(by Jamie Dean, John Dawson, Lynn Vincent & Laura Watson, WorldMag.com) – Who’s at fault when a hurricane dunks a major U.S. city into more wind, water, and fury than any levee system, storm drain, or contingency plan can handle? While sleepless heroes trudged waterlogged streets with armloads of aid and rescue, others made a mission out of pointing fingers. In the second week of Hurricane Katrina’s disaster, local officials shucked roles of active leadership in favor of rants against Washington. In the U.S. capital, posturing on both left and right took over where compassion quickly left off.
Meanwhile, hurricane victims were too busy to notice. “As devastating as the storm has been, we believe that God has a redemptive purpose for it. And we desire to be with Him in that purpose,” said Mo Leverett from a cabin north of Atlanta, where he escaped the storm’s total devastation of his Ninth Ward home and ministry in New Orleans. Accounting for neighborhood families and 195 students from Desire Street Academyâ€”and coping with losses of his ownâ€”left little time for second-guessing. And anyway, that’s more the work of desk jockeys who believe all storms begin and end on Capitol Hill.
New Orleans: The end of Desire
Kedrick Levy never dreamed that he would own a home. And lose it less than a year later.
The 31-year-old New Orleans native grew up in the Desire Street projects of New Orleans, an area once made famous for a streetcar but more recently known as the city’s murder zone, one of the most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation. He sold drugs and stole cars in high school until he met Mo Leverett, a Presbyterian pastor who heads Desire Street Ministries (DSM), a gospel-based discipleship and urban renewal program. Through “Coach Mo’s” ministry, Mr. Levy became a Christian, went to college, and eventually joined the ministry’s staff. Last year he bought Mr. Leverett’s former home, one mile from the Desire projects.
“I’m the first in my family to do a lot of thingsâ€”to go to college, to have children in wedlock, and I’m the first to own a house,” said Mr. Levy. Today his house sits somewhere beneath 15 feet of foul water in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. “We lost everything,” Mr. Levy told WORLD. “It’s all gone.”
The Levys, of course, are not alone in their loss. After a gruesome week filled with ravaging devastation and bone-chilling depravity, New Orleans officials ordered 25,000 body bags, and much of the city is destroyed. Hundreds of thousands are scattered in shelters across the country, and New Orleans, for now, is uninhabitable.
The city’s poor, now facing total losses and few resources, have been DSM’s focus since Mr. Leverett founded the ministry in 1990, making inroads by volunteering as a high-school football coach and inviting players to his home for Bible study. DSM grew to a 36,000-square-foot campus that was home to a church, a recreation center, after-school programs, a pediatric clinic, and Desire Street Academy, a 195-student Christian school for boys in grades 7-12.
“We were literally transforming the lives and prospects of these African-American, urban boys,” Mr. Leverett told WORLD at a mountain cabin in north Georgia one week after Hurricane Katrina hit. The campus, which included the home of Mr. Leverett, his wife, and their four children, sat near the Industrial Canal and is now submerged in toxic flood waters.
As the storm approached, Mr. Leverett organized a “haphazard” evacuation for those from DSM who wanted to caravan to Jackson, Miss., carrying a few personal belongings and the clothes on their backs. Mr. Leverett says the storm “snuck up” on him until a babysitter asked him to pick up his children early on Saturday afternoon. “The more I heard and saw, the more I realized that this could be the one we always talked about. The one that could fill up the bowl that is New Orleans and bring death and destruction untold.”
In Jackson the group stayed at a Presbyterian camp, and on the eve of Katrina’s landfall, Mr. Leverett led a worship service for the evacuees: “I told them that we live in a city that we love, but that it is a very vulnerable city. And I reminded them that there is only one city that lasts forever.”
Worried about kids from Desire who had stayed behind, Mr. Leverett anguished. He received wrenching calls from Desire students evacuated to the Superdome: “Here I was, getting calls from these African-Americans kids saying, ‘Coach, they’re killing . . . for a bottle of water. Coach, get me out of here.'” Teenagers who had grown up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America now wept in fear and begged Mr. Leverett to save them. In agony, Mr. Leverett set out for New Orleans on a “one-man rescue mission.” Halfway to the city, his wife called to say the National Guard had taken control of the Superdome.
