F & M College: Postcards from Picayune, MS

Lancaster County, Fulton Bank and F&M adopted the town of Picayune, MS, to assist with hurricane cleanup and reconstruction. Picayune (about 50 miles northeast of New Orleans) ballooned from a town of 10,000 to over 30,000 residents after the storm. Students, staff and faculty participated in relief efforts over the span of two weeks, Jan 1-16, 2006. Below are journal entries and random thoughts from the second week.

Please excuse lousy spelling and grammer, much of this written with little or no sleep!

Andy Gulati / Systems Librarian


1:34pm EST

And we're off! Timely train from Lancaster, which is a bit of surprise, since the Pittsburgh trains to Philly are often late. Moved articles and conferences reports from one computer file to another. They might get read if the five French movies I brought are boring. Bigger seats and cafe car, but I'll wait till 30th Street for Au Bon Pain where I can pour my own dark roast.


Sat in front of two ladies, both near 50, both with more trauma than I would know what to do with, but both content with current events. One lost her child in an auto accident, has another son who loves his job in demolition. The other has a husband who is dying of liver failure, has a boyfriend, but everyone is fine with the arrangement. I know this is eavesdropping, but if its okay with Bush, its okay with me.


Dusk in Delaware. Time to pull out my 5 hour-old tuna sandwich, maybe get a beer from the cafe. Met Deborah from Mobile, formerly of New Orleans. Water in her house got waste high, might be able to salvage. Twenty five years as a school board secretary, just received a "retirement" letter yesterday. The work is gone. She is now thinking of easing into work as a medical assistant. I told her 46 years is young.



Its tough to be content with one seated-sleeping position, when you are used to a half dozen in your home bed. I go from stage 1 to stage 2 and back to 1, never reaching deep sleep. A wee-hours trip to the toilet you can the view the various attempts at one and two seat comfort - from contained sprawl to post-car-wreck, blankets cover failures.

We graze like blind sheep while Norfolk-Southern passes like a wolf in the dark.

2am? Greensboro, NC

The annoying guy in the cafe car, interrupting computer games and Texas hold-em, has now become an incoherent drunk. Escorted through the bright swath of a brand-new (looking) brightly lit station, our favorite passenger will have a chance to sleep it off. Maybe in some hours he can tell someone his destination.


Gainsboro, GA. Now officially 'down south.' Mixture of shacks and new homes, no interesting architecture, just boxes. Went past a huge Pilgram's Pride factory (chicken?), already in full swing. We must be getting close to Atlanta, lots of developments and new roads. Can't believe people commute this far to Atlanta, at least an hour by train.


After eating a rubbery egg, ham and cheese on muffin, I had a pleasant dining-car experience with my travel mate. Deborah treated me to coffee and whatever she couldn't eat from a fairly large continental breakfast. This was the real dining car, with tablecloths and salt/pepper shakers, mainly meant for those in the one-and-only sleeper car. Not showered and sleepy, I felt like an intruder.

More about Deborah. Miss Katrina set her free. Free from thoughts of mortgage and bills. After all her years in New Orleans, she bought flood insurance for the first time last year. Everybody fled the day before the storm, son and Nanny to Houston, daughter to Mobile with her. This trip was a fling, had never been to Boston and New York. Boston was fun but freezing. Hotels.com suggested Times Square, not the best pick post-New Year's (or ever).

After this trip, she plans to tackle the midwest, then maybe the west coast. I suggested Pittsburgh and Kansas City, then Vancouver, Seattle, and down the coast to San Francisco. Also put in a plug for Toronto and my favorite Philly. After she buys the recommended computer, printer and camera, Deborah promises to find me on the web and recap new adventures.

12:45pm CST

Just pulling out of Birmingham, reminds me a bit of Austin, mix of shacks and skyscrapers. Deborah and I spend the entire morning talking about everything, but mostly about her house in the Ninth Ward. Will the city allow people to rebuild the way they want, will they not allow any building, will old residents get a chance at new housing, will part or all of the ward be returned to marsh. So many unanswered questions, but a general feeling is that those in power have already decided, and residents will know last.

City planning is fascinating (and scary), all the various concerns, so many balls to juggle.


