August 29, 2005
It is evening in Wisconsin, the air sticky and still, not a single breeze whispering through the open windows of my living room. I am glued to my television.
2,000 miles away, Hurricane Katrina is wreaking cataclysmic havoc. Over the next few days I sit frozen before the sickly blue light, images of terror dancing across the screen. I watch helplessly as she decimates sixty miles of coastline, as she drowns grandmothers and children in their attics. As the levies break, as newly homeless people lie wedged like sardines in the stadium, as families stare incredulously at piles of rubble.
More than once, I curl up on my safe, undamaged sofa, and I weep.
Lance Myers speaks so quietly I can hardly hear him. I keep leaning in, keep pushing my recorder closer to him so it will catch his softly spoken story.
He is leaving his job as the sports photographer for the newspaper that employs me. It’s been over a year since the storm, and Mississippi, a state he’s come to think of as a second home, remains severely crippled. There are still 39,000 families living in FEMA trailers. 39,000 families in Mississippi alone.
Lance clears his throat; the newsworthy tale pours out; my pen scribbles furiously. Four weeks after Katrina hit, he and two friends collected 14,000 pounds of supplies from their fellow Wisconsinites, trucked them down to Pass Christian, to Gulfport, to Long Beach, MS, and set up shelter in the gymnasium of the South Mississippi Regional Mental Health Center. 70 percent of the residents of The Pass lost everything, and Lance was determined to help them get it back. Over the next year he made monthly week-long trips to volunteer where he could—to comb the ditches for family photos, to pull bicycles from treetops, to feed and water and clothe and comfort whomever crossed his path.
It’s December now, and he has decided all the work he’s done is not enough. He has quit his jobs, and in a few weeks he will say goodbye to his wife, move to the gulf coast, and begin a two-year personal mission. Someone from our tiny Wisconsin community has donated a small trailer for him to stay in, and he will take a job at the SMRC, the same place he set up those donated supplies. Every day, he will work at the center, then spend his nights and weekends continuing to help Katrina victims recover. Every month, he will send mortgage money home to his wife of thirty-eight years in Wisconsin. Every minute, he will ache for his family.
“That’s amazing,” I say, breathlessly, once he has finished. Then, “I’d like to do that.”
“What’s stopping you?” he smiles, a twinkle in his eye.
I think about all the sacrifices he’s making, and I know the answer before I speak it aloud.
Dave drives our van down Highway 90, a stretch of ocean-front road along the gulf coast once lined with magnificent old homes. It’s been two years since Katrina, but very little has been rebuilt—the clean-up alone took well over a year.
Along this beachfront drive now we see only the occasional shell of a formerly grand house; mostly it is cement slab after cement slab after cement slab. The air is thick with the ghosts of people we never knew, people we are somehow mourning anyway. I shudder when I realize the road we’re driving on was thirty feet beneath the water on that fateful day.
This is the second relief trip I’ve made since meeting Lance; the first was several months earlier, with three high school kids and one other chaperone, for nine days. This time, I brought my family—my husband, whose skilled labor is far more valuable than any help I can provide, and my children, whom I wish to teach that life is so much more than Barbies and trampolines. I’ve shown them the pictures, told them the stories of the work I did here, the work my friend Lance is doing every day, but the ideas are too abstract, and I’m flailing. I want so badly for them to understand why we are here, at least on some level.
So we’re driving that stretch of road and it’s getting dark and I’m getting sad and suddenly Gretta speaks.
“I just think about if it were the opposite situation,” she says. “If people in Wisconsin needed help, and the Mississippi people came to help us.”
And yes, she really does say “opposite situation.” And yes, she is only seven years old. And yes, my heart swells. And I know she finally gets it, what we’re all doing here.
And then a two-year-old Emma screams and points, and I follow her sight line to a towering McDonald’s sign, its yellow lights blown clean, an empty slab where the restaurant once stood.
“Mickadonowds is bwoken!” she wails, and I think it’s the closest she’ll come to getting it, too.
And I think it is close enough.
August 29, 2008
Lance’s two year mission is almost up, and he’s accomplished so much, impacted so many lives. He started a blog several months back to document his project, and I’ve been following my friend’s efforts closely—but today’s message is ominous.
Lance is battening down the hatches. Tropical Storm Gustav is slowly gathering momentum off the coast of Cuba, and plans to strike the gulf coast Sunday, maybe Monday. Lance is tying down his trailer, and he is headed back to the shelter he built for others almost two years ago, to take shelter himself.
I’m on my couch again, staring at the blackened television. Though its power is off, I can see the ghosts of the technicolor images from three years ago.
I think about how ironic it is that today marks the three-year anniversary of Katrina, that Lance’s two years are almost up, that this Labor Day weekend may bring the storm that starts his labor all over again. At best, it will bring horrific memories for Katrina’s survivors. At worst, new memories will be forged.
And I can’t help but think about what it means, that I’m praying for the hurricane to miss my friend, to go elsewhere—because that means it will hit someone else’s friend.
And I know I’ll be thinking all weekend about walls of water that flatten buildings and dreams, about ocean breaks and broken hearts, about how easily the lives we build can be erased in a single, salty instant.
And I’m thinking if there’s anything I’ve learned since I met Lance, it’s that no matter what happens this weekend, they will rebuild.
At least, as best they can.
And I hope they know that no matter what happens this weekend, strangers will come from thousands of miles away to help.
At least, as best they can.