Saturday, March 24, 2007

Letter to the editor: Mississippi resident commends BonaResponds for help in time of need - Opinion

Letter to the editor: Mississippi resident commends BonaResponds for help in time of need - Opinion:
"...students of St. Bonaventure University, supported by other university representatives, spent three days of their midterm break working on my property in Mississippi. Words cannot express what their efforts meant to me and to my community.

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina, Long Beach remains devastated by its losses. Although we have worked steadily at rebuilding, the undertaking is so enormous that our resources - financial, emotional and spiritual - are sometimes exhausted by the effort.

When a group like BonaResponds comes in fresh, diligent, compassionate and giving, their gift goes far beyond their immediate labors, which in this case were substantial. They accomplished more than I would have thought possible in three days - gutting, sheet-rocking, sawing and removing huge trees and listening to our sad stories. More importantly, they gave us the strength to carry on.

In carrying their sense of community so far from their homes, they not only helped to rebuild an uninsured home for a needy woman displaced by the storm, but also embraced all of us with their faith and optimism.

We will be forever grateful for their contribution and to your university for supporting them in it"

Friday, March 23, 2007

St. Bonaventure University: BonaResponds returns to the south - with a stop in Enterprise, Ala.

St. Bonaventure University: BonaResponds returns to the south - with a stop in Enterprise, Ala.:
"BonaResponds returned to the south during St. Bonaventure University’s midterm break with 60 volunteers, aiding tornado victims in Enterprise, Ala., and rebuilding the Gulf Coast, which continues to suffer 19 months after Hurricane Katrina.

At 5 p.m. on March 2, BonaResponds participants boarded a bus and arrived in Enterprise 21 hours later. As first responders to the tornado crisis, the army of brown removed debris from houses and properties, cut and hauled trees, cleaned the neighborhood and spoke with residents."

St. Bonaventure University: Buffalo organization thanks BonaResponds for post-snowstorm help

St. Bonaventure University: Buffalo organization thanks BonaResponds for post-snowstorm help:
"ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y., March 16, 2007 - The Insurance Women of Buffalo, Inc. awarded BonaResponds with its Buffalo Safety Award for the group’s work in Buffalo after the October 2006 snowstorm."

Want to change the world? - Today Books: Miscellaneous -

The Handson book is ok but not as good as the volunteering ;)

Want to change the world? - Today Books: Miscellaneous - "
Volunteering is a great way to meet new people, but it’s also a great way to spend time with people that are important to you. Many volunteer opportunities are family friendly, or ideal for groups – so what better way to spend time together than by giving back?"

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A reflection on some of our work

The following is a part of a longer piece by Dr. Bob Titlzer a tireless volunteer from Minnesota who has made about twenty trips to the Gulf and who is on our Board of Advisers. This excerpt is from a longer piece (posted in its entirety here) that deals with a home that some of our volunteers worked on with him. (I did only minor editing--breaking it into paragraphs)

"MARCH 5th: Twelve recruits and I arrived at Roy's place on a temperate, sunny, windless spring day. Yes, spring has already come to the Jordan River Bayou in Bay St. Louis, and there are flowers on some trees and shrubs. The recruits come on faith. I am trusted to bring them to a place where a needy and worthy survivor of Katrina will be helped by their willing hearts and willing hands.

Youth, energy, maturity, compassion, and sheer muscle will all be necessary to reach our goal : brighten Ray's outlook for the future. That is not, of course, exactly what I told these recruits when I petitioned them to participate, but I believe they will understand after they have met and worked alongside Roy, and heard his story , from the "horse's mouth", straight.

Y'all might recall my telling of Roy's plight and physical disabilities in prior letters, I won't repeat the details. Suffice it to say that a series of health setbacks, forced early retirement, and 35 feet of Katrina's seawater surge have forever altered his, his wife's and his sister-in-law's future.

This Wednesday, the remnants of the many machines, equipment, motors, pumps, tanks, boats, dock and deck which Roy planned to rehabilitate, repair, clean up or overhaul, lie like so much flotsam and jetsome of the tide, scattered over and around the property. A hundred or more volunteers have come and gone in the past 18 months, and have cleaned, repaired and reconstructed his home on stilts, and made it liveable for this family of three - all of them disabled. Today, we 13 volunteers, have come to clean and straighten up the yard, and hopefully, to bring a little more clarity and joy back into Roy's life.

Those who have not "walked in his shoes" will give this place a once over glance and quickly judge the owner to be a "junk collector" and his property " a blight on the neighborhood". Even among the chosen 12, there are already murmurs of "what are we doing here, wasting our time ?". In six arduous hours of pulling, dragging, carrying, shifting, lifting, triaging, rearranging, and , yes, trashing somethings as well, the question posed gets answered. Not by the manual labor itself, but by taking individual breaks, standing or sitting next to Roy in his wheelchair/scooter as he admires the hard work going on around him, and listening.

