by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Lake Forest, Fla.
September 10, 2005
MERCIFUL JOURNEY: OBSERVATIONS ON DISASTER
D'IBERVILLE, Miss., Sept 10, 2005 -- Some disasters are best viewed at a wide-angle, by stepping back, breathing deeply and reflecting. Some tragedies are revealed best by narrow spotlights of truth, serving as examples of the whole. Hurricane Katrina in sheer scope of devastation defies both methods.
Years of corporate priorities, broadcast commentaries, "analysis" and op-ed articles have made my spot-news reporting skills as flabby and sloppy as my never-slim waistline. But Internet postings from the best bunch of newsmen and women I know might put Hurricane Katrina into focus.
My old colleagues from United Press International have their own wild and woolly "newswire" to exchange journalistic, political, or any other ideas. Reading their Katrina queries and responses provided me with a mental roadmap for assessing my whirlwind trip to Alabama and Mississippi coastal areas this week. The snapshots below address some of their main themes and my own thoughts.
Military relief: The military is taking care of its own. The way it should be. Two FHP troopers from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area drove ahead of us to a "trauma intervention center" set up inside and outside a damaged Conrad's Homestyle Restaurant on U.S. Highway 90, inside a shopping mall in Gautier, Miss.
The parking lot was a gigantic truck staging area, and a Navy medic in charge refused to take anything from us, even though the deep red sunburn on her own face and neck could have used some attention. A U.S.C.G. medic said, "We basically found hundreds of U.S. military families stationed along the Gulf who lost everything.
"We try to bring them here, give them some basic supplies. Get them some food and clothing, medical help and counseling. We keep the paperwork to a minimum, and get them on an air conditioned bus to Navy facilities in Jacksonville, Florida. Lots of people have offered us some things maybe we could use, but we feel that stuff should go to the civilians who are hurting. We'll try to take care of our own people," she said.
One thing the military did do for the public was provide a long line of spotless Port-o-Potties.
Private Relief: Because of my past charitable work in hurricane areas, and covering news of same for about 30 years, Boca Raton, Fla., businessman Jed Kaplan (a Bush financial supporter, and my boss for about 10 years), asked me to join a four-man relief mission to Mobile.
He was prepared to underwrite all costs, but by word of mouth also received a few thousand dollars in money for the Greenacres, Fla., Kiwanis Foundation to help fund Katrina relief efforts, and to defray some costs.
Four people were making the trip.
From initial planning to execution it was four days.
Most larger organizations can't move that quickly. The two members of the team who were Greenacres Kiwanians had seen their share of hurricanes in recent years, and learned many lessons from Kiwanis service projects. So, at the outset, the venture seemed a good match between the corporate sector and a service organization such as Kiwanis.
Big, Bad Wal-Mart?: Let's say Wal-Mart and its employees and managers are all part of one big counter-PR plot to destroy labor, trade, and the environment; or maybe a Communist Chinese industrial plot to invade Washington - or any other criticism. None of us cared.
The Marxist-Leninists used to claim they honored "exemplary" workers. One of the two Testaments I never actually read cover to cover says "Judge not, lest ye be Judged."
On this journey, Wal-Mart was the facilitator the key force that made things happen. Read closely: not knowing the difference between a "Telezon," the handheld scanning inventory computer, and a telethon (where one West Palm Beach tv station raised $500,000 in three hours on one day's notice), my local Wal-Mart had two managers work with me on Saturday.
The Telezon information was sent 400 miles away to a fast-depleting shelved Wal-Mart Supercenter in Tallahassee, the eastern edge of a key Interstate 10 support network. Tuesday morning, the Tallahassee staff swung into action with the requested supplies - deeply discounted.
As they filled two brand-new Ford Expeditions (also deeply discounted by Avis, whose local manager waived the tedious and expensive "full tank on return" requirement), Wal-Mart added additional supplies.
Destination: the Alabama coast. If that goal failed, City Hall at Bay Minette, Ala., agreed to transship items for us. From top to bottom, Wal-Mart and its people were courteous and magnificent. This tune was repeated in every community we visited.
Firearms: Yes. Three of the four crew members have Florida concealed-carry weapons permits. The counter staff of Delta Air Lines, and the TSA security officials in both Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee, were polite, thorough, but swift. None of us had traveled on a commercial flight with checked firearms since 9/11.
