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Holiday Trip Brings Thanks

  Photo of Karen Engell
  Karen Engell
(photo by Donna Cote)

Karen Engell, director of health services, and her husband Robert had a different kind of Thanksgiving this year. The Monday before the holiday, with a crew of helpers, they loaded up a 25-foot truck with donated food, household items, and clothing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Wednesday morning they left Longmeadow, heading for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. After 30 hours and 1,400 miles, they reached their destination, a volunteer-run distribution center in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a town where storm surges of 30 feet had wreaked particularly severe devastation.

Volunteers Load the Truck
Volunteers load the truck with donations.
(photo by Paul Schnaittacher)

Engell had secured loan of the truck only two weeks earlier, but her fears that she would not be able to fill it were unwarranted: a substantial, last-minute donation of food filled every last inch of space (in fact, Engell arranged to distribute the remaining items to Katrina victims who have relocated to this area). Engell and students from CAUSE went through all the donations as they came in to make sure that everything was in good condition and appropriate. She was extremely impressed by the high quality of the goods, some of which were brand new and still bearing price tags. “We had to cull out very little,” she said.

The distribution center is located where a fire station had once stood—now just a wide open space and a parking lot. Of all Engell’s memories of the trip, the group of people who helped unload the truck on Friday, a mix of races and ages, remains the most poignant. “There was no loading dock. We did it all by hand. We were a human chain of eight to ten people tossing boxes for an hour and a half. You barely got to hear people’s stories it was so busy. It was just a group of people working hard, individuals not held together by anything but a common concern.”

Engell soon learned that the distribution center is a lifeline in the community. A truck from the American Red Cross comes there every day with hot meals, fruit, juice, and canned water. The water is particularly crucial, explained Engell, because potable water is still not available. Clothing and household goods are arranged by category and size and offered in an area called “the store” (although everything is free), which also provides food to needy families. Engell was especially pleased to have had the food on board, because the center was almost completely out of food when they arrived. Engell said she was astonished that what had seemed like such an enormous amount of goods when she loaded the truck suddenly seemed like so little at the other end. “But it’s still very significant even though it feels like a drop in the bucket.”

After the truck was unloaded, one of the local volunteers took the Engells on a tour of the area. Although Engell had heard a lot about the storm’s aftermath from her brother, who lives in nearby Pascagoula and who helped coordinate the donation effort, nothing could have prepared her for the extent of the damage she witnessed. “It was pretty overwhelming, the amount of damage and debris still there,” she said. “Where there used to be houses, just roofs collapsed down to the ground, bare concrete slabs and concrete steps leading to nowhere. We saw a barge sitting in the middle of a cemetery miles from the beach. That was the degree of disruption. They are still finding bodies three months later.”

Even several miles east of Pass Christian, where the storm surges were only five to eight feet, the destruction was enormous. “We saw lots of houses with blue tarps covering the roofs. The tarps were provided by the Army Corps of Engineers along with 30-foot trailers provided by FEMA that were parked in people’s driveways,” Engell said. "A lot of the houses that were left standing have to be cleaned out down to the studs. People are living in the trailers while they rebuild their houses.”

While the blue rooftops and trailers are evidence of what FEMA has accomplished in the area, the sight of the local FEMA assistance center was a powerful reminder to Engell of FEMA’s shortcomings in the months after the storm. “There was a stark contrast between the FEMA center and the volunteer distribution center where we were,” she said. “There was this large, sturdy building with nobody going in or out. Where we were, there was a series of tents and tables linked together, and lots of activity.” At the FEMA center, Engell explained, people were required to fill out forms and show that they were from the local area. At the private distribution center, on the other hand, “people could just show up and take what they needed.”

Before the Engells headed home, the people running the Pass Christian distribution center gave them two messages for all the people who helped with the donation effort: “Everything you brought can be used,” and “Despite what you hear and see in the media, things are bad. We’re going to be here for a long time.”


On the MHC Web:

Hurricane Katrina Index

News & Events Index

Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.