We got all of the cell phone numbers the Shul had. (landline phones are still not fully operational.)
We gave meals and bottles of water to a number of people we saw on the streets. For the rest of the afternoon, we distributed self heating meals to the hurricane victims, relief workers and National Guard troops patrolling the streets. There were state police from all over the country and I saw a number of state troopers from Missouri. There was also a volunteer relief truck from St. Louis. 8pm was curfew so we finished our distributions and headed back to the RV.
Monday- Gulfport, Long-Beach and Biloxi
By 8am we were already @ the home of the president of the Jewish community. He lives near a small lake and his house was covered in more than a foot of water. (He was ‘fortunate’ the block behind his was covered in 8 feet of water.) Two trees had fallen on the house forcing us to duck down when entering through the front door as the awning had caved in. the entire house stunk of mildew. For a man living alone cleaning his home was overwhelming but for 4 young, able-bodied rabbinical students it was merely a "challenge".
We had to wear rubber gloves and surgical masks to protect ourselves. All the carpeting and rugs were still (this is two weeks after the hurricane hit!) drenched through and through. We shlepped his Persian carpets outside and hung them up to dry on a fence that was miraculously still standing. We pulled up all of the carpeting in his home and heaped them on a pile of debris that was already standing at his curb; none of the carpeting was salvageable. We also scrubbed down his walls with bleach because there was mold growing on them. Most of the house will need to be gutted and will take at least 6 months to rebuild. Before we left a member of our team, a budding mechanic, managed to fix the waterlogged car of Steve Richer.
On Sunday night, when Rabbi Yochanon Rivkin was interviewed on Fox News, he mentioned our relief team in Mississippi (us). One of the women who called up directed us to her nephew, who had a house across the street from the beach in Biloxi which was totally destroyed and, who was staying with a friend in Long Beach, MS. We visited him, and spent some time discussing his experience; he was in a huge barn-like structure during the Hurricane for 16 hours. He was not impressed with the federal government’s response but he was extremely touched by the volunteer relief teams. He was in dire need of money so we arranged to give him money.
We also visited a few of the people on our lists from past Chabad visits. One man lived one block from the Gulfport beach. We had to use our superb powers of persuasion to get past the road blocks preventing non-residents from entering the hardest hit neighborhoods. His entire neighborhood was uninhabitable and reeked of decay, dead fish and mildew. He was not home although we noticed he had been back to clean-up and hang his clothing up outside. We left a number of meals on his step with a letter explaining who we were and with our cell number.
We also visited a woman who is a producer WLOX TV station. She was overjoyed to see us, remembered the Merkos Shluchim and was sleeping @ the station because she had no house left. When we tried to get on the I-90 to return to the community center, we had to convince the National Guard members guarding the checkpoint that we were allowed to be there. A few self-heating meals and cold bottles of water did wonders to persuade them.
Tuesday, Gulfport, MS
We headed over to one of the community member’s homes, a county sheriff, to help him out. He couldn’t believe we were really here. His house wasn’t so badly hit and was already cleaned up and repaired but his yard needed some work. We raked his yard, and cleaned his swimming pool. Here in the south having presentable lawns and nice landscaping is a very serious matter.
As I’ve mentioned before, the folks down here are really working together to make sure everyone is taken care of. Sheriff Mathews heard that a neighbor had moved out of town due to the hurricane so he arranged for another family whose home was destroyed to move in there. Meanwhile he had to finish moving all of the furniture that was left into the garage so the new family could move in. we helped him transport everything into the garage so he wouldn’t have to shlepp everything himself.
We went to visit some more community members we knew of. One was Goldin Metals a Jewish-owned major company in town. The owners are a traditional family that only eats kosher so we dropped off a case of kosher meals at their business after making sure they were alright.
We also visited the ritual director of the community who is also the executive editor of a magazine. We discussed how G-d could do something so terribly catastrophic. We explained how there are no real answers to this question and how finite human beings cannot always understand the ways of the one above. We also pointed out how so many people have had their faith strengthened by the hurricane. At around 7pm we went to the community center and met up with the sheriff we had helped earlier. He took us around the coast in his cruiser. We visited the jewish cemetery (cleared some branches off of the gravestones) and then drove along the I-90 to areas we had not had a chance to visit. We saw about 5 riverboat/barge casinos that had been transported from their normal places. One huge barge had been lifted 3 blocks west and then settled smack in the middle of the road. The gulf area was the importing point of bananas. Hundreds of refrigerator trucks and tractor trailers were littered in all states of destruction across parking lots and streets across from the beach.
We ate supper and drove down to Hattiesburg, MS which was also hit pretty hard. As we haven’t had showers since Saturday night we camp out at a trucker stop and take showers there for a mere $6 a pop.
Wednesday, Hattiesburg, MS
We visited a number of families from our list and heard some amazing stories. Hattiesburg wasn’t really flooded from what I understand but there were terrific winds that caused a tremendous about of trees to collapse. In front of almost every house there is a pile of trees that have been removed from on top of houses and yards. The first family we visited owns 6.5 acres of wooded property and over 150 trees fell in his yard due to the hurricane. They described how the entire neighborhood had come together to help clear the entire area. By some miracle not a single tree fell upon their house itself!
Two other families we met with described similar stories; throughout their neighborhoods nearly all the houses were damaged by falling trees yet their own homes were unscathed. One man stated unequivocally "our home was safe because we have a mezuzah". His son and daughter-in-law lived in Pass Christian (a coastal city) about a half-mile from the beach. Their entire neighborhood was almost completely obliterated! When they went to visit their own home, where there had been 20 feet of water, they found almost all of their belongings destroyed. Among the few possessions that were left were an unharmed mezuzah and a birchat habayis plaque. This couple explained how immediately after the hurricane had passed all of the neighbors came outside and started working together; sharing generators, chain saws and distributing food. A number of the families in Hattiesburg asked us to move down full time and open a Chabad center there. As in all the places we’ve been they appreciated our coming down to help them out, to speak with them and discuss their traumatic experiences and especially those delicious kosher meals. We heard of a conservative rabbi who had come down to Hattiesburg and only eats kosher so we left a bunch of meals for her.
As we heard over and over again Southern Mississippi will rebuild (larger and better than before). The folks down there know that it will not be quick or easy. Not all of the recovery will be accomplished by construction workers. One social worker we met noted that the number of people who will suffer from post-traumatic-stress-syndrome will be enormous. Today there are a number of organizations helping out but help will be needed throughout the rebuilding process. Chabad Lubavitch is dedicated to providing assistance for the long haul whatever it takes we will not forget the Jews of Mississippi. we will definitely be keeping in touch with the many people we have met during our mission to Mississippi.