• 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.”

        
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    “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.”


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    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.

    Sunshine 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.

        
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    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 trailer.

    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.”

        
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    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 optimistic,

        
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    [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 volunteers.

    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.

        
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    “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 about it.”

        
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    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 Orleans.


    Adrienne-Janine Marske, an exchange student from the University of Trier, Germany, was an intern at KFAI Radio.