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September 21, 2005

 

 

 

Dear 2TheHeart family,  Thank you to all who donated and prayed for my trip to the Gulf Coast!  Below is my journal from this trip and as you will see, your prayers and donations made miracles happen.  I have included some pictures at the bottom.

 

 

 

"Mission to Mississippi"

by Susan Farr-Fahncke

 

 

Friday morning.  I haven't slept all night.  I'm both excited and nervous about my trip to Mississippi.  Some of my volunteers for Angels2theheart live in Gulfport and although they were able to evacuate in time, they can't get food, water or medication.  There is no way to get mail, so after lots of prayer and thought, I decided the only way to help is to physically be there and bring what they need to them.  They say you can't even get to the area where they are staying, so I plan to fly in to Jackson and drive from the north down, hoping that will be a better way in.  I know in my heart that what I am about to see will be an experience like nothing else in my life.  I finish packing, take my kids to school and head for the airport. I feel good knowing many, many people are praying for my journey and for the people I am so worried about.

 

At the airport, on the news, on the plane, all anyone can talk about is Hurricane Katrina.  She has left our country in shock.  Everywhere you look in our country flags are at half mast. People on the plane are talking about the looting and the crime, how shocking it is to see people become so ugly in a time like this.  I am thinking the opposite: People are so good.  Once I decided to go out and help, the donations came in from all over the world: Canadians, British friends, Australians, and Americans alike all chipped in to help our brothers and sisters in the South.  Tears come to my eyes as I think about how kind people are.  We are all in this together. 

 

I switch planes in Atlanta and the pilot announces that almost everyone on the flight is a nurse or doctor or other volunteer going to help.  The entire plane applauds. It's a warm commraderie and unlike any other flight I've been on.

 

Friday night.  Finally I arrive in Jackson, Mississippi.  People are really friendly here and when I stop for gas a girl half my age says "Thank you, baby."  I like the south!  I head to the one motel room I was able to find in all of Mississippi.  In the morning I will shop for supplies to take to Gulfport. I call the family I am here for and learn they were able to go home.  Amid complete destruction, their home was spared! The prayers are being heard.  So tomorrow I will drive down all the way into Gulfport and see what Katrina did firsthand. I have butterflies but I know this was meant to be. 

 

Saturday morning.  I get lost twice trying to find Wal Mart in Natchez, MS.  I ask a lady walking to work and she calls me "baby" too.  She gives great directions and I am off.  I stop for my caffeine fix and gas and am told there are no more sodas available after Katrina.  They can't get supplies and the little store is half empty.  This is four and a half hours from the coast.  I can't believe how far-reaching a hurricane could be. 

 

I leave Natchez, my rental car loaded with food and supplies for my little family in Gulfport.  I had seen the night before on the local news that baby formula and diapers are desperately needed, so I loaded up on those too.  I pray that God will guide me to where the need is greatest and I will be able to provide with what I've raised. I am so humbled to be a part of this.

 

My drive is amazing.  I begin to see the damage when I hit McComb.  Gigantic trees toppled over onto houses, sunshine now pours through into the abandoned homes.  I can't believe it did that this far inland.  I see hundreds and hundred of trees along the highway, broken in half like toothpicks, their jagged edges looking tortured.  The median is strewn with light poles, tops of buildings and the huge freeway signs.  The one thing I see repeatedly is that there are virtually no signs left in southern Mississippi.  What I later learn are "love bugs", scary black and red bugs, repeatedly hit my windshield. There are thousands of them and they sound like hail.  It grosses me out, so I decide to pretend it's raining really hard.

 

After McComb, the only cars I see on the road south are like mine, loaded down with supplies.  We are all going down with the same purpose.  We wave at each other on the lonely highway, which is empty but for a few of us venturing down south.

 

I stop in Hattiesburg, one hour from Gulfport. I am so hot and thirsty.  I figure this far away from the coast, I can get water, but I am wrong. The store has no water and neither do any other stores in town.  I am beginning to appreciate simply getting a drink when I want to. I know by the end of this trip, I will appreciate a lot of things.

 

After Hattiesburg, the terrain and the sights dramatically change.  I pass caravans now, instead of single cars.  I am hurrying to make the town before curfew, otherwise I can't get in.  The caravans are Bell South trucks, going in to restore the phone lines. All the license plates say North Carolina, so they have come a long way to help.  I also pass dozens and dozens of military caravans.  It's an awesome site, the soldiers looking somber as they head into Gulfport. Rifles, helmets and humvees become a common sight. 

 

When I arrive in Gulfport, I can't believe what I'm seeing.  It's as if a giant hand has reached down and smashed whole buildings like a child's Lincoln Log village.  I pull over and take some pictures, tears clouding my vision.  There are handmade signs everywhere.  I see everything from "God Bless America" and "We will be back" to "Thanks Katrina" and "Closed for good".  People have lost everything.  I look at the people around me.  Everyone looks like they do on the news in war-torn areas of the world.  Numb, dazed, disbelieving.  I can't even imagine seeing my own hometown wiped out like this. 