New lock-box regulations had to be followed. The three states we were likely to visit had reciprocity with Florida. Police, volunteers, two ministers, and several storm victims we helped asked if we were armed, and were pleased when we said "yes." A Wal-Mart manager made sure we knew that we could get any additional ammunition we might need in his store. We didn't need his offer, but thanked him.
If you hate guns, fine. Hating guns is probably a pretty good idea. It has no relevance to four guys, in two new trucks, hauling thousands of dollars in pediatric and other supplies to areas under martial law. If you think there is some perverse, disgusting contradiction in wannabe amateur angels of mercy packing heat, well, just suck it up and get over it. It is what it is. Three of us would not have gone on the trip unarmed. The fourth would not have gone unless the others were armed.
Red Cross and government agencies: The U.S. Government is the best at what governments do. The Red Cross is the best at what the Red Cross does.
Neither statement helps people who need help as of yesterday in the first 72 hours of heartache. During the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew the consensus among my volunteer friends was that in demeanor and community help the Salvation Army outperformed the Red Cross, period.
You pick the charity you like and send them money. The Red Cross and FEMA had shiny new GMC Suburbans, and nicely embroidered golf shirts and windbreakers. Myriad church, civic, and corporate groups spent the fashion-accessory and logo-item money on the people.
The I-10 border from Alabama to Mississippi had just opened to traffic. We not only made it to Alabama, but in a 784-mile, 20-hour trek, we visited people in Mobile, Ala., in Moss Point, Pascagoula, Gautier, D'Iberville, Biloxi, Vancleave, and Gulfport, Miss. Most of them were in a world of hurt.
Awat from the coast, at a medical clinic based in a high school in Vancleave, Miss., run by the Red Cross, a young, female, Red Cross staffer in a white Red Cross jacket, contradicted an orthopedic surgeon who also happened to be an auxiliary deputy sheriff. The Red Cross lady suggested our supplies weren't really needed and directed us to a distribution center in Biloxi.
This news came after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, and a group of Navy and Coast Guard trauma-care-center medics in Gautier had specifically directed us to her Red Cross facility 30 minutes away.
The doctor very politely reminded the woman that a local resident had needed some extra Pedialyte and baby formula, and they could use some more of these supplies we had. The Red Cross representative was polite, but adamant and sent us down the road.
On the macro-scale, FEMA did a good job of clearing athletic fields for heliports, and wiring the bombed-out strip-mall parking lots for generators and emergency power that could help provide ice, one of the most badly needed items. The Red Cross was tops in codifying lists of missing persons, and using its national and global reach for special needs. But for the real heroes, see below.
Faith-based blessings: We'll try this one r e a l l y s l o w l y. Since my first reporting assignment 46 years ago, no single relief agency has impressed me more than the Southern Baptist Convention.
Neither Catholic Charities in Haiti, nor Habitat for Humanity in New Mexico, nor the Salvation Army in Homestead, Fla. - although all made great efforts - can touch the speedy, common-sense approach of the Southern Baptists.
Can boys marry each other? Should barge casinos and gambling now be allowed on firm land? Did Jews kill Jesus? We could care less about Baptist positions past, present, or future on any issue.
There is some overriding truth about judging people by their deeds. Instead of uniforms, logos, and name tags, the Baptists divided labor by differently-colored baseball hats. They mobilized 16 million members in 42,000 churches.
While military and FEMA scurried to get Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) into the hands of victims, in 48 hours one church we visited in Biloxi was feeding 5,000 people daily - including other relief workers!
At dusk, some FEMA passenger vans with FBI agents, and Homeland Security staffers (with "ICE" on their black shirts, standing for Immigration, Customs, and an "E" that I figure was either for Enforcement or Ego) headed for the Baptist chow line.
"What really got my attention were local residents going into the church for a hot cooked meal, and then leaving with another hot meal to take home," our team organizer, Jed Kaplan, said. "One guy in an old car pulled up, and left with a stack of four or five dinners in Styrofoam containers. He told me some of his neighbors couldn't drive through the debris, and they didn't want to leave what was left of their homes, so he provides sort of a neighborhood carry out service from the Southern Baptists to his neighbors."
