Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina crashed onto Keller Street in East Biloxi, Mississippi, causing unfathomable destruction and pain. A few months later, a team of twelve from our congregation in Virginia showed up to assist with the recovery.
Once we settled into our tents at the work camp set up by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Gulfport, we learned that we would be working to gut houses along Keller Street in East Biloxi. Whatever chatter had filled our van on the ride from the work camp ended when we turned down that street for the first time. Each of us, lost in our own world, tried to make sense of what we were seeing.
Like most people, I was overwhelmed by the devastation brought to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. Seeing it on television had done little to prepare me for what I experienced. I remember the first time we pulled up to one of the houses we had been assigned. The yard was filled with debris, and I was filled with the sudden awareness of how much loss the people of Keller Street had suffered.
And then we started to meet some of those who had lived through the storm on that street. They wanted us to know that they were not victims, but survivors. And they were.
We listened to their stories of what it was like to climb to the highest point in their attic and wonder if they had climbed high enough to escape the waters raging below them. As one talked, he put his arm around his brother standing beside him. “This guy,” he told us, “this guy kept us safe.” He went on to tell about how his brother had finally had to break through the roof to get them out, saying to them in those frantic moments, “No one’s dying here tonight.”
Our assignment was to strip the houses we entered, removing drywall and cabinets and anything else we could find, including belongings that had once been cherished by those who made that house a home. It was grueling work.
As the least-skilled member of our congregation’s team, I found myself making countless trips with the wheelbarrow to the debris pile behind one of the homes in which we were working. Like the others in our group, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the devastation. I simply couldn’t comprehend the suffering present in that one block of Keller Street in East Biloxi, and I certainly couldn’t fathom how many streets looked just the same along the 300 miles of coast that Katrina ravaged.
Each trip to the debris pile and back became a ritual of sorts. Sometimes I sang the lines I could remember from one of my favorite hymns—will you come and follow me if I but call your name, will you go where you don’t know and never be the same—and I gave thanks for the people who had answered that summons from God and ventured to Mississippi from all over this country.
But more often than not, my tears—which were always just below the surface—would rush to my eyes when I spotted a glimpse of a child’s toy, or a family picture, or when I would consider the years of recovery that lay ahead for these people whose lives had been uprooted so suddenly, and so violently.
Every step I took with that wheelbarrow seemed to echo what the prophet Isaiah had once shouted so many years ago. Living among a people of great despair, Isaiah had looked to God and shouted, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
And that’s what I wanted God to do—that very moment. To tear open the heavens and come down and set things right. I wanted God to show up on Keller Street and do something about the chaos around us, and the chaos welling up within me.
And then you would hear it, the sounding of the horn and the announcement being shouted for all to hear—cold drinks, hot food—and the Salvation Army truck would come into sight.
And it seemed to me as if Isaiah’s voice was crying out again, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”
And as our team sat down together each day—caked in the filth of the morning, dripping with sweat, bordering on exhaustion—I began to understand exactly how God was tearing open the heavens and coming down to Keller Street. God was there in ordinary people like Phil, and Tim, and Marc, and Dale, and Don, and Skip, and Sherry, and Dorothy, and Dwight, and Brian, and Larry.
And God used each swing of the sledge hammer, each shovelful of sheetrock, each embrace of a survivor to point to the hope present even in the midst of the chaos that surrounded us.
And the power of that hope surprises me even now, ten years after Katrina came to Keller Street.