Roy is a great storyteller - speaking the truth behind the facts of his difficult, but bravely faced life - and engaging the listener(s). Reluctantly, he also hints at the wrenching feeling he must process as he watches, and tacitly agrees to, the rearranging and /or trashing of his dream projects in the yard. I am impressed by the determined, yet gentle way in which most of the 12 recruits convince Roy that what we are doing here today is in his, and his family's, best interests. This requires a giant leap of faith, and trust, and the ability to accept the losses, and move on. It has not been fun for Roy to look everyday for 18 months at the brokenness of his immediate environment, and still be willing to get up out of bed the next day and do what little he could endure, to "fix it up" and make things a little better.

Without the help of hundreds of strangers with their willing hearts and hands, Roy would have succumbed to exasperation and despair. But what has happened, and is happening right now, is, in Roy's own words of gratitude "an inspiration and encouragement to go on".

At the end of the day, all of the chosen 12, even the skeptics who wanted to put "everything in the trash heap and not save a damn thing that will just have to be moved another time", in their tired and aching bodies, covered with grimy dirt, walking to their van in mud covered shoes, sipping the last bottle of water, each one turned aside to find Roy one more time, up in the house, sitting with his grandson. They entered, one by one, not to say, "Goodbye, we are leaving now" , but to thank Roy for the privilege of being here to help , and to wish him happiness in the months ahead. It is not the first time I have seen tears in Roy's eyes, and I am sure it will not be the last time I see tears in ours. Now they will go and tell others in their volunteer group just exactly "what we were doing here today, [not] wasting our time"."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Volunteer reflects on relief efforts - Opinion

Volunteer reflects on relief efforts - Opinion:
"As we came closer to the epicenter, our presence had a dramatic, palpable effect on everyone we passed. People were taking pictures, shooting video, pointing and waving as they gave a furtive Sign of the Cross at the sight of the Brown and Gold. Our warm reception was chilled when we turned the corner to see the stage of CNN's Tragedy of the Week for ourselves. What had been mere pictures in the paper and sound bites on TV was now painfully real.

There were times in both Alabama and Mississippi when I felt overwhelmed; I'm sure I wasn't alone. I was just one person, and coming face-to-face with my limitations as a human being was frustrating. But then I talk to the people we've helped and see their faces, the look in their eyes of sheer gratitude, and realize even if we haven't moved mountains, just being there was enough."

More help is needed at Gulf Coast - Opinion

More help is needed at Gulf Coast - Opinion:
"I never envisioned that I would find myself walking the streets of Enterprise, amid the wreckage of a tornado, or living in Mississippi, meeting new people and building houses along the beach. I definitely never thought I'd see New Orleans.

During break, I got to do all of these things. A spur-of-the-moment decision allowed me to join BonaResponds for a trip to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, with a little side-trip on the way."

Bona community helps disaster victims rebuild - News

Bona community helps disaster victims rebuild - News:
"In the wake of a tornado in Enterprise Ala., 47 students who had planned to participate in hurricane relief efforts over midterm break changed their agenda.

The students, members of BonaResponds, had been planning to help rebuild infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina when the tornado hit Enterprise March 1. Plans for the relief team were altered."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

BonaResponds Spring 2007 - a photoset on Flickr

BonaResponds Spring 2007 - a photoset on Flickr--
Many new pictures up...still from Enterprise...hopefully tomorrow I can stat uploading pics from MS.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Open letter to BonaResponders

This is from me to all BonaResponders. It is actually a direct copy of what I sent to those on the last trip, but since it applies to everyone, I will make it available to all:

Hi Everyone (and James),
First and most importantly I wanted to personally thank you for the great trip! It exceeded my high expectations in almost every way. So thank you all for your efforts.
As I said on the bus, please stay active in BonaResponds. Remember that we are much more than just going to the Gulf. In our fall newsletter ( we laid out our goal of being a world class organization:
"..develop BonaResponds into a world-class organization to help people and to build better leaders and better communities "---
We will need more leaders and more help to reach these goals. I have no doubt that we will all step up to achieve this. Already Emily and Jason (both new to BonaResponds) are helping to generate publicity and sending out press releases, Anthony is revamping the website, and many others have come forward with great ideas how we can do even more.
So, please be active. If you see a better way to do things, let us know.
To stay in touch with coverage of BonaResponds (and also more essays on our trip) remember to check out Hundreds of pictures of our trip are already available (and more to come) at
Also remember we are trying to put together a book and video on BonaResponds. To do this we need more pictures and more essays/reflection pieces!
Please turn your digital photos (on CD). You can either put them in my mailbox (in Murphy) or give them to Anthony. (Anthony will make all the photos available to others (including the pictures that Bob gave us at Bible Fellowship of immediately after the storm). Remember most people do not have facebook and uploading them there is not enough! SO PLEASE TURN IN PHOTOS :) Thanks!!
Relection pieces/essays can be on pretty much anything from why you decided to go on the trip, to what you did on the trip, to what it meant to you, to a specific event, to what you felt it meant to the people we were helping. They should be submitted electronically. (If things go as planned they will be put on the Blog and the best will be included in the book).
I realize you are all busy, but the sooner we get this the better the book will be! So please find some time for this! :)
And finally some upcoming BonaRespond events:
(dates are somewhat tentative)
  1. Fundraising--we will be selling sweatshirts and other merchandise. Stay tuned.
  2. Local service day/BBQ --we have been asked to do some work on the trails that we worked on in the fall, around campus and others sites. (April 21) (Stay tuned)
  3. There is talk of a BonaResponds relay team for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
  4. The May Gulf trip is almost a definite go. The dates depend somewhat on the when the sites can take us. Probably third week in May. Stay Tuned.
  5. Some from the trip want to do small local service days. I am 100% in favor of this. If you need help from BR or me, please let me/us know.