The hands-on volunteer effort was replicated - on a smaller, but just as energetic scale - helping parishioners and strangers in D'Iberville, Miss., at Heritage United Methodist Church, about five minutes away. Said pastor David Cumbest, "Every day there are more stories of people lost. FEMA offered to relocate us somewhere, but for now my family is staying. The church is in pretty good shape, and people have gotten used to coming to our pantry for food and water." The marquee on his church, undamaged by Category 4 winds, read "Baby Supplies." There he toiled away, stacking cases of water in his parking lot.
One associate pastor told of his father-in-law, who kept up his family tradition of never evacuating from a Biloxi-bound storm. He bragged to the family who found him safe and sound in a partially damaged home, and a few hours later he was found dead - electrocuted while trying to hook up a generator.
Other church members were getting ready for FEMA to relocate them to Palm Bay, Fla., not far from last year's landfalls of Hurricanes Jean and Frances. We probably spent the most time with the Methodists, whose pantry of paper towels, canned goods, diapers, and water seemed okay for perhaps two or three days, but was running low on many items. One woman very sheepishly asked if we had any food, she said, because they were running low.
Steven Grossman, Mr. Kaplan's chief operating officer, held up a hand to gesture, "wait just a second." He reappeared through the pantry door with the first of three cases of spaghetti and meatballs in easy-to-open pop-top cans. He had suggested them as an afterthought, and the Wal-Mart folks loaded about 10 cases into the stack of mostly pediatric items.
The Methodists, like the Baptists, did what they could to help their own 300 parishioners, their extended families and neighbors in Biloxi.
The difference between them was mostly in the neighborhood effort of the Methodist church in their suroundings, while the Southern Baptist Convention had a very carefully planned national and regional strategy.
Last Friday when I started Web surfing and making phone calls for likely distribution points, the Southern Baptist Convention kept cropping up on the screen, and in my phone calls. No one has explained it this way, but here's what one could extrapolate from the Baptist relief effort both in theory and practice:
As any hurricane approaches, word goes out to congregations in a broad potential impact area - in this case, Louisiana to Georgia. Very modest relief centers are opened. They start accumulating volunteers, trained ministerial and logistical help - almost all veterans of other disasters - and supplies.
In this case, with landfall projected somewhere from New Orleans to Mobile, I noticed churches in the outer ring of vulnerabiliy, such as Dothan or Brewton, Ala., or Hattiesburg, Miss., listed as relief centers.
When landfall occurs and the path of destruction is finally defined, the "relief circle" draws tighter. Those first centers stay, perhaps smaller than originally planned, and a ring of aid closer to the disaster is drawn. Now we find Bay Minette, Ala., and Vancleave, Miss., Amite, La., or Pensacola, Fla., and Fairhope, Ala. - as larger and more organized relief, distribution, and response centers.
The wind and rain might not have subsided, but the circle of help is tightened, and with the help of Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie trucks, doctors and nurses, and heavy-equipment operators, complete with bulldozers and backhoes, invade Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., Slidell and Gretna, La., and Mobile, Ala.
Because of the sheer magnitude of their mission, FEMA and the Red Cross take the military "positioning" approach. Houston and Memphis, Birmingham and Tallahassee are the staging areas, and depending on road conditions, resources from one or more of these areas are rolling within 24 hours of landfall. When they arrived for Katrina, these organizations often found well-trained, on-task members of the Southern Baptist Convention already in place for 18 hours.
Gas gouging: We visited the Chevron refinery near Pascagoula, south of Moss Point, and saw it guarded by the Mississippi National Guard. Many workers whose cars were not flooded or crushed went from shelters to work to keep the gas flowing. Employees set up information wagons so that workers could get food and services for their own families while they worked.
Most of the gas stations that were not flattened or blown away had gasoline for $2.80 to $3.00 per gallon. Some limited customers to $10 purchases.
The exception was Venezuelan-pwned Citgo. Citgo stations charged $2.49 to $2.79 per gallon, depending on location and state taxes. That was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's humanitarian aid - he donated a million gallons of gas. Rev. Jesse Jackson's personal mission to Caracas to negotiate cheaper oil for the U.S. may have paved the way for that. Well, this is where it gets really tough for the conspiratorial, anti-liberal theorists who over-analyze every event.
The way it actually works: people waited in fairly short lines for Citgo gas. Most of the credit-card readers did not work at the pump, so you went inside and paid cash or presented your credit card. You pumped your gas, and your wife, son, or buddy, emerged from the only flushing toilet and running water in the area and exited the Citgo station. Leaving, the tired-looking people often carried an ice-cold bottle of Mountain Dew (beer and wine is banned in some disaster areas). They also had stale Moon Pies, and pork rinds. If you were really lucky, you got to personally ladle out the last container of boiled peanuts.
