Helping Miss Daisy
Hurricane relief trip teaches lessons for life
By Adrienne-Janine Marske
It was a rainy afternoon in late March as a small group of Hamline
University students gathered around the gift card display at a Target
store in Roseville, Minn.
Choosing cards for distribution by a New Orleans church, they recalled
Miss Daisy Lofton and other hurricane victims they’d helped on their
January trip to Mississippi and Louisiana. For many of the students, it
was a life-changing experience.
Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit
the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, Melissa Embser-Herbert, a sociology
professor at Hamline, decided to change the topic of her winter-term
course from “Applied Sociology in an Urban Environment” to “The Social
Dimension of Disaster.”
“I thought there had to be a way, if students were interested, to get
them down there to help,” Embser-Herbert says. “And while learning
about the issues is great, I also wanted to create the means by which we
would be making a real contribution to the recovery.”
She started searching for organizations that were actively involved in
the hurricane relief effort, and on the Internet discovered the huge
relief program of the United Methodist Church. As a part of that
program, Christians Organized for Relief Efforts (CORE) – a project of
two Houston, Texas, churches – was established in September on the
grounds of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs, Miss. “I
made some calls and was suddenly in touch with the CORE base camp in
Ocean Springs,” says Embser-Herbert. “They promised that we could
come and help during J-term.
Shortly after the turn of the year, a group of 21 Hamline students,
faculty and staff members was heading south for seven days to help
salvage houses in Jackson County, Mississippi. Leaving the greyish
Twin Cities on a Saturday morning with temperatures below zero, they
found themselves six hours later at the Gulfport/Biloxi airport.
and 60-degree temperatures greeted the group – along with roofless
houses, shreds of clothing in roadside bushes and twisted palm trees. In
less than an hour, the two white rental vans turned off the highway and
pulled into the CORE camp.
A fantastic sunset, heated tents and a nourishing meal – cooked by
volunteers in the church kitchen – were waiting for the Hamline group.
In the middle of the first night in camp, the electric power failed –
which meant no heat in the tents as temperatures hovered just above
freezing, and no hot water in the morning in the shower tents and
But after biscuits, gravy, eggs and cereal in the
church’s community room, the group was ready for a daytrip to New
Orleans to see the devastation in and around the city’s 9th Ward and
along the Gulf Coast.
Returning to CORE on Sunday night, the
group was shocked by the reality of the destruction. The next day they
began doing something about it. For five days, the Hamline students cleaned and sanitized flooded
houses, ripping out interior walls of moldy sheetrock, scrubbing muddy
hardwood floors and sifting through personal belongings ruined by water.
It was a first-hand experience with personal as well as environmental
devastation, of feeling pain and sorrow but also seeing unbroken spirit
and hope. “I still see all the destruction, all the suffering, vividly,
and I will never forget those images,” says Kari Scholen, a Hamline student.
“At first glance, only the roofs of some houses seemed to be destroyed,
but a look inside showed the degree of damage caused by the saltwater.
Lots of houses seemed to be empty and lonely, their owners had
left and we wondered whether they’d ever come back.”
Miss Daisy Lofton is one of the strong people who stayed with her
children and grandchildren, waiting for help. The 54-year-old,
African-American woman lives in what was the diverse neighborhood of
Moss Point. Many neighboring houses had a FEMA trailer in the front
yard, while others seemed abandoned by their owners.
Despite the missing neighbors, there was an optimistic atmosphere among the people
on Miss Daisy’s street, most of whom were busy cleaning their houses or
covering gaps in their roofs with blue tarps.
It was clear that it had taken some time to get the ball of help
rolling. “We seemed to be the first to have touched anything in [Miss
Daisy’s] house,” says Sonja Austermann, a teaching assistant at Hamline.
Miss Daisy couldn’t start the cleanup herself because she suffers
from lupus and congestive heart failure. “It was so hard going into a
strange house [and having to]
throw everything away, every personal
belonging and all the memories linked to pictures, letters and
knick-knacks. This was one of our saddest and most emotionally draining
moments in Mississippi … but also one of our happiest, because we could
see the hope and gratefulness in Miss Daisy’s eyes,” Austermann says.
Some in the Hamline group wondered why no one in Miss Daisy’s family had helped her with the cleanup. Curt Graff, a member of the CORE organizing team, image offered this
possible explanation: "While many people here are extremely strong and
[in the wake of the hurricane] some are suffering from
depression and other mental illnesses that keep them away” from their
wrecked houses. And, Graff added, “some fled to relatives in Houston or
Florida and weren’t here for weeks or months.” Graff and his wife
Mary, from Tennessee, were among the first to arrive at the CORE base
camp in September, helping to establish a well-organized network of
An intense week of work in Mississippi gave the Hamline imagevolunteers a
new awareness of both the material loss and the human suffering caused
by Katrina. “It really was a life-changing experience – not only for me
but, I think, for almost everyone in our group,” says Brianna Judd, a
first-year student at Hamline.
And even as many in the group were
pushed nearly to their physical and emotional limits, they were
astounded by the energy and determination with which the people of
Mississippi were trying to resume their normal lives – despite reports
that the next hurricane season could be even worse.
“We were emotionally drained after one week,” Judd says. image“And even
though we really wanted to stay to help more families, we could return
to a safe environment – and those poor people had to stay.”
The concept of learning through serving others seems to resonate with the
Hamline students. “We never would’ve learned as much about the social
dimensions of disaster by only studying it [in the classroom]. We never
would’ve known how immense the destruction still
was, months after the
Hurricanes,” says Raissa Schnitzius, who adds that she has never taken a
course that so strongly related theory to real-life practice.
Ashley Russell agrees: “I feel like I have learned so many things I
could never have learned from reading a book. I feel like I have
definitely grown as a person.”
Lauren Hazenson adds: “I’m glad
that all of us had the opportunity to go there and not only see what
happened with our own eyes but also to have the ability to do something
The group met every night during the trip to reflect
on the day’s experiences and observations, and it soon became clear that
the mission to Mississippi would not be over when the Hamline students
boarded the plane for their flight back to Minnesota.
Everybody wanted to keep helping, somehow. The most practical solution
seemed to be “plastic money” from Target that would help hurricane
victims replace their lost possessions.
And so it happened, a
week after the small group of students gathered to pick out gift cards,
that Melissa Embser-Herbert took another trip south, delivering $3,000
worth of Target cards to the First Street United Methodist Church in New
Adrienne-Janine Marske, an exchange student from the University of Trier, Germany, was an intern at KFAI Radio.