One week after Katrina’s landfall, Mr. Leverett had heard from all DSM staff members, but only about one-third of his students. He was using multiple cell phones from his Georgia exile to track down the rest. He hopes to keep Desire Street Academy open for the year and is scouting locations in the Southeast to set up a temporary boarding school. “We don’t want to give up. We want to continue the spiritual revolution that’s started,” he said. “One mother called me and said the biggest grief to her in this hurricane is the thought that her son won’t be able to continue at Desire Street Academy.”
The Levys, along with 35 other men, women, and children associated with DSM, are taking refuge nearly 500 miles from New Orleans in a northern Atlanta hotel. A local church is footing the bill. Sitting at a gray picnic table near the hotel lobby, Mr. Levy wears a red-and-black football jersey that reads: “School of Hard Knocks.” It’s one of only a few pieces of clothing he threw in a bag before leaving New Orleans on Sunday afternoon after his wife and sister begged him to leave.
Mr. Levy was reluctant. He heard hurricane warnings two or three times a year and never witnessed major storm damage. Frying chicken in DSM’s kitchen, he listened to Mr. Leverett and 100-plus DSM staff, students, and families prepare to evacuate, and thought, “I ain’t going nowhere.”
But by Sunday evening, he, his wife, and four children packed a few belongings and some bottled water and joined the masses trying to evacuate: “It took us four hours to go three miles.” The Levys spent the next five nights in shelters, slowly making their way toward Atlanta to join other DSM staff. “The shelters were packed out, and it was tough with four kids,” says Mr. Levy. His wife, Nina, seized the opportunity to reach out to others in need. “Every afternoon she would gather all the children in the shelter to hear a Bible story,” says Mr. Levy. “There they were: white, black, Hispanic, all listening to my wife teach the Bible.”
Like many New Orleans residents, Mr. Levy spent days worrying about his extended family. On Tuesday morning at 4:00 a.m. his mother called from a New Orleans interstate to say she had waded to safety through chest-high water, even though she can’t swim. “I was so happy to hear her voice . . . it was like Christmas to me,” Mr. Levy said. His mother is now in a shelter in San Antonio, and Mr. Levy says separation from his family, whom he’s lived near all his life, will be difficult: “I don’t know when I’ll ever see them again.”
Oscar Brown, another Desire Street native and staff member, evacuated that evening with his wife, 2-year-old son, and a 16-year-old academy student who lives with them. “We packed clothes for a three-day trip,” says Mr. Brown, sitting at the picnic table beside Mr. Levy. “Now that’s all we’ve got.”
Facing the loss of a ministry that took 15 years to build, Mr. Leverett and DSM staff are raising funds to cover costs for the school they hope will open on Oct. 3 (and are using desirestreet.org as a clearinghouse for the efforts). Mr. Leverett says, “I’m thankful. I truly am. Because God is in the storm.” Both Mr. Levy and Mr. Brown anticipate relocating from Atlanta to help with administration when the academy reopens. Mr. Levy says a firm belief in God’s sovereignty will sustain them: “God is in control. Whether He sends the floods or keeps them back, He is sovereign and He is good.” â€”Jamie Dean in Atlanta
Gulfport: Seabees in need and deed
Since most of their ceiling collapsed under the weight of Hurricane Katrina’s torrential rains, Navy Chief William Yobbs, his wife, and two kids have lived only in the bedrooms of their Gulfport, Miss., home. Meanwhile, nearly 100 of the 650 people in Mr. Yobbs’ Seabee unit, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7, lost everything they owned.
Still, every day since the hurricane leveled Gulfport, the Seabees have headed out to help fix other people’s problems. Armed with heavy equipment, power tools, and the know-how to move or build almost anything, they’ve hacked through deadfall, yanked trees from homes, built tent cities, tarped homes, and patched infrastructure. Mr. Yobbs personally rigged up a water pump to get the city’s dialysis machines up and running again.
“People down here know us, what we’re capable of,” Mr. Yobbs said. “They’re leaning on us for that support because there’s not a lot left here.”
Storm survivors across the Gulf Coast region are leaning on the U.S. military. By Sept. 5, troops and heavy equipment had landed up and down the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana coasts, joining thousands of active duty and guard personnel already on station. So far, the Pentagon has committed about 40,000 troops, nearly a dozen ships, and more than 150 aircraft to aid storm victims. Among them:
Marine Corps helicopters from New River, N.C., airlifted tons of food and water into New Orleans and other areas. The goliath aircraft, each nearly 100 feet long, are able to speed evacuation, carrying up to 50 refugees at a time.