I have now been to every restroom, and they are now all quite disgusting. I thought when we were in Atlanta, and they said the train would be "watered," it might have something to do with the sticky floors, or full toilets or terrible smells. This trip is now officially too long.

Some time after

There is no electricity on the entire train, except the cafe car. Across from me was a student. I knew there was a group, not sure from where or for what. She humored me with the answers, "UVA, and New Orleans." This batch will help clean up Xavier prep school. After disappearing for a bit, she returned with what looked like required reading "The Importance of New Orleans." I guess after nearly 20 hours in the train, and reading "How to be a Porn Star," it was finally time to do some homework.


Finally in Picayune! After a few calls to friendly George, he and his wife met me at the station. For a lack of better explanation, George is a Baptist hurricane chaser. If there's a hurricane anywhere, George is there the next day, ready to help, often by-way of "the Association." The Association of Baptist Churches is so strong in the south; and ready, willing and able to assist after a disaster. They might have a FEMA roof, but don't need no trailer - lots of pride here. I can see where 'faith-based' works.


After some chatting with the week one contingent, it was time for a hot shower and some real sleep. But now I'm all keyed up, not sure about tomorrow. Started watching another French film. Interesting relationship stuff, but for some reason, French films always seem to end oddly and vaguely.



Its what I was afraid of, to be on a job site, and standing there. Week one put a new roof on this couple's house. He's a retired banker, she's a mom of two boys, 33 and 37, proud of one 4 year old grandson. Tommie (she) has a price winning painting, amongst many others she's painted for local shows. Katrina blew down 26 trees on their property. Most of our gang-of-5, put a new roof on the shed, while I finally got cranking on some molding. Not exactly what I would consider disaster work, but at least I'm not idle. About 4 groups had been through this property. A group of Amish from Paradise took down many of the trees in October.


Off to another house, where a huge tree had gone through the front roof. A band of VA Baptists were doing an amazing re-roofing. Our gang picked up the piles of old roof. We might be back tomorrow (to help re-shingle?). This house belongs to a friend of the camp secretary, who lives next door. Just about everyone nearby is related. Families tend to cluster in this region. Sons and daughters marry, then find or build houses near parents.


Went into center-city Picayune, to the WalMart, to pick up food for the expected train-exhausted week two group. Need to have enough cereal, sliced turkey and soda to get things off to a flying start on Tuesday night. WalMart is HUGE, and very possibly could house the entire pre-Katrina population. Picayune ballooned form 10,000 to 30,000 after the storm, many arriving from destroyed coastal towns.



Who knew that little laxative would be so potent (but I'm jumping ahead). It had rained significantly the night before, so the tar paper would need to dry before securing shingles, but there was plenty of other work that could be done, and finally I felt like I was really getting my hands dirty. It was decided to tear off the two side portions, so the entire front face of the roof would have the same style shingle. Our group got to help the VA clan scrape off the old roof. There something satisfying about popping nails off with a big toothy shovel.


Southern fried chicken. This was the real deal. While people worked, Bonsel the home-owner, along with friends, made a huge lunch feast - made us completely forget the turkey sandwiches we brought along. I've never had chicken that moist. Then there was potato salad, corn bread, ham, chicken gumbo, ham and beans, and chocolate bunt cake. You might gather that southerners are not bashful about meat and carbs.


Fueled and ready, it became a bit of competition to shingle the side portions, and finish the project before dark. The VA workers would need to pack their trailer, and be ready for the next adventure. Like some of us, they will only be here a few more days, but that might be just enough time to do another roof. It was fun to learn all the various personalities; Ken the particular, Donny who looked like David Crosby, Sonny the boss (and bicyclist), Larry of NJ and 34 years at Amtrak, Glen the joker, and a few others. All good guys and hard workers. Oh, yes, Angela. She was brought along to cook. The other female bailed, so Larry helps prep sandwiches and dinners. Angela is a marine biologist.


Well, it looks like Week Two will beat all Amtrak records. After a bunch of fruitless calls to Amtrak, I called by buddy Jayme (train-bound student), who said the latest delay was caused by a Norfolk-Southern train that was in front, and had run our of gas. Students were probably not going to arrive till midnight, and certainly later at the lodge. After 35 hours of train, its going to be hard to get things going tomorrow.