You then got in your car and drove away, not giving a second thought as to exactly why Citgo was 30 cents cheaper than Shell.
The art of self-help:: The Hickory Pit café in Semmes, Ala., closes at 9 p.m.
When we drove in at 9:26 p.m., the place was packed and the young waitress walked us to a table an assured us, "My momma says as along as ya'all are hungry and comin' in to eat, we'll stay open. No one is gonna be turned away."
Perhaps she was 16, maybe 17. Her boyfriend called on her cellphone to hassle her about working late every night since the hurricane, and she told him off. Kiwanis member Barry Freedman, owner of the Lake Worth Beach T-Shirt Co. in Florida and a native New Englander, good-naturedly teased the waitress about her drawl, and cracked up the group with his query, "I guess you're not from Boston, are you?"
Her attitude exemplified the self-help, can-do attitude of the region, or perhaps the nation. Everyone pitches in. Everyone does something.
For Jed Kaplan, back in his Boca Raton office and exhausted just two days after heading for Tallahassee and points west, laughed and said, "It's really a lot easier just to write a check."
But he was already talking about future trips, and a campaign to help raise more funds for the 250 New Orleans families evacuated to vacant apartments in a trend equestrian development in his own Palm Beach County.
Kaplan, CEO of a brokerage firm I work for and a member of the Boston Stock Exchange, has six children, all under age 12. His rationale for his helping hand is, "Sometimes you just feel compelled to do something sort of, well, person-to-person and not just watch it on tv."
The scoreboard:. In the storm of tears and terror, the individual frontier-spirit sprint wins out: The San Diego businessman who charters a 737 and rescues 80 families; the Maryland executive who buys 100,000 MRE's and hires his own drivers and trucks to run through police lines into New Orleans.
Yet in the marathon of recovery, physical and mental health, public health concerns, and massive institutional and organizational help the edge goes to the military and the large governmental and non-governmental agencies.
My wife's reaction was, "Whatever Congress has to do to create a special medal, it should go to every man and woman in the U.S. Coast Guard."
A former newspaper reporter herself, she noted that the U.S.C.G. rescued 4,000 people in 2004 and rescued more than 10,000 people in a week in 2005.
South of Miami, 13 years ago, Hurricane Andrew was tightly wound and brutal. No forgiveness. No leaves on trees. No street signs. No buildings. Some 86,000 houses destroyed in a 20-mile zone.
Hurricane Katrina was indeed the tsunami of America. Water killed more people than wind. The sharp leading edge of wind and property loss was a coastal surge of surf covering nearly 200 miles, creating hundreds of miles of inland destruction. Driving north on Route 49 towards Wiggins, Miss., the giant Katrina scythe had sliced up every mile of towns and trees.
While the hard-nosed UPI veterans discuss FEMA v Red Cross vs. individuals; racism and rescue; Bush-bashing and grandstanding, perhaps an overly simplistic image of Katrina comes to mind.
Two hours after the supposed 6 p.m. curfew, I looked at the perversely twisted wreckage of metal in downtown Gulfport. A tall, muscular black man, shoeless and shirtless, stands atop the apex of his battered roof, a gaping hole in the roof near his feet. As the final pink-yellow-red-orange rays of sunset silhouette him, he raises his arms as if to ask "why?" Regular Army MPs are directing traffic on his corner, and most motorists ignore him.
My mind flashed to my kids' Little League games. I have no clue why I made this connection, except that the coaches were certified, as were the umpires. One or two paid groundskeepers worked for the parks department, and a group of parents served as an administrative board for the league. They were the equivalent of FEMA. They were the Red Cross. They were the National Guard. They were the framework which allowed the kids to have fun.
But every night in the concession stands, volunteer moms and dads sold Gummy Bears and hot dogs and knotted the plastic garbage bags. They planned pizza parties and bought the award patches and the trophies. They picked the team moms, and arranged the car pools. Yeah, they were sort of the Southern Baptists of the Little League.
Okay, this is irrational.
So was Katrina.
AR Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum's Lake Forest, Fla., home has suffered damage from three hurricanes. In no case was the damage ever enough to meet the insurance deductible. He and his family will be very happy if it stays that way.