 

I pull into the Kmart parking lot and wait for my little family to come and get me so I don't get lost. (again)  The parking lot is filled with hundreds of boxes, all of them loaded with clothes.  I also see makeshift stations set up, where people are donating what they can.  There are many good people here, just helping in whatever way they can.  People are picking through the boxes, holding up clothes donated to see what they can find.  The boxes are just out in the open, for anyone who needs them.  I smile.  People are good. 

 

Nell and her son, Dale arrive and I immediately feel like I've come home. They envelope me, hugging me tight and I am thrilled to see that they are okay.  I follow them through the demolished area to their home.  On the way, we drive over power lines just lying in the road.  It scares me every time I drive over one.  I pass homes and businesses on the way in shambles, again the Lincoln Log village knocked over by a careless hand. I see people working hard to clean up the mess.  You can't imagine the trash now left in Katrina's path.  But I am impressed with how hard people are already working, piles neatly in front of what used to be homes, ready to be taken away.  Utility workers are everywhere, trying to give the people back power and phone lines.  My family here is so blessed.  When I get to their house, it is intact and livable: unlike most in their neighborhood.  They have electricity, but the water isn't safe, so we use bottled water for everything.  I quickly learn that water and ice are the two most valuable commodities here.  That night we stay up until 3:30 am, talking and playing cards.  We even pray together. We share a barbeque with neighbors - everyone here is so friendly and looks after each other. I have brought a watermelon and it is a big hit - it's been a while since anyone here has had fresh fruit.

 

In the South, the art of conversation is still very much alive and I am completely happy here.  I have found a home among all the ruin in Gulfport.  It's true what they say about southern hospitality and I love it here.  We talk for hours about all the destruction.  They know so many people who have lost everything, just everything.  I think about all the members of my 2TheHeart and Angels2theheart families that were praying for this family's protection and I have no doubt that our prayers were heard and protection was given. 

 

Dale tells me an amazing story.  When he left to evacuate before the storm hit, he had to quickly pack what he could and get out.  He has a lovely yard and several angel statues decorating it.  He didn't have time to put everything away, so he laid all the angels on their sides, hoping they wouldn't get blown away.  When he returned, they were all still there, but one of them was standing upright, as if protecting his home.  I get goosebumps when he tells me this.  His home had its own guardian angel, it seems.  I decide right them to get more details later and write a story about the angel statue. 

 

Sunday dawns beautiful, sunny and hot.  I am confused and think it's either still night or overcast because the windows are boarded up.  We head out to get in the lines for water and ice and to take pictures.  We actually find a restaurant that is open!  We hurry inside and it's a frantic atmosphere, but friendly. There are just a few items available - whatever can be barbequed only.  It's crazy and fun.  We leave to see the town and I am unprepared for the depth and intensity of what Katrina has done.

 

There are makeshift stations to get ice, MRE's and water in some of the shopping center parking lots.  In some, the military is handing the supplies out, orderly, organized and compassionate. I am touched by their dedication in this heat.  People wait in their cars and the soldiers place the items in the car so nobody has to get out.  In other areas, you can go and wait in line for diapers, household items and whatever is available.  It's sort of hit and miss because it's just what people donated and the lines are really, really long and the supplies are few.  I see many tents where the volunteers who have come from all over the country are sleeping while they are here to help. It makes me tear up to see such selflessness.  I am seeing so much goodness here that they don't show on the news. People are good.

 

One disturbing thing I have seen over and over that really surprises me are handmade signs that say "You loot, we shoot".  I learn that people are not just looting businesses, but also homes.  The homes that have been evacuated have become prey for vultures in human form.  I can't believe anyone would do that, but they do.  I see a car with a sign in the window that says "No gas".  I learn that people have been stealing gas from parked cars by slamming a screwdriver in the gas tank and then catching the gas as it flows out, which they then put in their own car.  It sickens me.  Gas is another rare commodity out here, but I see some of the gas stations in town are open today, so now people can get gas.  I think about how that is another thing I take for granted.  My gas tank is always full and I never think about what a blessing that is.

 

We are now near the beach.  Every single road that leads to the beach at this point has an intimidating Humvee and soldiers posted at the top of the street.  No one is allowed further than this point.  We had heard on the local news that you can get supplies at the Wal Mart on the beach, in the parking lot.  The store is ruined, but they use the parking lot to hand out water and ice.  I want to get closer for more pictures, so we head there.  We are turned away and there are soldiers everywhere.  We later learn that they had found bodies on the roof of Wal Mart.

