Patrick Nwokoh, Martha O’Connell and George Frantz had become well acquainted with Hurricane Katrina through news reports — or so they thought.
But seeing the damage and victims with their own eyes, even four months after the storm, placed the catastrophe in a whole new light.
“We were shocked by what we saw. The devastation was still evident. Most people lost their houses and were still living in trailers,” Nwokoh said. “I could not believe that such destruction could take place in the United States.”
“Looking back, I feel that I did not have a clear idea of what I was getting myself into,” O’Connell added. “It looked to me as if the storm could have happened a few days before we got there … we were told that tons of rubbish had been removed, but the amount of rubble and trash is indescribable.”
“No amount of preparation could have prepared us for what we saw. It’s mile after mile after mile of utter destruction,” Frantz said. “It was tough at times to take.”
Nwokoh and O’Connell, both students, were among six volunteers from the Cornell Catholic Community who accompanied Frantz, an adjunct professor at Cornell University, to the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., where they participated in hurricane-relief efforts from Jan. 4-18. Other members of the group were students Sueyeon Chung and Sara Zglobicki, and Cornell staff members Barbara Jastran and William Consiglio.
The group assisted residents and churches in the communities of Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Dedeaux, Gulfport, and Waveland. Among their duties were to help clear downed trees and limbs, as well as house fragments and the possessions of residents whose homes were being prepared for renovation or demolition.
Frantz said a number of Gulf residents were still waiting for their insurance settlements or had been reimbursed for less than the full cost of needed work. He added that many were unable to retrieve possessions because the tidal surge from the late-August hurricane had spread them over several lots; in fact, entire blocks in low-lying sections of East Biloxi were destroyed. The Cornell volunteers, meanwhile, could not always locate assigned homes because no house numbers were evident. Amid such disarray, Frantz gave credit to the group for hanging tough.
“I can’t say enough about the Cornell Catholic Community students,” said Frantz, who also is a member of the campus ministry. “We were in a situation where nobody knew from minute to minute what we were going to do. We were joking, ‘Let’s try Plan F,’ and vehicles broke down. The students took it all in stride.”
He added that local staffs and volunteers were stoic as well. “They just coped with it … every day they’d just say, ‘I’m OK, we’ve got to help these people’ — when, in fact, they were not OK. But they weren’t about to let themselves be helped until their neighbors were helped.”
The need for help was vast, Nwokoh and O’Connell observed.
“Most people in the rural communities are poor and cannot afford to build new houses or relocate. Listening to these victims tell their heartbreaking stories was indeed overwhelming,” Nwokoh said, recalling one widow who began crying as she told the story of her life. She had applied for a trailer to replace her home, but had not yet received one.
O’Connell said that while working on a roof in Bay St. Louis, she saw a woman across the street working on her house while her 10-year-old son played an imaginary game in the debris. They had moved to Ohio after the hurricane but returned to their home with the hopes of starting over. They had received a trailer the day before, but most of their possessions were gone. The woman — apparently a performance artist — had a dead stare in her eyes as she described to O’Connell the costumes, piano, and transcripts of plays she had lost.
“It was very overwhelming to hear, because it was everything — everything that had meant anything to her. She repeated, ‘I am an artist, I am an artist, and I’ll just keep making my art … ‘ in this very ghostlike way,” O’Connell recalled. “She seemed so — gone, not there in some way.”
O’Connell also was moved by an elderly woman her team helped by removing a tree from her son’s backyard. The son had bought the property a few weeks before Katrina hit, and when the house was destroyed he became so distraught that he left for Texas.
“It was as if this woman was convinced that if she could get the house picked up and the property cleared, her son would return to her,” O’Connell remarked.
O’Connell, 19, is a Boston native who recently completed her freshman year at Cornell. Nwokoh, 39, has finished his first year of graduate studies. He is a native of Nigeria and spent nine years there with a private agricultural company, assisting poor rural communities.
“With such background, I felt I should continue my work of community service,” Nwokoh said. “Relief operation is part of selfless service to humanity.”
The Cornell volunteers offset trip expenses by soliciting donations from home parishes, friends and family members. They were housed at Sacred Heart Parish in rural Dedeaux, approximately 15 miles from the Gulf Coast. The team was joined by other groups and individuals representing various colleges and religious denominations from around the country.
Following the Mississippi trip, Frantz made two more visits to another community ravaged by Katrina — New Orleans. He brought students with him as part of a Cornell course he teaches on city and regional planning, and students from three classes helped to develop a recovery plan for sections of New Orleans. Though he never would have wished for such a disaster, the hurricane has presented unique opportunities for field study, said Frantz, who works full-time for an Ithaca architectural firm.
“We just viewed this as the biggest event in city planning, literally, since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s not often that literally an entire city is ravaged,” he said.
Frantz added that Zglobicki, one of the January volunteers, also assisted in New Orleans relief efforts during spring break. O’Connell and other members of the Cornell Catholic Community team also have expressed a desire to assist in further hurricane recovery. “I do not want to lose what I found in Mississippi,” she said.
One of O’Connell’s findings was a deeper understanding of her Catholic faith.
“The oneness of the Catholic Church struck me, because of all the divisions I have always perceived in Southern and Northern culture. The church is the same church,” she said. “I felt more human than ever while I was there. There was nothing blocking people from helping each other.”
Nwokoh, also, came away from Mississippi enlightened.
“I learned so much from the trip, as it helped to strengthen my faith in God,” Nwokoh said. “We saw a sign post with the inscription ‘Katrina was big — but God is bigger.'”