By Scott Dickison
As far as the typical news cycle goes, this column is about a week late. August 29 marked the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on American soil. But then again, on Labor Day of 2005 the terrible picture of the storm’s aftermath was still coming into focus.
I moved to Mississippi the day before Katrina hit. After graduating college the previous May I had signed up to be an AmeriCorps staff member for a small, rural Habitat for Humanity affiliate in the Mississippi Delta. I remember watching coverage leading up to the storm with my parents in a motel room in Clarksdale, Miss., and my dad saying something to the affect of, Son, we love you, but we’re going to hit the road pretty early in the morning. We were far enough north to where I was not in any real danger from the storm itself, so please don’t read his comments as so inconsiderate. But we did feel the effects of the storm’s wake.
It came a few days later when displaced people began to arrive from the coast. Word got out that the local expo center would be converted into a shelter. Volunteer staffing was needed, especially at night, and being recent college graduates with four years of training in all-nighters, my Habitat friends and I (many of us friends from college) signed up for the graveyard shift.
It was an experience I hope I never forget, although even now I’m disappointed at how fuzzy the details have gotten. I remember we served about 100 people, and seemed to have at least that many people there every day as volunteers. People stacking water bottles and boxes of enough MREs to feed the whole town. Folding tables spread out like a giant church potluck, replenished with seemingly endless reserves of homemade potato salad, deviled eggs, green bean casserole and all the other usual suspects.
One of the corners of the center was filled with boxes upon boxes of donated clothing, with a few makeshift walls constructed around them to provide at least a sense of dressing-room privacy. But to be honest, it was just a sense, for privacy was in short supply. Yet at the time no one seemed to notice, least of all our guests. After all, what could be more exposing than showing up at a shelter 300 miles from home after having lost everything you have?
I remember as we all gathered around a TV that had been set up to keep up with news coverage, watching as the city of New Orleans slowly filled up with water — the dystopian scenes of floating bodies and people stranded on rooftops or in trees, hellish accounts from the Superdome and abandoned hospitals. I even remember poor Mike Myers’ face as Kanye West gave us a taste of the crazy that was to come.
And of course tales of bravery and heroism began to emerge as well. People risking their lives for complete strangers. Volunteer law enforcement from nearby areas showing up to assist in the rescue effort. The flood of volunteers that would soon descend upon the Gulf. It was truly the best and worst of humanity playing out before our eyes.
But the most enduring image of that week for me came in the form of a group of men from the local Mennonite community just outside of town.
They had come to the expo center like the rest of us to lend a hand in the relief effort, and had put their considerable carpentry skills to work constructing a sturdy entrance to help manage the flow of people in and out of the large expo center space. They were also the ones who built the “dressing room” walls around the clothes.
I remember walking into the center as the men were putting the finishing touches on their work, which, to be honest, was probably unnecessarily well-built, and to be brutally honest, perhaps not even necessary to begin with. And being the headstrong 22-year-old college graduate that I was, I even tasked one of the men as much.
The look on his face is my enduring image from Katrina.
It was a mixture of confusion, frustration and annoyance. But if I look hard enough, I can see the contours of grace. It was as if to say, Well, what else should I do?
And of course, he was right. What else should he do? What else should or could any of us do, other than offer the best of what we had — our time, our energy, our prayers, our potato salad, our woodworking skills — to the people in front of us? “Necessary” was beside the point.
After the pit in my stomach subsided, this was the lens through which I saw the rest of that week in the shelter. And on my best days in the 10 years since, it’s been the lens through which I’ve tried to see many things.
In those times when the events of the world leave us without direction or answer and we wonder what it is we should do, the immediate answer is almost always to offer the best of what we have to the nearest person in need.
It’s of course been said that it’s during times of devastation that we learn what’s truly necessary. I believe that’s true. But in my experience, it’s also true that what’s “necessary” is secondary to the extravagance of whatever it is you have to give.