Editor's Note: This is a blog of sorts, the second story in a three-part mini-series from Newswatch staffer Kerry Corum, on her recent volunteer trip to the Gulf Coast.
Dawn breaks as we survey our charge, a church missing a good portion of its roof and many, many windows. Tarred roofing material and glass litter the yard, spreading out from Mt. Bethel Baptist Church to the surrounding houses, most of which are deserted and in worse shape than the church.
The magnitude of our mission becomes apparent when I cross the street to a home with live wires stretching from the roof to the ground. This home could be saved, I think to myself, but looking at both sides of it...you can't patch a roof that isn't there. You can't close a door that's no longer on its hinges.
Right away, ladders are propped up to the church roof, plastic tarps unrolled and measured. It's barely 6:00 AM but the heat and stench are overwhelming. Sweat pools and rolls down the cheeks of our small, but determined group. Kenny Parkman, Larry Murray, Larry LaFontaine, Devita Miller, Randy Brown, Stephen Brown, Jack Nellis, Randy Fahrlander, Randy Dickenson, Roger Lehman, Steve Proctor, Vaughn Murray and I made up the 13 volunteers.
The organized and dogged determination of these people as they hang precariously from the steep roof of the sanctuary, stretching the plastic for hundreds of feet, is a sign of hope for me and any onlookers.
Below, church members pass out donations, some we brought with us, some brought in over the last three weeks. A makeshift sign is hung near the now crumpled church sign, announcing free food, clothing and supplies.
There are no cars on the streets though, no passing pedestrians and we wonder if we are reaching the people who lost everything - including their mobility. To have everything at hand and not be able to get it where it's most needed...you can imagine the frustration.
As the first church is finished, I decide it is time to see the real damage. The area that looks so remote on TV is now just around the corner and all I had seen at this point was a city that looks much like Evansville after one of our own storms. I load up my camera and with Vaughn Murray in tow, we drive toward guards with M16s, surrounded by razor-wire fencing.
We pass the checkpoint, and this pervasive feeling of touring a war zone is amplified by the HumVees, guards and police patrols. Rounding the first corner, we come to a sailboat, sails billowing from broken windows, leaning against the light-less wires once marking a major intersection of this ghost town.
My eyes tear up at the scene that summarizes the whole catastrophe, but I tell myself that crying would only make me look like a fool. This is not my home, not my city, nor is it my place to cry. These people don't need my pity - they need me to tell their story and bring help.
We trudge on, not speaking much and leaving the van behind, we dodge debris, live wires and crumpled tractor-trailers washed up from Gulf ports to this road that's located near the ocean - things you never find on a city street (picture Riverside Drive as it runs alongside the Ohio River).
We see vehicles, appearing new and relatively undamaged at first but, once submerged in a wall of water, now rendered useless upon closer inspection. We climb huge piles of debris and vehicle frames, to get a better view of this lost but not forgotten city, never fully able to take it all in no matter where we stand.
Every one who knows me, knows that I am a beach connoisseur. I have sand from every beach I've ever visited.
But not this beach.
I've never visited a beach that felt so lonely, forlorn, so far from its former majesty. My camera clicks, but the harsh reality eludes the lens, the images leave me cold and empty. I can't convey the feeling of desperation that accompanied us as we left. We had much, much work to do and so little time to do it.
The heat makes drinking water a necessity, so parched and emotionally drained, we return to our crew who are now carefully navigating through the tangled wires on a house across the street. With a sense of helplessness, we joined in to finish the task at hand, covering one roof out of thousands.
Shortly after finishing, we met another homeowner, a soldier leaving for Camp Shelby and his second tour in Iraq the next day. His wife and two children were displaced, his home flooded and full of mold and decay. Army Staff Sergeant Roy Terry didn't ask for our help - but it didn't take much discussion before work began on his home - a point of pride for our group, we were able to help a US soldier.
He was soft-spoken, I remember, 49-years-old and this not being his first hurricane, he answered my questions quietly, deliberately. Only when prompted, he told me the relief effort "came together quicker this time, than in '69" when Hurricane Camille hit. "We were without power with Camille for at least a month then, only about 12 to 13 days this time." I'll never forget Sergeant Terry and his calm, overshadowing my shock and dismay.