I recently returned from Gulfport, Mississippi, a second home to this Yankee lawyer from the Midwest. I expected to find signs of Hurricane Katrina’s passage, painful but not overwhelming. What I saw was complete wreckage and abandonment. In Katrina’s shadow, an entire community is fighting for survival. With phone lines down and neighborhoods uprooted, I was anxious to locate friends and clients in the African American communities of North Gulfport and Turkey Creek – just two miles north of the 28-foot tidal surge that descended on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. This community was featured in the July/August Shelterforce, in an article aptly titled “Crossing Muddy Waters.” The story chronicled a hundred-year struggle to overcome discrimination and preserve land and affordable housing for African Americans in coastal Mississippi. And now the hurricane has, in the words of Gulfport’s mayor, “wiped the slate clean.”
Once a bustling port city filled with coastal casinos, Dixieland jazz and Baptist churches, Gulfport became a ghost town overnight, leaving the poorest communities to fend for themselves. As winds ripped away rooftops, flooding from the storm reached as high as the rafters in many homes. Without cars or anywhere to go, the elderly and others who stayed behind were rescued by neighbors using makeshift boats and inflatable mattresses. Some residents lost everything they own. Burnice Caldwell, the resident featured beside a live oak tree and an old shotgun house on the cover of Shelterforce, was able to get out of her home before it collapsed. The crooked tree is an enduring symbol of the legacy of Turkey Creek. Many of the historic Turkey Creek homes remain standing, but are now threatened by mold and contaminated water.
A month after the storm, the community’s struggle continued, as even the most basic federal disaster assistance failed to reach North Gulfport or Turkey Creek. Residents had not seen any officials from FEMA – other than a Historic Preservation Task Force – and emergency management was left to community leaders and volunteer churches and synagogues.
Rose Johnson, who grew up in segregated Gulfport and recently founded the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, rolled up her sleeves to serve hundreds of meals to residents at the neighborhood Good Deeds Community Center. Sitting by her side was 87-year-old Gaynette Pew, a fellow disaster victim who recalled how civil rights workers built the Good Deeds Center in the 1950s. It is only great upheaval, it seems, that can awaken us to the persistent racial and economic tensions that cleave our nation’s conscience.
For those like Rose Johnson and Derrick Evans, the director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives (TCCI), this was a call to action. They spent the first few weeks after the storm delivering food and housing supplies to residents in dire need. They ran operations out of Derrick’s office at TCCI, a local nonprofit established to preserve the housing and cultural heritage of this sacred place. Derrick has taken on a tremendous amount of personal debt in order to get generators, tarps and other emergency equipment into homes located within the Turkey Creek watershed. And this is only the beginning of the grassroots reconstruction effort.
My coastal traveling companion, Karen Lash, a former associate dean at the University of Southern California Law School, and I participated in a meeting at the Mount Pleasant Methodist Church with community leaders and a FEMA historic preservation team. The next day, Derrick Evans led the team on a tour of the historic neighborhood homes that survived the storm. Meanwhile, volunteers from across the country were arriving by the truckload to remove fallen trees and patch up roofs as the community braced for Hurricane Rita.
Rose Johnson and I called on the nuns from Mercy Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, to begin plans for turning Martin Luther King Boulevard into a true gateway to the North Gulfport community. On the way to meet them, we picked up disaster victims at the local farmers market to take them to the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. A police officer brusquely informed us that the site had been “temporarily closed due to the storm.” This was an enormous disappointment. Without phones or Internet access, thousands of victims in the Gulfport area cannot register for emergency benefits. Unwilling to face defeat, we dropped the victims at the nearby Red Cross shelter and hatched a plan to hold community workshops for residents on emergency assistance.
Our next project was to find Howard Page, the local photographer who took the cover photo of Burnice Caldwell. His ancestral home was destroyed by the storm and last we heard he was camping on the outskirts of town. Howard is one of so many residents who have lost their homes and livelihoods. But despite the chaos, they still carry the hope of a community restored.