5,000 paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division streamed into New Orleans, some to hunt for survivors using inflatable Zodiac craft. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said he and his soldiers have been sleeping on the ground at Louis Armstrong International Airport with no toilet facilities, no showers, and eating only military packaged meals. “We can go like this for weeks,” he said. “At least we have homes to go back to.”
More than 70 Air Force personnel from Holliman Air Force Base, N.M., were constructing a 550-bed, fully equipped tent city to house relief workers.
About a dozen Navy ships, including the carrier Truman, the amphibious ships Iwo Jima, Tortuga, Shreveport, and Whidbey Island, and the high-speed catamaran Swift, converged on the Gulf Coast carrying food, water, medical supplies, and the means to transport them to victims.
Helicopters from the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps churned in and out of Naval Air Station Pensacola, ferrying supplies, moving refugee groups, and searching for survivors. At night, crews used night-vision goggles to look for flickering candles, flashlights, or lanterns that signaled survivors’ locations. Navy Chief Bobby Deaton, 30, said his San Diego–based HSL-43 crew one night rescued four people that way, including an elderly man with emphysema who’d been trapped in his home for six days.
Critics have blasted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for being slow to enlist the military’s help. But Lt. Sean Maloney, 26, was one among the many in units activated before Katrina hit who mounted a rapid response. The Navy H-53 pilot left Texas on the amphibious ship USS Bataan as the hurricane made landfall, and he arrived in New Orleans the day after it hit.
Last week, his crew moved 900 peopleâ€”and several dogsâ€”from the New Orleans Convention Center in a single day. “When we first got here, we were plucking people off rooftops,” he said. “Now when we fly through the city, it’s better. It’s nice to see we could make people’s lives a little bit better after this disaster.” â€”Lynn Vincent
Mississippi Coast: Relief in sight
Beginning on Aug. 31, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers drove into Long Beach, Miss., from Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, and Kentucky to join the Salvation Army for a mass feeding operation in the parking lot of a tattered Piggly Wiggly.
By day, the Baptist men and women in yellow hats labored in mid-90s heat, preparing meals donated by Operation Blessing to distribute in the parking lot or in other communities by Salvation Army canteen trucks. By night, the group held a short devotion before retiring to cot rows staged beneath a large canopy next to the vacant store. Bug bites and a generator’s loud hum proved ubiquitous.
While churches and civic organizations sent much-needed money in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, others sent their human capital. For nearly 100 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot near Long Beach, that means living without power (except generators used to run the ovens), running water, or toilets. “We found one port-o-john that had floated in with the storm surge,” said Mike Stricklin, of Crump, Tenn., who directed the volunteers. It lasted about 36 hours. “Now we’re just finding little private places.” The volunteers face other deprivations; many drove into the Gulf Coast area without enough gasoline to get out. Mr. Stricklin said he had to work out a deal with a Pilot station in Jackson, Miss., to fuel up for the trip to the coast.
Despite the hardships, the Operation Blessing, Salvation Army, and Baptist volunteers served 41,000 meals in two days. At capacity the group plans to serve close to 35,000 meals every day. The menu one night: fried chicken, baked beans, and fruit cocktail. Faye Tomlinson from Middleton, Tenn., said she left work in a school cafeteria with her retired husband to help storm victims. She’s not sure how long they will stay to help.
Salvation Army trucks ferry meals to Gulfport and other decimated towns by sharing gas with the local sheriff’s department. Driver Gary Fudge of Macon, Ga., who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said damage here is worse than what he saw in Bosnia. “Catastrophic,” he said. “[It’s] like someone took a big hand and swept through. Or like a big bomb went off.” Mr. Fudge says he’s served 1,050 meals so far, but folks need more food, water, even bug spray.
Private relief efforts also help. Pensacola resident Chris Forbush gathered his family the Saturday after the storm hit, hooked two trailers on two Nissan trucks, and drove to Gulfport. “I just couldn’t keep watching the news and not doing anything,” said Mr. Forbush, who owns an independent body shop and has fresh memories of Florida devastation from Hurricane Ivan last year. He and his wife Patty spent nearly $500 at discount warehouses buying drinks, hot dogs, and chipsâ€”and gasoline. They brought three of their boys along as well as Mrs. Forbush’s parents and set up in the parking lot of a ruined Waffle House near Interstate 10 in Gulfport. Mr. Forbush cooked the hotdogs on his gas grill, his wife stocked the food table, and his sons took turns serving the hot dogs, chips, and drinks.
