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Mississippi blues

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How a local Hurricane Katrina volunteer is changing the shape of relief work

8/29/2006 10:23:47 AM

A WORLD TURNED UPSIDE: DOWN Ten-year-old Mallery Hill (middle), pictured with two cousins, survived the flood waters by living with her father, Willie, on rooftops that kept collapsing — three in all. MHA is helping the family rebuild.
Ever wonder what became of all the tax dollars and personal donations you sent to the Gulf Coast over the past year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? No one can provide a full accounting, of course. But BU graduate and Peterborough, New Hampshire, resident Annie Card is in a unique position to etch out the big picture. A year ago, the freelance photographer was living comfortably in a leafy corner of the Northeast. Today, Card, 44, is running a nonprofit she co-founded called Mississippi Home Again (MHA). In the process, she has inadvertently created a new model of disaster relief.

Much of the most-effective rebuilding has been done by churches, who can command both funding and volunteer help from within their own denominations, as well as by faith-based organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. But the larger relief organizations, along with the government, have been peculiarly bogged down.

That may be about to change, however, as the big boys are beginning to take their cues from small outfits like MHA.

A wasted windfall
Like New Yorkers during the dizzying days that followed September 11, Gulf Coast residents afflicted by Hurricane Katrina were united by tragedy, connected by loss, and convinced that the country would come to their rescue. The destruction, horror, and trauma of Katrina - the costliest and deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States - bound people together, as the government blew it on every level. As Americans watched the political, economic, and human disaster unfold on television, aghast at its sheer scale, they poured millions of dollars into private relief agencies, while untold numbers of volunteers dropped everything to assist in the distribution of life-sustaining aid.

Among them was Card. Six weeks after Katrina made landfall last August 29, she found herself in Pass Christian, Mississippi, about 70 miles east of New Orleans, surrounded by desperate strangers and frantically passing out food on the back of a Red Cross truck.


“Back then,” she says, “people still had a certain energy, a survivor adrenaline. It was a lovefest down here. There were a lot of high hopes, a lot of promises.” But those promises were broken, says Card, “so much so that people lost hope.”

As Card doled out food, she talked with people, asking them how they were really living. “You think that people are going to be tired of telling their story. But the reality is they can’t tell their story enough.” Before long, survivors invited Card into their homes, revealing a level of destruction that Card hadn’t anticipated. Houses that looked okay from the outside were ruined inside, barely habitable. No walls, no beds, no appliances. Mold and mud everywhere. People sleeping on cement floors, once covered by rugs, now covered in plastic. Extended families sharing one or two rooms. “Forget creature comforts,” Card says. “People were living in tents in their front yards.”

After seeing such devastation of people’s domestic infrastructure, Card began to feel that plopping potatoes on plates was short-sighted. “Feeding people was lovely,” she says, “but it wasn’t a long-term answer.” What they really needed, Card concluded, was the means to become self-sufficient — to not only move back into their homes, but into homes in which they were equipped to feed themselves. The problem was that many Katrina survivors didn’t have the money to buy the big-ticket items and appliances to replace the refrigerators, ovens, washer-driers, water heaters, and beds destroyed by the storm.

So after ten days back home in New Hampshire, she, along with Tammy Agard, 38, a Red Cross volunteer from Montana, went back to Mississippi with a mission. Using $20,000 raised by the Monadnock Express Fund, a group of nine Peterborough-area towns that raised money for Katrina victims, they launched Mississippi Home Again, a nonprofit organization that buys beds and appliances for people on the Mississippi coast who lost those essential items to Katrina and can’t afford to replace them, “a critical step,” according to the organization’s mission statement, “on the long road back to normal life, independence and dignity.”

MHA is also committed to delivering its material assistance with “empathy, compassion, and humor,” which is especially needed right now. “The suicide rate is up something like 900 percent,” says Card. And if anything has gotten worse over the past year, “it’s people’s emotional and mental state,” says Paige Roberts, executive director of the Southeast Mississippi chapter of the Red Cross. “As we’re coming toward one year, people are nowhere near where they thought they’d be. Nobody is the same. Nobody is going to be the same. We’re all readjusting to who we are now, as individuals, as families, and as a community.”

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