prospect: an anthology of creative nonfiction,  fall 2006  

Baby, We're in the Same Boat Now

  by Blair Hickman '08

Finalist, Barbara Banks Brodsky Award for Excellence in Real World Writing, Fall 2006

At the end of January 2006, twenty-six Brown students, myself included, spent a week in the town of Pass Christian at Camp Coast Care (CCC), a Hurricane Katrina relief center run by the Lutheran/ Episcopal Services of Mississippi. Every night before dinner, we said the Episcopalian version of the Lord's Prayer. Each denomination believes the Prayer to be a little different, a word changed here or there. As a Presbyterian, I remember these words that Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

According to the relatively modern concept of a shared humanity, the world is one big family. Persecution in the remotest corner of Tanzania hurts us all, and everyone should help fix it. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights put this idea on paper, making it easier for the world to cry out against violations of this social contract-Hitler, Pol Pot, Hutu extremists, Bosnian Serbs. Usually these breaches highlight flaws in governments' ability to provide protection, as well as humanity's dismal hesitance to respond.

But Katrina…

Thy kingdom come

Thy will be done

Adam and Eve were not perfect. They just couldn't resist that apple. But supposedly God is perfect. If an allegedly perfect God created imperfect beings, then imperfection must be natural. So how should we deal with it?

A few hours after Katrina hit, Camp Coast School had just a few broken windows and minimal flooding and so evolved into a refugee shelter, protecting employees and victims and victimized employees within its walls. Their first relief supplies arrived in an eighteen-wheeler from Toronto, Canada.

A few days after Katrina hit, Camp Coast Care inhabits the school's gym, offering its volunteers hot showers, three hot meals a day, cots and, if you were lucky, an air mattress. They have four site directors and seventeen daily jobs, requiring two to eight volunteers each. It's impossible for the directors to do everything. The camp works because volunteers are willing to fill the holes in the leaderships' capabilities-to pick up the trash so the site directors can make phone calls garnering donations.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

A map of the United States hung on the wall behind the snack table, and every volunteer was asked to stick a pin into their hometown. Clusters of balls of green, red, blue and yellow covered the map like ants on a piece of forgotten food. So many I couldn't count them all.

The most important piece of hardware at CCC was the exclusion switch on the showerhead. Get in, get wet, turn off the water, soap up, switch it back on and rinse. Navy showers, we called them, and they worked only if everyone cooperated. The camp had never run out of hot water. Not until our week, when the number of volunteers swelled to exceed capacity and depleted the water pressure. Various volunteers immediately assumed responsibility, tinkered with the plumbing and brought in gallons of water to fill up the toilet tanks. Everything returned to normal in two hours.

Give us this day our daily bread

The FEMA-funded tent city across the street, known as "the village," served three hot meals a day. It had showers and a post office and looked like a camp from M*A*S*H. Seventy-four brown uniform tents, sixteen feet by thirty-two feet, stood in rows that seemed to stretch all the way into the Mississippi pines, providing transitional housing for those waiting for FEMA trailers. It was volunteers who served them while they waited.

Reverend Joe Robinson, site director, said that we either have time to judge or to serve. "I for one," he said, "think we should serve." So if someone takes twenty shirts from the Katrina Boutique, do not condemn them because thousands of others also need twenty. Just help.

And forgive us our debts

As we forgive our debtors

On December 21, 2005, President Bush signed the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, giving tax credits to businesses affected by Katrina. In late January 2006, we drove by the Wal-Mart on the beach and saw straight through it, from the front to the back. They won't have any tax problems.

As of January 21, FEMA had given 33,000 trailers to the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, delivered 300-400 daily and expected to give 6,000 more in the weeks to come.

The house leaned off of its foundation, empty, lonely. On its side, in construction orange, someone had written a FEMA claim number. Like so many around it, the house called for help, and I saw not the government but volunteers answer it with direct relief.