We need leaders for all of these projects as well as for the book and many other things, so PLEASE step up and help!


Monday, March 12, 2007

Some Media Coverage of the BonaResponds trip

I still have my own recap to do (I hate it when school gets in the way!) but Charlie and his parents really helped out and found some coverage that we have received for our trip. (interestingly not from local papers!)

A great video from Channel One of some of our work in Alabama (it is about 4-5 minutes in)

News Story from the Montgomery Advertiser and photos (click through to "next"...several are of BonaResponds!)

thanks Charlie and Charlie Parents!! :)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Last day reflections

We leave tomorrow. I hate the last day of a trip. It is always sad. Not wanting to the trip to be done. Not wanting to face the travel. Not wanting to leave behind new friends. Not wanting to head back to the world of regular schedules, long hours, and cold weather.

But at the same point you are anxious to get back to family and friends, hopeful that the weather will improve ushering in a new spring full of hope and anticipation. Similarly, planning on future service projects and trips has already started so stay tuned!


Today was an easy work day (or no work depending on what site you were at) when we toured the area and then went to New Orleans.

By far my favorite part of today (Friday) was when the various teams talked about what they did this week. The sites and the work they did this week. And the people whom they helped. The short version? It was a great week, much work got done, and many people were helped. But it is important to remember that much work still needs to be done. Take our tour of New Orleans. It was sad, and a stark reminder of how much work that needed to be done, to see so many FEMA trailers and closed stores now about 19 months after the storm.


Saturday is a travel day so it is unlikely I will have time to blog, but look for more updates early in the week.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Pictures from Enterprise AL

Finally got around to uploading some more pictures of Enterprise Alabama.

The Nerals--lending a hand and giving some hope

The Nerals

One thing that is very different on this spring break trip than on last year’s spring break trip is the length of time a job takes. In the early months after the storm the jobs by their very nature often were short. For instance, gutting a house in Biloxi (where there was little or no mud to content with) might only take a few hours to a day for a crew. The downside of this was that for short term volunteers it was difficult to really get to know who they were helping.

That has changed dramatically this year. Jobs have grown longer (what takes only minutes to pull down can take days to cut, hang, mud, and paint). The bad side of this is that it takes longer to get jobs done. The good side of this is that volunteers get to know those who they are helping.

A perfect example is the Neral family with whom the BonaResponders staying at the Bible Fellowship camp worked with for the entire week. The Nerals (Gabe, Jillian, Alex (age 11), Anne (age 10), and Ashley (age 8)) live about 50 miles N of Gulfport. Living that far from the coast the Nerals and their neighbors felt they had nothing to worry about from a hurricane, but that changed when Katrina ed when Katrina spun off a tornado that touched down and damaged many homes in the area. The Nerals were one of the worst hit families as their trailer was damaged and their property lost many trees. The family, which was never monetarily well-to do, was pushed to the breaking point. But relying on friends and extended family members, the family began to rebuild in May 2005.

Then the real bad news hit. It all started harmlessly enough. Gabe offered to donate blood. The regular screening practices determined that he was HIV +. Within three weeks we was diagnosed as having AIDS. This pushed the family past the breaking point. However, unlike most in such a horrible situation, the Nerals did not break. They maintained their positive attitude and good nature.

In an effort to help, County health officials notified volunteer agencies of the Neral’s plight.

Which takes us to this week. Faced with finding work for a largely unskilled work force, Bob, at the Bible Fellowship Church in Pass Christian accepted the job. And lucky for BonaResponds he did! The Nerals and the BonaRespond volunteers were a great match and each side make fast friends.

In the course of a week tiles were laid in five rooms, ceilings were placed and mudded in three bed rooms and a long hall way. But more importantly each side became true friends with the other.

So much so that every day Jillian made food for all of the volunteers and the children came to know us all and the children and grandfather gave wild life tours of their property to see the Goats, Pigs, Horses, and chicken residing in various corners of the yard. As the week wore on, these tours and impromptu lessons (for instance today the grandfather told us how to determine if certain color bees could sting or where to fish locally) became more and more common.

Today as the work came to an end and it became apparent that we had to leave, the family gave us an outpouring of appreciation unrivaled in both duration and intensity. They cried. They hugged us. They asked us to write our names on their shirts and their walls. They wrote down our addresses and phone numbers. They invited us back (and even arranged transportation and lodging) and they cried. Both because they were happy with how much better their house looked and because they were truly sad to see us leave.