Finding food and water turned into a full-time job for some fatigued and thirsty residents. Hurricane veteran Barbara Adams worked her survival plan, carrying an armful of water and a box of Kudos bars back to her car.
“Right now, my daughter is waiting in line for gas, and we’re out here trying to get food and water and ice for the day,” she said. The gas is easy: All she must do is look for one of the 75-car lines and wait. With FEMA and the Red Cross focusing efforts in New Orleans, Mississippi Gulf Coast residents said they have to search out food and water.
Ms. Adams spied a small food and water operation set up at the corner of 23rd Avenue and 29th Street in Gulfport adjacent to the Evangelistic Crusaders Church of God in Christ. As water seeped from a broken water main, unknown good Samaritans dropped a pallet of bottled water and individually wrapped snack food, like the Kudos bars.
“They’re just bringing it in by the truckload,” said Willie Williams, pastor of the Evangelistic Crusaders church. “We don’t know where it’s coming from.” Ms. Adams eyes the water flowing from the broken water main and jokes, “I might come back here tomorrow and bathe in the street.”
From east of Baton Rouge to Biloxi, residents of the storm-ravaged coast have slipped into new routines without power and water, but filled with cleanup. Gas lines prevail. Emergency vehicles with lights flashing red and blue dominate interstates. Convoys of utility trucks, buses, military deuce-and-a-halfs, and full-size American pickups loaded down with supplies speed in the absence of highway patrol. Bulldozers and belt-driven excavators block roads clearing timber and debris.
But in devastated Long Beach, one store is in business. A smiling Tom Griffin, wearing a yellow Domino’s Pizza T-shirt and bright new sneakers, holds a sign outside a tattered Domino’s reading, “now open.”
A week ago Mr. Griffin nearly died. And Katrina nearly stifled his dream of running his own store, although until the storm he had only delivered pizzas in his 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier convertible.
On the Sunday before the storm hit, Mr. Griffin gathered his mother, left their trailer home, and went to a friend’s place four miles inland to weather the storm. After comparing notes on Camille, the group figured that by taking a position so far inland, they’d be protected from Katrina’s storm surge.
He nearly panicked when water started pouring into the home through a door the storm blew off its hinges. “Thirty seconds and it was to our waists,” he said. Minutes later, the water was nearly to the ceiling of the one-story home. The party stood on a table, craning their heads above the encroaching Gulf and breathing. Mr. Griffin held his mother above the water.
The next day Mr. Griffin found his trailer had been washed away. Water filled his Cavalier convertible to the top of the doors. Still, he smiles. He said his boss, Glenn Mueller, a Domino’s Pizza franchiser, rescued him from a local shelter, clothed him, and gave Mr. Griffin his own bright New Balance sneakers. They wear the same size. Mr. Mueller arranged for Mr. Griffin to stay with a co-worker and, after the franchiser secured a generator, Mr. Griffin even got his job back.
Mr. Mueller’s kindness is why Mr. Griffin is smiling. Work, he said, is a good way to pass the time. And the pizza isn’t bad either. “After 17 years, I’m tired of pizza,” said store manager Craig Williams, who lost his home and his vehicle in the storm. “But it was like the best thing I’d had, like I’d been eating crackers for the past 10 years.” â€”John Dawson, in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Long Beach, Miss.
Biloxi: Paperboy’s nightmare
National reporters assigning blame would have done well to spread it among multiple offenders. But Gulf Coast newspapers like the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans had something more important to do: serving their storm-struck neighbors.
Katrina destroyed the Times-Picayune’s Howard Avenue offices. The paper’s editorial staffers are operating out of Baton Rouge and Houma, La.â€”some, until recently, sleeping on the floor at the offices of the Houma Courierâ€”and still publishing both a print edition and a full-service web page. The Sun Herald’s Biloxi plant escaped serious damage. Both newspapers have concentrated on providing storm victims with a mix of utilitarian informationâ€”where employees of businesses should report, insurance phone numbers, shelter locationsâ€”plus big-picture relief stories, and vignettes of suffering and survival.
