So, what did you do over your February vacation?
I ponder the question a moment, and wonder how to best answer it, because my vacation was not a typical vacation. I only say this, because I spent it in a tent in Mississippi cleaning up the storm-torn Gulf Coast five months after Hurricane Katrina struck and wiped the town of Pass Christian, MS off the map.
My story starts about a month earlier, when a club in my school began collecting change to support the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. I immediately ran home and poured out my change jar; $3.18. Not much, but it was better than giving nothing at all, and it was all I had. The principal of my school soon put out a call to the student population; would you go and help if given the chance? To be included in this proposed hurricane relief team, students were required to write an essay about why they wanted to go, and why they should be chosen.
So I wrote my essay. I would not even say that I was very proud of what I had written. I simply told my story about giving my $3.18, and about feeling that money was not enough. I had the ability to give more, and even if it meant I would not have a "real" vacation, I was more than willing to give that up.
A week later, I found myself in a room surrounded by 26 other students, all chosen out of the 250 plus essays that were submitted. Thus, "Paws With A Cause" was born, and there began our two week frenzy to raise the money for the trip. A $7,000 change war between the grades, a silent auction through the teachers, raising $1,00 just from donated goods, and an unheard of $600 from a single bake sale, where everything was by donation only, were just a few of our fund-raising efforts. I even walked Main Street in my town with another student for four hours one afternoon to talk to local businesses. In all, we raised $22,000 in those two weeks, and we continued to receive money even after we returned home.
But even for all that, nothing compares to the week in Mississippi itself. From the moment I stepped off of the plane the wreckage was visible. We drove in silence to the Tent City that would be our home for the week, awestruck by the destruction. There were piles of trash everywhere, boarded up houses, blue tarp covered roofs, and front steps with no house in sight.
It was not until we reached Pass Christian that I realized what I had gotten myself into. The storm had sat on top of the city for 45 minutes, and when it moved on, nothing was spared. The entire city was reduced to trailers on the fringe of the Americorp Tent City. Residents were living in either FEMA trailers or in the large army set up in the large cleared lot. Any running water came from outdoor trailers- showers and sinks included. Toilets were found in the form of twice daily cleaned port-a-potties. Meals were served family style in the white tent at one corner of the City, right next to the railroad that operated every 45 minutes all day and all night, only 100 yards from our tent. Sleep soon became a luxury granted only to the heavy sleepers.
The stories I could tell you, if only you had the time to hear them all. I could tell you about the fire station that was so littered with debris that the only way to find the carpet was to shovel down to it. The refrigerator still had all of its original food in it, only by now it was reduced to a grey-green slime by the storm and the heat. We were even forced to use scrap wood pulled from the station wreckage itself in order to rebuild a wall so that there would be a protected place to put the fire trucks.
I could tell you about the animal shelter that housed 200 dogs, cats, one goat and one potbelly pig, all on the donations of food and money by a family of four and a few rare volunteers. And all of this was outside, like a small Tent City for lost pets. Every chainlink dog kennel was covered with a tarp, and had a doghouse for shelter, and every kennel had to be cleaned out every few days. There were always more water bowls to refill. More donations to sort through and organize. More trash to pick up that had been forgotten about in the mad rush to feed the animals every day. I washed food and water dishes until my feet grew tired from standing, and still the pile beside me grew ever taller. But the animals were sweet, scared and lonely, all clamoring for attention and begging for a home.
I could tell you about a site so dangerous and unstable that no one under 18 was allowed in the house; a three-story home knocked 10 feet back off of it's foundation. The adults in our group passed us brick and slate that we piled outside for the owners to use in the future, broken fragments of a broken life. They planned to salvage as much as possible from the home, and then rebuild. A "Do Not Doze" sign adorned the front steps.
The week flew by as if daring us to work faster, and still every new dawn brought new sights and experiences. I could easily write a book about these dark glimmers. A house that once was across town, that now rests on the railroad tracks. About the hundred year old live oaks and pines that now lie uprooted and dead at the exact height of the storm surge. About clocks that are stopped on the exact moment that that storm surge struck. About the search and rescue X's spray painted on every home, marking the date the house was searched, the team that searched it, and the number of dead bodies found in the home. About the diary of a young girl that we found in the rubble, and an entry written as the storm raged that stops mid-sentence.
I came home from Mississippi sunburned, bug-bitten, bruised, and tired. Yet every ounce of my discomfort was worth it to know that we made at least a dent in the work that needs to be done to restore the Gulf Coast. I came home grateful of my family and of what I have: running water, a sturdy house, indoor plumbing, a school that is clean and free of mold. I would go back to the coast in a heartbeat, and spend a thousand vacations there if I could.
So I leave your question with a question of my own; what did you do over your February vacation that is worth telling about?