The Nerals have a long and difficult road ahead of them. Not only do they have to finish rebuilding their homes, but they have to do so without good jobs and with the pallor of Aids hanging heavy over their every decision. We did not solve their problems, but we helped the family and for a few hours every day we helped them have hope. You can do the same. Volunteer.

[all names are fictional but the story is 100% true]

At tonight’s dinner meeting we decided that we would like to continue to help the Nerals. Gabe told one of the volunteers that the family can not afford a dryer. We’d like to donate one to him. If you want to help organize (or pay for this) please contact us at

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Shrimp, Smores, and Card Games

Shrimp, bonfires, and card games

I hate being predictable. So rather than tell you about how hard people worked today. How we laid tiles, hung sheet rock, and mudded ceilings. How we cleaned debris, refurbished homes, and installed insulation, I will tell you about something else. I will tell you about the fun we had today. To listen to a volunteer crew at almost any site one would think the people hated each other. It is almost constant bickering about who made a mistake or who is slow. Or who ate the last sandwich. Or picked the wrong radio station. But it is all good natured ribbing. If the truth be known, it is really fun and the people really do like each other. It is true from the days after the Hurricane to after the storm in Buffalo, to after the recent tornado in Enterprise.

But that is in the field. What about afterwards?

Much volunteer work is hard and often stressful, so being able to burn off steam is important. Take today’s BonaResponds’ events for instance. After work, the two teams from Pass Christian (Bible Fellowship and Randy’s) got together for what is rapidly becoming a tradition: the Shrimp Boil at Kimball’s. It was again a huge success as we got to enjoy good company, catch up with what is going on at the other site all while getting to partake in local cuisine while also helping the local economy.

After that the teams got together for a bonfire at Randy’s camp where we toasted marshmallows and again talked about how much work was getting done and how much everyone liked being here.

And then the teams retreated to their respective camps for sleep. But if our site was any indication, the fun did not stop there. Instead, we made pizza and played what very well may be called the second loudest card game in the history of the world while until late into the night (early morning) and all while making plans to arise early to see the sun rise on the Gulf before getting to work.

And to that end, I better get to sleep.

From Anna at Bible Faith Fellowship Church

Anna wrote other interesting article on what has been happening on our trip.

March 6, 2007

Well, today we continued dry-walling and tiling the Neral's house. Most of the guys and Laura worked in the back bedroom putting up sheet rock for the ceiling. I'd like to learn how to do that, but I'm pretty slow at learning these sort of things, so I think I'll wait until I decide I have the patience to do that. I started out putting down tiles today in one of the bathrooms but later moved to stapling the insulation to the rafters in the kitchen.

The day began with a bit of an emergency, as no one could figure out the number for an immediate treatment center. Christina's eye had swollen shut, so it was unlikely she would be doing much work until that was taken care of. As that was being sorted out, the rest of us got down to work at the house.

Carrie and I had to put down the "goop" on part of the cement floor in the living room to make it more level. Gabe and his family have had to build their house after he's done working, and it's new in some areas for them, too. There are only minor flaws with the floor, though; the uneven patches can be fixed with some extra goop smoothed over them. Goop is what we're calling the preset stuff that the tiles stick to. It looks like light gray frosting but smells like paint. Once it dries, we can put on another layer to stick the tiles to in the living room. Putting it on the floor isn't my favorite job, but it's not too difficult and it'll make tiling much easier. We finished that and took a lunch break. Jillian made us fried pork chops, cinnamon cake, brownies, grape Koolaid and venison for lunch. I didn't try the venison but the pork chops were delicious. I better remember to tell my mom to fry them sometime; they taste better than regular old grilled pork chops. The cake and brownies hit the spot as well. We're a bit spoiled with all the food. After that, Sally and I started laying down tiles in one of the bathrooms. It's a lot of fun, but we almost tiled ourselves into a corner. When tiling, it's always good to have an escape route.

Laying down tiles starts to kill your knees as time passes, so I switched over to insulating the ceiling. Melissa and I stood on a table and stuck the insulation sheets into the roof rafters and stapled them. It's a nice change from kneeling on cement for long periods of time, but there are drawbacks to it as well. The main one is the insulation itself. Despite looking like pink cotton candy attached to brown paper, it is in reality fiber glass. And it is extremely itchy if it touches your skin, so you're almost required to wear long pants and shirts. I had a hoodie, jeans, a hat, work gloves and a face mask on to keep the insulation off me. I quickly learned that breathing in the insulation is not a good idea unless you want a tickly feeling in your throat all day. My biggest fear was getting it in my eyes; I didn't want to be the next person in our group with an eye problem. When we finally finished, we were both sweating, but now the kitchen will be ready to be dry-walled tomorrow.

It was a long day and I'm glad Laura grilled chicken. We had quite an enjoyable dinner as a group and more brownies were made. In no way have we suffered this entire trip in terms of meals. I tried to explain how to play rummy to Sally after dinner, but since I don't know all the rules either, it didn't work out very well until other people jumped in and took over.