Almost forgot, after a few days of no production, I popped just one tiny "gentle laxative" the night before. I quickly blamed the all-you-can-eat joint for my predicament (area restaurants have all thrived, as many people are living out of temporary housing), but it became clear that my considerable grief was self-inflicted, and could only be solved by a quick (Tony's rental-car) trip to the Winn-Dixie restroom. Made it minutes before the 10pm closing, whew.

Should mention, Tony is a college trustee, charged with managing the endowment. He largely funded out adventure. Great guy, so glad he wasn't just dollars - willing to puts his hands to work. What a fantastic example. Couple LInda Fritz and Ned Dixon are both Physics profs. LInda elected to wait with the bus driver, so Tony, Ned and I could get some sleep at the lodge - very kind.


The Turnages lived for 47 years in Bernard Parish before Katrina delivered water to near roof level. Receding water revealed mattresses on end, stacked furniture and a freezer hanging on the neighbors fence. They purchased the Pearl River County property in 1973, and planted a used trailer in the 80's, mainly for use as a hunting retreat. After the hurricane they spent time in Shrevesport, since the tin roof had largely blown off the now-double trailer, and a toppled frig and subsequent pipe burst soaked the kitchen, making the floor a roller-coaster.

To this day, eighty-two year old Mr. Turnage is still a pack rat, storing all sorts of metal and tires and doors and oil. Meaghan doused her jeans with a leaky jug of oil. Most of the work outside involved moving scrap and branches to the ditch along the highway, where FEMA will pick it up. You can see long rows of debris at almost every property, mostly huge tree stumps, resting like whale carcasses along the road.

Steve Hicks is from NC. His church gave him $15,000 to head to the coast and assist with relief efforts. Steve can do it all, from roofs to floors. A number of students helped pry old lenoleum and press board, only to find that the manufacture must have cut a lot of corners in construction. Some of the floor need to be braced and leveled, then covered with new plywood the next day. Erin and Meaghan got a chance to operate the make-shift table saw. Most students are trying stuff for the first time, its like they're gathering notches on their handyman belt.

A local tradition is King Cake, which has a lot to do with Mardi Gras and Lent. Paul's bakery is famous for the cake, which they make year-round and ship all over the world. I'm not going to say the Lord spoke to me, but I did pre-pick the location of the little plastic baby. If you find the baby (planted in any self-respecting King cake), you are expected to buy the next cake. But we put the PA twist in this MS tradition, and consider the baby lucky, especially if I win.


Momma Dot lives another half hour north of the Turnages. The Humphrey's have always lived within the same one square block. Next to Momma's property is a family cemetery. A number of relatives have died in the last 10 years. Momma Dot survived two 85 year old pines that strategically fell between the houses. But, there still was considerable roof damage. The VA clan stripped the old roof the day before, and were installing new shingle when we got there. Our group picked up old shingle and yard debris.

Throughout the day, everyone dropped in on Momma to use the bathroom and to chat. She can't get around so well, has 3 stints, and an oxygen tube. I did notice the Casio keyboard during a restroom break. Eternally grateful, Dot really wanted to play Amazing Grace for us when everything was done. Not knowing what to expect, she also belted out a near-and-dear spiritual. We prayed together, and VA and PA groups shared goodwill. Thirty percent of these jobs seem to be sharing stories and time. This was a beautiful moment.

I'm finding that those who lead Baptist churches in the region have an strong desire to show you their church. Its like they are inviting you to their home. So much of the time spent in a week revolves around the church. I got the feeling that perhaps half the population work for the oil companies, half work for their church, and the last half are roofers (the predators from out of town).

We had plenty of time to haul tree debris to a huge pile to the back quarter of the camp, lots of opportunity for he-man-ism and javelin throws. Later we surrounded a fantastic campfire, where people shared scary stories and freshman year experiences. My first year at Etown is such a reach back, so recent scary stuff is a bit easier to recall.



We're under a tornado watch till 9am. After that we'll figure whether a trip to the coast is possible. The gray clouds are dense and fast moving, from the west I think. Forty-five minutes later you can barely see the skyline with the intense rain. Sure hope this thing moves through without incident, so we can take a look around.