With trees and wreckage still blocking most roads, Sun Herald distribution is necessarily impromptu: Newsroom employees are passing out the paper in the streets and in shelters, a hundred at a time. “We can’t throw them on yards because there aren’t any yards,” said sportswriter Don Hammack, 38, who no longer has a yard himself.
Though he’s been in the newsroom cranking out stories in the wake of the storm, he hasn’t yet been able to reach his own home, which lies buried in a debris field left by the storm surge that rose an estimated 29 feet. The closest he’s gotten is standing on the top of his carport, which Katrina ripped off his house and deposited half a block away. Mr. Hammack knew it was his from the roof shingles he put on a year ago and by an old shoe he found nearby that he’d been meaning to throw away. â€”Lynn Vincent
Houston: Shelter and shade
Last week on Loop 610 leading to the Astrodome, a large road sign blinked the orange words “evacuee staging area.” Inside what was once Houston’s “Eighth Wonder of the World,” 16,000 evacuees on 2-foot by 6-foot green cots filled the floor. Volunteers offered meals, medical attention, and clothing. Notices asking for help locating missing loved ones covered one wall.
Houston officials were doing what they could to create an aura of normality about the abnormal. The new residents of what’s called “Reliant City” could enjoy neighborhood amenities such as a welcome center, banking center, Reliant Town Square Park, Reliant Medical Center, a public transportation center, and school bus stops. The evacuee center even received its own zip code: 77230.
The new residents were often thankful to have landed where they had. Old Bill McGuire said, “I got on the bus at the Superdome and had no idea where they were taking us. When they told us we were heading to Houston I thanked God, because I knew Houston has great medical facilities.” Young Demisha Zeno, 11, said she was glad to be far away from the “deep water, that was really scary.”
James Pruett, 62, formerly the night manager at a homeless shelter in New Orleans, surveyed his new home from an orange plastic seat in the lower section of the arena and was teary-eyed as he spoke of “all the desperate people” left behind. He had current concerns as well: how he would get his next radiation treatment for bone cancer, how he would protect his few belongings from other evacuees.
As the evacuees arrived, volunteers like Manuel Casillas stood outside the Astrodome, sweat dripping from their chins as they handed out bottled water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, cookies, and other snacks. But it was school officials sweating the details as they planned for the 4,000 children expected to register and begin classes on Sept. 12.
County Superintendent John Sawyer told WORLD that schools across greater Houston are in need of supplies and teachers. Mr. Sawyer, along with Texas Education Agency officials, is looking for ways to cut through “red tape” and get retired teachers back in the classroom; just a day after refugees began flooding the city, he said 1,000 phone calls came in from teachers looking for work. School-age children living within “Reliant City” can register at any school within the Houston school district without paying enrollment fees or showing records.
Officials have said that classes will not be held in the Astrodome, and that new classrooms will house the incoming students: “If we have to have a classroom under a shade tree somewhere, then that’s what we’ll do,” Mr. Sawyer said. â€”Laura Watson in Houston
Copyright 2005 WORLD Magazine, Sept. 17, 2005, Vol. 20, No. 36
Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.worldmag.com.
1. What is the main focus of this article? Why do you think the authors chose this focus rather than focusing on who is to blame for what went wrong with relief efforts?
Answer the following questions (#’s 2-5) for each of the 5 stories presented in the article:
1) New Orleans: members of the Desire Street Ministries by Jamie Dean
2) Gulfport: Seabees helping rebuild and repair by Lynn Vincent
3) Mississippi coast: How religious groups and their volunteers are helping with immediate relief, how a private owner is helping one person get back on his feet (individual private acts of kindness) by John Dawson
4) Biloxi: the local newspaper that continues to provide the news by Lynn Vincent
5) Houston: a brief look at the Astrodome shelter by Laura Watson
2. What words or phrases from each story give you an idea of the attitudes of the people involved (those directly affected/rescue workers/volunteers)?
3. For each person/group, write several adjectives that best describe the characteristics of the people involved.
4. Define integrity. Do you think all/most of the people described in the stories have integrity? Explain your answer.
5. In each section the people described experienced private loss, but they focus on the bigger picture: how they can rebuild and also help others. What do you learn from these people?
6. Have you read and watched a lot of news about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath? Did most reports leave you inspired or discouraged? Explain your answer.
Write to your local newspaper or news channel and ask them to provide more reports on people who are persevering in the face of adversity (caused by Hurricane Katrina). For a media contact list, click here.