Jim, Tim and Ray arrived a little later from Alabama. Most of our group decided to hit the hay around 11:30, but I stayed up with Laura for a while near the bonfire she made with the North Carolina people. They're leaving in the morning, so they have the benefit of sleeping in. It turns out they've watched most of the same shows as us growing up and they have many of the same jokes. I guess some culture is universal. Anyway, I wisely decided to not stay up too much later than 12:30, so I'll be heading to bed now. It's been another day of acquiring more useful homemaker skills that my mom will exploit the moment I get back. I hope tomorrow I end up dry-walling.

Anne Dlugosz

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A look around, what is happening at each site

We are doing something a bit different today. I have asked someone at each of our sites to contribute some of their thoughts on how the week is going.

In a nutshell, so far so amazing!

(the reports are below)

A look around at all of our camps--Bay St, Louis

The good people at our Bay St. Louis site give us a few looks at what the week has been like:

Here goes: (never got a report from Josh's group, which is a shame, since it was a pretty horrific gut job)

Patrick's Team

Recently, SOAR (St. Rose Outreach and Recovery) has begun to change the focus of their efforts to completing reconstruction on houses so that residents can finally return “home.” For our first 2 days in Bay St. Louis, our team has had the privilege of working on the first home that will have been completed “from the studs on up” by SOAR volunteers.

The home is owned by a woman [we think her name is Liz], who suffers from severe arthritis. 554 days after Katina struck, her neighborhood is struggling to recover. Many lots are still uninhabitable, and piles of debris remain on the side of the road. One of the empty lots on her street serves as a depot for returned FEMA trailers.

On our first day, Patrick, Tom, Jen, and Jerry were joined by Grand Rapids residents Chelsea and her mother and SOAR team leader Nicole. The work on that day consisted of sanding drywall and applying quite a bit of mud.

The second day we lost Chelsea, who unfortunately was the best mudder of us all. Most of that day was spent sanding 80% the mud that we applied the day before, as well as putting up a few new sheets of drywall. Finding drywalling to be a lot harder than it looks, we decided to take a break by doing something relatively simple, so we helped out some other SOAR volunteers by picking up their van out of the ditch using our bare hands. Seriously, we really did that. [And regardless of what he says, Patrick DID NOT do this by himself.]

Tomorrow, of course, we will begin by sanding off most of Tuesdays efforts, and hopefully apply the last layer of mud. After we fix that, we hope to prime. Like I said, we hope.

Margaret's Team

Annette's House
Annette is a elderly woman who lives alone. It's a small house with one bath, 4 rooms and kitchen. According to Annette, she wasn't affected by flooding she was affected by, “falling water”, which I'm taking to mean 'rain'.

The first day Chantal and Br. Joe worked on touch-up paint indoors Agnus and I worked on scraping paint from a windowsill and ceiling on the porch of her house.

The second day we had a larger crew of 8, including our site leader Joe. Five of us worked on scraping the tar off of two wooden floors while paint was scraped again on the porch. Primer pain was put on the window frame and ceiling. After lunch we began scrubbing the walls and wood frames, there was a lot of dust and dirt built up on these textured walls. Paint scraping will continue tomorrow and I keep eying a pile of trash in the back yard of Annette's pile that I'm itching to take care of.

A look at all of our camps--Enterprise Alabama

Enterprise Alabama—By Jim

Today we switched parts of town. We moved from the area immediately adjacent to the Enterprise High to the Baptist Hills region to the West of town. On three different occasions over the past two days I have had people come up to me and suggest we go to this area as it is the poorer section of town and was not only very hard hit but largely forgotten. So today we did. And “they” were right. Wow, it was bad.

The houses here were all smaller but many had been completely destroyed with roofs blown off, windows broken, and trees and wires down everywhere you looked. It was bad. Really bad.

Working with Persevere Volunteers we came to the job site and I almost laughed. There was no way we could clear it. There were at least 15-20 trees down in the now shared (the fences had been smashed by falling trees). And these were not small ornamentals! They were HUGE! Indeed one was at least 10 feet in diameter and was estimated to have gone through the Civil War. But even more than the HUGE tree, was the sheer magnitude of the work. There was just so much to do! It was surely impossible.

But with the help of a tractor, some local volunteers, and a much needed tractor, BonaResponds and Persevere succeeded in moving most of the downed trees and brush around the yards. The yards still need a part of another day, but the improvement was simply remarkable.

Again the crew was phenomenal: they did not even stop for lunch and never once complained. To a person they worked incredibly hard. How hard, in a futile effort to keep up, I even worked! In fact, it was probably the most physically demanding day of tree removal I have ever done!

At the end of the work day, we physically left Enterprise. To a person we wish we could stay and do more, but it is time to go to Mississippi. So we drove to Pass Christian where we separated into our assigned teams. For the time we spent in Alabama, I have only great things got say, I expect hard work for BonaResponders and this group may have raised the bar.


oh and here are more pictures!

