Gulf Coast trip was an eye-opener to devastation &mdash and love

Having a strong connection to and love for the South, blues, jazz and tikkun olam, I was overcome with joy when I found out that our class trip was to Mississippi and Louisiana to aid in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Those five days were an experience like none other. It was beyond words.

In the southwest of Mississippi, near the Gulf Coast and Lake Pontchartrain, lies the small community of Waveland. Hancock County, home of Wavelend, used to have 19,000 homes — more than 12,000 were destroyed in Katrina.

When I looked around and saw the debris, the leveled surroundings, and forest of dead trees, I was at a loss for words. I couldn’t help but think, why has so little been done?

Since Katrina coverage has all but disappeared, most people assume that the Gulf Coast is well on its way to rebuilding, or that the destruction was not that severe. Why is it that the stories that dominate our news these days are about Britney Spears shaving her head and going to rehab instead of all the families trapped in FEMA trailers arguing with insurance companies for money to rebuild?

I couldn’t suppress the thought: “This is not something that is supposed to happen in America!” Devastating disasters like these are supposed to happen elsewhere.

As global role models, we are supposed to help remedy situations like these, not perpetuate them. Why is it that we provide aid for countries around the world and respond to their disaster, but don’t offer a comparable response when our own communities are devastated? Relief efforts were sent out faster to East Asia after the tsunami than they were to the Gulf Coast here.

This trip was an eye-opener for me, exposing me to new situations, people and places. I witnessed the extreme hardship people have endured, and also saw their amazing spirit, perseverance and unity.

Today nearly 500,000 people are without homes as a result of this catastrophe. Thousands are without insurance or in a position where it is nearly impossible to rebuild. Many people in New Orleans cannot get money to cover the flood damage because they lived in an area where flood insurance was not required. Instead, they put their faith in the levees and flood locks, which failed them. Many people cannot even start to rebuild, either because they don’t have the money or because they cannot meet legal regulations of insurance or permits.

The hurricane also had an immense psychological effect. There have been many cases of suicide, but one story gave me chills and still sticks with me. This particular woman wrote a letter to FEMA, introducing herself as her FEMA case number. She had lost her spouse, best friend, house, everything. She was alone and disabled, in a wheelchair and utterly without assistance. She lacked a basic ramp for her trailer, and had fallen out many times. She closed the letter saying that she is more than just a number. One month after she sent the letter, she shot herself.

But I cannot write a complete report without speaking of the amazing spirit, perseverance and fellowship I saw. Immediately after the storm, there many who had lost nearly everything. But instead of saying poor me, they asked, What can I do to help? Fellow community members rescued neighbors and helped with construction. Passing by the Gulf we saw a spray-painted sign that said, “Katrina was big, but God is bigger.” Another read: “We are here to stay and rebuild!”

The volunteers were some of the most inspiring people on the trip. The retired couple who created the host agency we stayed with, Path Finder Mission, originally went to help find the father of their pastor. Instead, they stayed and set up a volunteer camp and have been living there since Katrina hit.

This is pure selflessness, and shows true kindness. It also demonstrates a kind of responsibility and spirit we all need to have. We also met a 20-year-old college student who took a year off college to set up a sustainable project in Mississippi. It seems like the kindness of the people and volunteers is all that the people of the Gulf Coast have left. Given that, it’s amazing how strong it is.

Going there, I initially thought that the two days of work would be insignificant. But from the amount of gratitude we received, I realized every bit counts.

Since there is still so much work to be done, and since this is our country, I believe we all have an obligation no to turn our backs on our fellow countrymen. There is so much you can do, from going down there to help, being a virtual volunteer or just raising awareness about this rapidly fading subject. Sadly, the number of volunteers is dropping, even though now, as much as ever, the people of the south hit by Katrina need our help.

Saadiah Halil, 17, is a junior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.