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil

The tiny, gaunt old woman with black-dye hair asked me for help, and I smelled vodka on her breath. She wanted a coat that I would wear, but she called everything I picked up "Grandma clothes" and instead spent an hour and a half, ten minutes past closing time, picking through bins and murmuring to herself. A matronly security guard walked up and hovered behind her. "Ma'am?" She didn't hear. A little bit louder now, "Ma'am?" She looked up. A little bit softer now, "We're closed. I'm sorry, but you're gonna have to leave now." She looked at me, as if pleading for me to let her stay. I just looked back, and on her way out, she stumbled over a piece of plywood.

Science says that it's natural to be concerned only with the well being of yourself and your family. They attribute this selective altruism to genes' fervent quest for survival, what my biology class called "the selfish gene." Sacrificing for someone unrelated to you doesn't enhance the genes' chances of survival. But in 1948, we did decide that the world is one big family…

For thine is the kingdom

Some volunteers got to clean out classrooms and storage closets or go off-site to work on a house. I got to use paper napkins and Clorox bleach to wipe layers of Mississippi dirt and grime off the tops of lockers at Camp Coast School, helping to make the building presentable for their open house that Wednesday. The bleach made me gag a little bit.

But then a tiny girl with her hair in a lop-sided ponytail in sixth,

maybe seventh grade, walked by, smiled and said thank you.

It started to rain as we hauled the remnants of a man's home to a pile across the street so that someone would magically make them disappear. Bricks are a lot heavier than we expected, and we all became filthy and tired and sore.

But during a water break, a woman drove by in an SUV and yelled, "We appreciate you!"

I carried a bag of clothes to someone's pick-up truck, and an African-American woman I had met earlier sat in the truck parked next to it. "Come here," she said, "let me show you these pictures." She talked and I listened for half an hour, and I met almost all of her ten children, thirteen children and thirty-six godchildren. She was so proud; her six year old was going to college and her eldest daughter had published three book of poetry. Turns out, college was just a summer day camp that offered a range of classes from hip hop to zoology to pottery, and the web site she gave me for her daughter's poetry does not exist.

But it was a great story, and she smiled the whole way through.

I smiled the whole way through.

And the power

A pick-up truck submerged in a swimming pool.

A stop sign, still in the ground, the telling drivers to dOTS. The jagged pile of asphalt covering the road next to it made the message pretty clear.

According to Time Magazine, the (levee) failure breaks down into three stages:

  • "Overtopping"- Designers failed to anticipate a storm of Katrina's magnitude, so when water rose above the levees and the pump system failed, disaster was imminent.
  • "Breaching"- It took a little while for the flood to come, but eventually the cracks expanded under pressure and the levees lost control. What to do…
  • "Repair"- Workers started fixing the holes, a step in the right direction but still a slow process.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast doesn't have any levees but you know, potato, potatoe.

Linens, clothes and Mardi Gras beads, drooping with the weight of that afternoon's rain, decorated the trees. As far as I could see…

In blue spray paint on a sign lying on its side, propped against a house that had floated off its foundation: TRAP DIE

Trees in the ocean and a dolphin on the shore.

And the glory forever

A man and a woman, ages ninety-four and ninety-two, made a suicide pact when Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005: if no one came to help in five months, the couple would kill themselves. In January 2006, CCC knocked on their door. It took an entire season of college football for direct relief to arrive, but it would prove to be enough. As volunteers tossed a steady stream of soggy belongings onto the street, the couple gave ceaseless thanks until a volunteer finally said that the excessive praise wasn't necessary. After all, the couple had filled out a work order. But they hadn't filled out a work order. Turns out, CCC was supposed to be working at the neighbors' house. They had just happened to knock on the wrong door.

Shit happens. Imagine, for example, a family who loses half of their house in, oh I don't know…a hurricane. Maybe they took the necessary steps for protection-boarding up windows and such. Maybe they didn't. Either way, they now have a mess on their hands that needs to be fixed. The kids could whine and blame the parents for not protecting them. And after everything is back to normal, they should. But nothing and no one is always perfect. So for the time being, until the parents have the space to learn from their natural imperfection, they should function as a family. Cooperate, help, and move on.