A look around at all the camps-Randy's Rangers

We will try something a bit different today, each site submitted their own reports on who the work is going. We'll start off with A report from Randy's by Emily:

Emily – After responding to the disaster in Alabama, I assumed Mississippi would be nearly the same. As an early responder in Alabama, I witnessed the utter devastation and destruction the tornado left behind. Whole trees ripped from the ground, roots included, with green splattered all over the neighborhood decorated Enterprise, Ala. -- the lush scenery was still apparent of what had been.

The community pulled itself together; each neighbor helping the other remove debris or save what was left from a house that was once a home. Neighbors drove around continuously all day, offering food and water to workers and volunteers. Southern hospitality certainly shone through the darkness of the disaster.

The scene is quite different in Pass Christian, Miss. More than a year and a half later, the scene in Mississippi is quite bleak. As I look up and down the street here at Randy’s Rangers, everything simply looks dead. The greenery is far and few – a rare find. Trees are resting anywhere and everywhere, twisted and turned, brittle and unmoved since Katrina winds and water knocked them down. I can see only the naked foundations of houses and nothing else.

Some home owners have moved into trailers, in hopes of rebuilding their homes, which is where we come in. There are no neighbors driving around. It just seems deserted. It’s depressing and I feel for the people who once inhabited these houses, many of which are now up for sale. I wonder who lived here – were they married, did they have kids, did anyone die in the storm, etc.? All that is left are the empty shells of these residents. It seems like the situation is hopeless; how can 20 college kids make a difference? As the days go on, I begin to slowly understand how much we do matter when someone thanks us or emails a school official out of gratitude. It will continue to be a slow process. I only hope that the rest of the nation will realize that a year and a half later, Mississippi still needs help—the disaster is not over, yet and so many people are reliving it everyday when they step outside their trailer door and look out to nothing where their homes once stood.

A look at all of our sites

Note: this is by a student on the first days of the trip. Enjoy!

March 3, 2007

It's the first day on the Alabama site. Our original plans were to be in Mississippi Saturday afternoon and tour the sites. Sunday we were going to spend in New Orleans. A last minute change, however, has led to us arriving in Enterprise, Alabama today to help with the tornado cleanup. The town was hit with an F3 hurricane Thursday, which killed eight students at the local high school when the roof collapsed in one wing. We dropped our stuff off at the Coffee Bible Vineyard, a retreat sort of place which is going to accommodate us until tomorrow, and arrived on site around 2:40 PM. The National Guard is here, and they give an imposing presence to the area, standing in groups near the school with their guns out. We heard that President Bush was at the school only hours earlier and he spoke with the families of the deceased students.

We walked from the high school (actually, the church next to the school) into the neighborhood where houses and yards had been hit. It seems that the school is off limits, probably because the roof is unstable. The tornado's damage was pretty erratic. Some cars in the parking lot are fine, others have one or two windows blown out, and others are completely totaled. It is the same with houses. The houses on the same street as the school seem to only have minor damage, but as we turned onto Clover Street, we could see houses with trees lying on top of them. Broken branches and fallen trees cover various yards. We could even see some sort of metal object stuck in the uppermost branches of one tree lucky enough to still be standing. Power lines are down all over, but I guess the electricity in this area is shut off, so there are no electrocution worries. We then started to split off into smaller groups to help whatever houses needed it. I went to one house on top of a hill that was right next to a graveyard. Already, the more fortunate neighbors not hit by the twister are helping out by working on roofs and cutting up large branches. We introduced ourselves to the older couple that lived there, explained what who we were, and immediately started moving debris in their yard. The easiest solution for the time being was to move branches, boards and other garbage into piles. It's amazing how much timber and random objects are littered all over the ground. We've found everything from wills, decade-old checks, bills, empty pill bottles and tools scattered over the yard. Numerous tombstones have been knocked over as well. The piles grow fast, and it's heartening to see the progress. Our small group eventually ended up cleaning up three or four different yards along with the cemetery.

People in Enterprise are extremely nice. Upon telling anyone one of them that we are from New York elicits a startled exclamation of surprise. Many of them find it hard to believe that we came all the way down here. A sizeable number also seem to assume we all hail from the Big Apple. Despite the natural disaster they just suffered, they are all quite grateful to see us and offer food and water at any possible opportunity. And their stories are astounding. A husband and wife whose house escaped damage told some of us how it only took about fifteen seconds for the tornado to sweep through and wreck havoc. The husband could see it from the hospital where he was at during the storm, and he described how one half of the sky was bright and sunny, and the other half was dark black. I can't imagine how helpless I'd feel seeing a tornado ripping apart my neighborhood in less than a minute. They told us that the view of the high school we had from the hill was a new one; previously, tall pine trees had completely obscured the horizon. The wife then told us how owners of a puppy daycare had left the dogs outside and sought shelter indoors during the tornado. The dogs were found dead around the elementary school miles away. I hope the grade-schoolers didn't see that; I think I'd be traumatized even now if I saw dead dogs strewn over the ground.

