September 8, 2005

I will never complain about the humidity in Indiana again. The air here is heavy with wet. We sweat, drink water, and sweat some more.

On Tuesday, we pull out of Little Rock in a caravan carrying six generators, gasoline, food, chainsaws, cots, emergency supplies, and bottes and bottles of water.

We are led by Barb Jones, the regional minister of the Great River Region. Her cell phone is permanently attached to her ear. She is fielding between 500 and 800 calls and emails a day from people who want to help, people who need help, people looking for loved ones. She is amazing.

Byron and Lois Lasater drive just behind us. Byron has experience in disaster relief. Lois is a nurse. They have left their home in Ozark, Arkansas, to set up the region’s first relief center in Covington. They don’t know how long they will be here. They’re in it for the long haul.

Bringing up the rear of the caravan is Tom Kinton. He is just back from Iraq and his truck and trailor are loaded with MREs, water, and canned goods. He arrived in Little Rock on Monday, ready to go wherever he’s needed. Tom is our go-to guy. He has a song or a joke for every occasion. He also has a gun. We are glad he’s with us.

In Mobile we stop for dinner with a group of Disciples pastors. Some are still without electricity and hot water. They share stories of the storm and worries for their colleagues further south. They can’t get into Biloxi or Gulfport. The phones work sporadically. There’s no Internet access. People in south Mississippi are complete cut off. We can’t get to them. We can’t talk to them. We don’t know who made it out, who rode through it, who didn’t make it. The anxiety at the table is high but the fellowship is warm.

The plan is to leave Mobile that night and drive to Covington, Louisiana. Just a three-hour drive, we think. We can make it. But there’s a curfew in Covington. The roads must be clear by 9:00. There is no electricity in most of the city. Trees and wires lie across the roads. We rethink our plans, and decide to stay the night in Jackson.

Wednesday morning we head south. In southern Mississippi we begin seeing Katrina’s aftermath. Huge oak trees have been snapped in half. Empty houses with no roofs line the roads. Most of the gas stations are still closed. We can tell the few that are open by the long lines of cars. We’re glad our tanks are full.

Barb is still our lead car, and she drives fast. Pulling onto the Interstate, our car hits a huge pothole. Thunka, thunka, thunka. We pull over to the side of the highway. The rim is bent. Still, the wheel itself looks okay. Back on the road. A mile later, the tire is flat.

Tom is a good man to have on this trip. He changes the tire without breaking a sweat. One more delay, but we’re on our way again.

Covington looks like a war zone. I’ve seen tornado damage before, but not on this scale. Mile after mile after mile of devastation. Traffic lights are down and cars snake slowly along the road, pulling over from time to time for caravans of buses, military vehicles, ambulances.

Just inside town, the traffic comes to a complete stop. We turn off the air conditioning, open the windows, and wait. We don’t know what the hold up is, until we pass the Episcopal church. Hundreds of cars are parked in the lot, in the yard, along the road, down side streets. This is FEMA, and people need help.

We set up camp at Grace Christian Church. Other than a few downed trees, the church is undamaged. The day before we arrived, electricity was restored. Blessed relief — air conditioning.

We visit the house of a church member. His wife and kids are still further north, but he’s come home to assess the damage. He has a tree through his roof, but he has running water. We shower at his house. Byron and Tom go up on the roof to nail plywood over the hole.

Tina, Lois, and I sit outside, gaping uselessly at the chaos that just two weeks ago was a beautiful neighborhood.

The scope of this disaster is almost unfathomable. Try as a might, I can’t wrap my mind around it. So many people need so many things, our little convoy seems like a drop in the ocean of need. Still, the drops add up.

Today (Thursday), the first work crew will arrive from Baton Rouge. Byron and Tom will take them to Slidell to start cutting trees, patching holes, taking food and water. All of that is needed. But I think the greatest gift they are bringing is their presence. Everywhere we go, people want to talk, to tell their story, to be heard. They want to know they’re not alone. They’ve been cut off for a week and a half. They need to know help is coming.

I have never in my life felt so useless as I do on this trip. Our efforts are so small, just a drop. But the drops add up. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve met people doing ministry — a ministry of water, canned foods, chainsaws, cots, and MREs. But mostly, it’s a ministry of presence.

Sherri Emmons is managing editor of DisciplesWorld magazine, the journal of news, mission and opinion of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Visit our web site for updates on the church’s response to Hurricane Katrina.