Cullman, Alabama

September 8, 2005

Day 5

My friend, Tina Burton, is the only person in the world I could have called last Thursday and said, “Hey, you want to take a week off work and drive down into the hurricane zone on Sunday?”

Her response, classic Tina, was, “I’ve got a tent!”

She has worked tirelessly this week, taking orders (with a smile and sometimes with a comeback) from me, from Barb Jones, from anyone who needs help. She has missed a week of work, slept on church floors (for maybe 4 hours a night), lugged supplies, taken photos, organized kitchen supplies — and never complained once.

Yesterday, driving through Covington, Louisiana, Tina hung out the window of the car, snapping photos. She wanted to come, because she wanted to help. She is not the only one who wants to help.

The response to this disaster is almost as overwhelming as the storm itself. This morning, people stopped by the church in Covington to ask what we need. Their houses are in various states of disrepair; they’re dealing with insurance forms and FEMA and flood waters (with no electricity — and no air conditioning); they don’t know what’s happened to friends, neighbors, and sometimes family members — but here they are at the church, asking what they can do to help. I am humbled by their generosity.

We drove to Slidell, Louisiana, this morning. I thought Covington was bad, but Slidell is worse. Thousands of trees are down, many lying across houses and roads. Downed power lines still lie across the highway. Most of the town is without electricity (and I will just mention this one more time, it is hot and it is humid!). We have been told to watch for snakes and rats. Thankfully, we don’t come across any.

The Disciples church in Slidell is in good shape. A tree is down on the fellowship hall, but the structure has held. Shingles litter the lawn. But the church has survived better than most of the surrounding town. Homes have been completely demolished. Traffic lights are still out. Some stores are open, but most aren’t. It’s a cash-only economy.

We left Slidell, Tina and I, to head northeast. Byron, Lois, and Tom will stay behind to direct Disciples’ relief efforts. This afternoon, Byron and Tom were busy with chainsaws. John, who let us shower at his house yesterday, told us — in perhaps the understatement of the year — “We’ll have lots of firewood down here this winter

Driving northeast, we pass dozens of caravans heading south — church vans pulling campers, the Kentucky coroner’s office, military vehicles, police units from half a dozen places, and a line of fire trucks from New York City. I wish we were heading south again. I wish we were going to help.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those drops in the ocean of need. My drop is a small one — hell, it’s miniscule. I want to do more — stay in Covington with Lois and Byron and Tom, cut trees or pound nails, or cook for the people who could do that better than I could. Instead, I’m going home to write. It’s a very small drop, indeed. And I’ve worried about that all day.

Tonight, Tina and I are staying in Cullman, Alabama. We drove to three hotels before we found a room. Finally, we pulled into a Best Western. The parking lot is filled with cars bearing Louisiana license plates.

“We need a room, any room,” I tell the desk clerk.

“We only have one left,” she drawls, checking her computer. “It’s a mini-suite with a Jacuzzi.”

Tina and I look at each other, aghast. I’m on a church magazine budget. We cannot afford a Jacuzzi.

“Are you all coming from down South?” the young woman asks.

We nod.

“It’s $79,” she says.

I stare at her, then say sheepishly, “Oh no. We’re not evacuees. We’ve just been down in Louisiana, writing about the story for our church magazine.”

“It’s $79,” she repeats firmly.

Drops in the ocean. Small drops, inadequate, inconsequential in themselves. Today I am realizing all over again that small drops multiplied by millions can drown a major city — or they can change the world.

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.