We left the neighborhood as it turned to evening; it's been a long day of work and riding in a bus. I think everyone is looking forward to bed and a hot shower, as well as some dinner. There's also a dawn to dusk curfew in effect, so there's not much else we can do until tomorrow. I'm looking forward to going back to the neighborhood so much that I almost wish we could wait to go to Mississippi; clearing the trees out gives me a sense of accomplishment and the people are so welcoming. They told one person in our group that to see us come walking down the streets in kind of parade of brown Bonaresponds shirts gave them hope. It'll be interesting to see what work we do tomorrow.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Just a quick update

I will try to write more later (or tomorrow)--there are just not enough hours in the day. Rather than writing, I spent most of my "free" time uploading pictures. So this will be short.

I have quick reports from all sites today:

Our team in Enterprise continued to work on tree removal. We finished two houses (which does not sound like much but in reality was a huge accomplishment), cleared a side walk, and finished up the work Bill and Paul did on a house.

Random notes from Enterprise:

* There were probably 1/10th the number of volunteers working today (Monday) then over the weekend. It was so quiet and depressing that I think it took a while to get into the swing of things.
* Many, if not all, of the cars in the high school lot were removed today on a seemingly endless convoy of trucks.
*We cleaned debris, tore down a damaged shed, cut and hauled trees, and had lunch at the same family as yesterday. It thus saddened us even more when at the end pf the day we were there when the insurance agent and contractor gave them the verdict of "condemned" to their home of over 40 years.
* Want to be proud of SBU students? On their own as we walked to our final job of the day they saw several large branches hanging to the ground and completely blocking the side walk along Main St. Without any leader urging, they said lets fix this. And they did, 20 minutes later the sidewalk was passable and the branches were piled aside the newly reopened thoroughfare.
* There was a private memorial service tonight at the church across from the High School. It seemed just not right to see so many students with arms in slings, on crutches, or being pushed in wheelchairs.

--from Bay St. Louis.
* Jerry, Margaret, Josh, and Patrick are the site leaders and I was told they all worked very hard today and actually some groups finished their dry-walling early.

--from Randy's Rangers in Pass Christian
* Several jobs from finishing detail work, to cutting trees was done. By all reports things went very well.

From Bible Fellowship in Pass Christian
* after a long drive, the majority of the people hung drywall for a family who is struggling with the double whamy of a serious disease and recovering from Katrina. Not surprisingly, the family needs some help.

Highlight of the day?For me a three way tie:

1. Talking to and working with the Quisenberries. Not only are they a delightful family, but they were willing to allow us to use their tools on the neighbors house and then Chip even came over and helped himself.
2. Having the group take the initiative to clear the sidewalks along Main Street of several large branches.
3. While we cleared the branches from the sidewalk, a women drove by, rolled down her window and asked if we were the group down frown New York State. When told we were she started "cheering" and said "Thanks -It means so much to so many"

I couldn't have agreed more.

Ant Hill

BonaResponds was all over the place today. One of the benefits of having such a large group of volunteers is that we can split up and work on many sites at once. While the optimal number of volunteers varies by both people and job, it is generally between 6-12.  

Some agencies like, indeed seemingly crave structure and hierarchy, BonaResponds does not. In fact few things with BonaResponds are structured in the traditional sense and team creation is no exception. So as we walked into the disaster area today, we broke into groups of various sizes and began work at homes throughout the neighborhood bordering the Enterprise High School.

The job I stopped at happened to be immediately across from the high school. The house suffered some relatively minor damage to the roof, but there were many branches down around the house and on the back shed. The residents and some family and friends were already working on the yard when we walked up and offered our services.

Working with the residents always makes the work more fun and this was no exception. In quick fashion the group picked up the downed branches and hauled them to the front yard where an excavator with a giant claw will lift it into waiting trucks to haul it away. There was however one major task to tackle, the back yard also had a shed with the parts of three trees across the roof. This was going to be a big job, but due to the tight proximity to two fences and the patience needed to carefully remove trees, it was a job that only a few people could efficiently do. Thus, rather than stand waiting for branches to be cut, the team separated further and only two (Anthony and I) stayed and the others went to work on other jobs further into the disaster region. Effective team size 2.

Taking the trees off the shed turned out to be a longer job than expected (or I was more incompetent than people give me credit for). Climbing trees is however one of the few things I can do reasonably well so we tried to attack the three trees from the above. Unfortunately, I again showed my ineptitude and after several attempts yielded the floor (or more appropriately roof) to Joe, the son of the homeowner. Of course he succeeded in a matter of minutes and the shed was cleared. Hauling out the branches provided an opportunity to talk get to know the homeowners who were remarkably nice people who graciously invited us back for dinner. 

After the house was done, Anthony and I walked taking pictures looking for other BonaRespond team members. And did we ever find them!! They were everywhere!

Have you ever stopped and watched an ant hill? Ants are amazing. They all work together but apart. Apparently without communication the ants all work in unison. They keep busy going to and fro, carrying things larger than they are, and pretty soon they have moved a huge pile of dirt and debris and created a home.