 

As we drive, I see American flags everywhere.  Tied to trees right outside homes that are destroyed, it surprises and touches me.  In one spot, on the other side where we aren't allowed, there is a cluster of flags and signs that say "God Bless America".  Then it hits me.  Today is September 11th.  With all that is happening, I had forgotten.  But these people, the very people who had lost everything in the hurricane, had not forgotten.  They are honoring and remembering their brothers and sisters who lost their loves, their lives and their families four years ago.  I was astounded.  We truly live in a great country.  The spirit of American people is just not breakable. We band together in time of need and we love each other and I feel so blessed to be a part of that love.

 

As I looked at all the loss, all the pain left behind after the story, I kept thinking "I have so much".  I thought about my home back in Utah, filled with laughter and love and enough of everything.  We have food, we have clean water, we have ice.  We have each other. Many families here will never again have each other.  I am homesick and miss my children painfully, but I wouldn't be anywhere else right now.  I am learning a thousand lessons and seeing a million miracles on this journey.   

 

We head back into town and see a Wal Mart that is actually open.  I am excited, as I still have some of the donation money left and I have been praying about what to do with it.  The family I'm staying with has a neighbor whose daughter has been working nonstop at a shelter.  Her own home was severely damaged, yet she has not left to go home and start her own repairs.  The need is so great that she cannot leave.  I met her mother, Julie, the night before when the menfolk (I'm so southern already!) were cooking.  I talked with Julie and now I can't stop thinking about her daughter and the stories I heard about the needs at the shelter.  The biggest need is baby items, which brings to mind my little Ian at home.  He is not quite four months old.  It KILLS me to think of him being hungry or without diapers or a blanket.  Oddly enough, I learn that soy formula is in demand more than anything.  Ian has to have soy formula.  I think of the other babies who don't have enough.  I get tears in my eyes as I imagine all the babies who are now hungry and homeless.  We go to the Wal Mart that is open and see a long line outside. That's a new one for me too.  They are letting people in thirty at a time to control theft.  We wait in line in the intense heat, but quickly it is our turn and we are in. 

 

The refrigerated and freezer shelves are all empty.  It's so strange for me to see this.  You can get clothes and things if you have cash, but you can't get perishables.  I zoom to the baby aisle so I can get what I came here for before it's gone.  I quickly pray for guidance.  I really want to get exactly what is needed the most.  Soon my cart is full.  I have soy formula, diapers, wipes, bottles, bottle scrubbers, baby cereal, baby blankets, onesies, socks and sippee cups.  I feel certain God has guided my shopping, another first that I have asked for!  We get in line behind a woman who is paying with all change.  I am seeing so many things out of the norm here; I try to soak in everything so I can write about it later.  I write this story in my head as I go along, hoping to remember everything.  We give the donations, along with some clothes for children I had bought earlier, and the gigantic mountain of baby things to the shelter.  I thought about all the people who made this possible and am profoundly grateful. People are good.

 

Sunday night.  My last night here.  I have seen some things that I will never forget and met some people that will always be in my heart.  I have to leave in the morning and yet, I don't want to.  I miss my kids, but in this crazy, broken coastal town, I have found people who walked right into my heart and somehow felt like I was leaving home.  My family here felt like just that: my family.  Our hours of good conversation and their genuine love for each other has bonded me to them, deeply.  When I grow up, I want a marriage like Nell and her husband, Bill's.  They are so kind and caring for each other, never a cross word.  Gentle teasing abounds in this home and so much laughter my cheeks hurt.  We stay up playing cards again and talking and eventually I head to bed and ready myself for the trip back to Utah. 

 

Monday morning dawns and again I am tricked by the boarded up windows, or "winders" as they call them here.  I smile at all the new terms I have learned and wonder if I can talk like a Northerner again once I get home.  I hear the family stirring in the other room and hurry to get ready so I have a few precious hours with them.  Buddy the dog entertains us with his singing as Pop (Bill) plays the harmonica and I wonder if I can fit Buddy in my suitcase.  I'd like to take them all home with me.

 

We say our goodbyes, take some pictures and the tears are flowing with Nell and me.  She is "Mama" to me now and I can't bear to leave her.  I have never met anyone so openhearted as these people.  I love them dearly.  One last hug and I am on the road.  I cry all the way to Hattiesburg.

 

My trip to Mississippi was more than just a trip.  It started out as a mission, but I was the one who was blessed by it.  The people in Mississippi touched my heart like no other and the family I went to help showed me such great love that I still feel embraced by them, a week later.  The images of the shredded homes and churches, businesses and buildings will forever be carved upon my heart. So will the tremendous spirit of the Mississippi people.  I know that it will take a long, long time for Mississippi to rise again, and I plan to go back.  The work has just begun and the thousands of families who no longer have enough will still need our help in the months to come.  I can't wait to go again and I know I will have even more people to write about, more stories to tell and more miracles to witness.

 

 

Susan Farr-Fahncke  copyright 2005

editor@2theheart.com

 

 

    Making a difference, one story at a time!