Why the sudden interest in ants? Because as Anthony and I walked down the hill towards Reese Street and looked ahead all that I could imagine was what we were looking down on a giant ant hill. I had to stop to take it all in. 

Laid out ahead of us there were people dressed in brown t-shirts seemingly everywhere. All of the other BonaRespond volunteers had, without any order being given, congregated in the midst of the worst hit area of the neighborhood. People in brown shirts scurrying up and down the slopes, people in brown shirts rolling tree trunks down hills, people in brown shirts dragging branches to the curb, people in brown shirts stooping to pick up debris, and people in brown shirts lifting spirits everywhere.  
A quick count showed that there were about 40 (or a possible 47) within a quarter mile area.
The largest contingent of these worker ants was at two houses next to each other on Reese street. It was a huge job. At these two homes alone there were over 20 BonaRespond members, several local Church group members, a few football players from Enterprise High School, and many neighbors, friends, and family as well as some professionals with heavy equipment. It was amazing.

These lots, which had been totally covered with trees only a few hours before was being cleared. Slowly and surely it was being cleared. The land was again becoming visible. The piles out front grew in anxious anticipation of an overworked excavator that was struggling to keep up with this onslaught of human muscle and determination.

By the end of the day, the lots and lots were cleared. The warmhearted volunteer ants (people) had won.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bush Consoles Victims of Tornadoes in the South - New York Times

Bush Consoles Victims of Tornadoes in the South - New York Times:
"The president’s day began in Enterprise, Ala., where eight students were killed as a tornado on Thursday ripped apart Enterprise High School. Mr. Bush, accompanied by Mayor Kenneth Boswell and several student leaders, made his way through a destroyed wing of the school, stopping in the hallway, where raining chunks of metal and concrete cost the students their lives."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Hope amid the destruction

It happened again. Total silence. Much like the "oh my God" moment that happened in October 2005 when we crossed into the destruction zone along the coast. Today it happened on foot. We were walking into the the zone around the High School where the tornado hit.

Eight people lost their lives. The majority of whom were high school kids in the assumed safety of their school.

Seeing the destruction, I am surprised more didn't die.

Houses destroyed. Roofs blown completely off. Trees on top of roofs. Wires on the ground. Large pieces of sheet metal stuck in trees 50 feet up. Grave stones flipped over. Scores of cars with windows exploded.

National Guard troops armed with M-16s and police officers on every corner.

And into this maelstrom came a small army of 47 BonaResponds volunteers adorned in their brown shirts. Walking with mouths agape. Seeing the destruction. Seeing the damage. And then, the volunteers got to work. No, we could not do everything but we could do something. We could help haul debris, help cut trees, help pick up branches, and, most importantly, to help encourage and to help give hope.

And so we did.

As a personal aside, I have to admit that in the weeks leading up to this trip, there were days when I questioned whether the headaches, late night emails, and constant phone calls were worth it. Today I was reminded that it is. It most definitely is.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

One Path to Rebirth in New Orleans - New York Times

One Path to Rebirth in New Orleans - New York Times:
"While New Orleans haggles over a master redevelopment plan, people in some neighborhoods like Broadmoor have been rebuilding on their own. They are forming partnerships with companies, universities and nonprofit groups to help gut homes, assemble volunteers and find pumping equipment.

“I think what has happened is the government has pursued a very laissez-faire approach,” said Thomas Murphy, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “There’s been no strong redevelopment authority to date; that agency doesn’t exist.”

Rebuilding has not been easy. For those who choose to stay, sky-high insurance premiums and rising crime rates await. Insurance payouts have been slow, and a state rebuilding program has paid only a small fraction of applicants. In a city that often did not run smoothly before Katrina, some residents are growing frustrated and leaving. But others, like those in Broadmoor, refuse to go."

WireTap Magazine - New Orleans, One Year Later

One of the things we are planning on doing on this trip is to drive through parts of region to show volunteers how much work is still needed.

WireTap Magazine - New Orleans, One Year Later:
"I want as many people to come visit here as possible,' a Lower Ninth Ward resident told me as we walked past the infamous breached levees and destroyed homes of his neighborhood. 'The national media has forgotten us, the politicians in D.C. have forgotten us. I support anything to get the word out.'

Among the people of New Orleans, this sentiment is common -- the country has moved on, and if people would just come here and see, maybe they'll bring attention and consciousness."

VIdeo of NewOrleans

I know I had included this before, but this is a new group of volunteers, so if you have not seen this, I highly recommend watching it!

NOVAC - Home: "Why should New Orleans be rebuilt? NOVAC hopes to answer this question through a series of community-based short documentaries. Local filmmakers are directing the shorts that highlight the unique culture, people, and spirit that make New Orleans a city worth rebuilding.

While parts of New Orleans are alive and kicking, a short drive outside of the French Quarter or Uptown reveals neighborhoods severly damaged by the flooding. NOVAC is also producing a one-hour documentary called The Drive. "