The clouds broke and it looked like it might be decent the rest of the day, so we took two vans to Gulfport. Ray (Coordinator Pat's husband) drove van one. Ray has always lived within a 60 mile range, including Gulfport for 4 years. About 20 miles from the coast we began to see the familiar FEMA markings. Lots of FEMA blue-tarp roofs and lots of downed trees.

Through the 50s and 60s the region thrived on tung trees, which produced tung seed oil, used for paints. Hurricane Camille destroyed most of those trees. This time the pecan trees took a big hit, along with the ubiquitous pine. Pine trees grow to harvest size within 18 years, so they are heavily planted by companies like Weyerhauser. Even close to the lodge, you can see acres of nearly cleared pine, with a few saplings left for future growth.


We've reached the Gulf. Its almost accidental how it creeps up. The last few miles were progressively tragic, then wham. Its low-tide, so wide beaches. We first pass water-adjacent mansions that appeared untouched, quickly followed by profound destruction. In most cases, from Gulfport to Long Beach to Biloxi, there's nothing but slab left for houses and businesses. Some structures rest precariously on metal beam-work, that now resemble spindly stilts.

We stop to wander the sands and walk through some water. Its bizarre how the highway side is so grizzly, while the water side is so serene. After a bit, we hop back in the vans and travel along the coast. The worst view was our sidetrip into residential Gulfport, where Ray spent some years. His wife Pat went to the grade schools. Surrounding streets are a mix of dead, twisted houses, and ocassional signs of life. After a side trip to the only open mall (food and restroom break), we backtracked through the same neighborhood, this time to walk and take pictures. Something seems wrong about taking pictures of these homes, especially those that are still inhabited. Its like we're gawking at strange creatures in a zoo.


The trip back is quiet. Everyone seems exhausted by the trip. The view is a bit numbing (plus a bunch of people stayed up late playing UNO). We do get back and put in an hour doing some last clean-up at the camp, followed by a fun game of two-hand football. I actually caught the ball a few times.


No baby in the cake for me this time. The theory was that maybe back-to-back cakes might have the same baby placement. If only I had taken the swap with Matt, I would in the possession of two quarter size plastic babies. Its a low-key night of UNO, Spoons, piano and attempts at rap on the electric organ. We're into the home stretch.



I'm hoping to go out with a bang, three groups at three sites, all close to the camp. Our group of 7 cleaned up concrete forms, moved out old studs and moved in new studs and cut pieces. A tree had completely demolished a 40 year old trailer. John and his wife, both in their 70s and in okay to poor health, also lost their very modest nursery and pecan trees. John had never been one to ask for help, but with house and livelihood gone, he needed a hand. And a big hand it will be, new house from the ground up. All their lives, they have never had their own home, this was special.

We finished by mid-day, so plenty of time to help at the Floyds. This house was quite nice. This was one of those cases where you question the need for volunteer support. You just hope the home-owners are so grateful that they reciprocate, or give generously to support organizations. At this property, at least 20 pines had fallen, fortunately not on the house or barn or cars. Matt, Kevin and Liam had a great time hauling trunks and large branches with the tractor, although the wheelies were a bit of a concern.

Good ol' George did some chainsaw magic, and Drew was no slouch. Aside from 4 brave souls that who volunteered to completely clean out the lodge (including the guys bathrooms), the rest of the group worked till near-5 hauling out at least half of the site. It was a mix of he-man and ant-march, but all productive. Lots of hard gulps through chainsaw and tractor moments, but lots of good work and great video footage.


Another WalMart run. We really tried to get the few sandwich fixings at the Winn-Dixie, but alas, deli counter closed, so off to friendly home town conglomerate. But wouldn't you know it, deli counter closed minutes before. We made due with packaged stuff, then back the camp for another fire. People eagerly skewered new bags of marshmallows for s'mores. There were encores of favorite songs, Fred the Moose and Boogaloo. Paul must've spent long years at camps, a brain full of goofy campfire songs. I reached WAY back for a Scout skit.

First you establish the players, then you establish the patsy, in this case Matt. As principle, I tell people that I'm making the famous family recipe soup (a pot of water), to be shared with my best friend Kathleen. But, I need chairs, so (planted) volunteers go on all fours for chairs. Kathleen at the door (people play the doorbell), and I tell her all about my wonderful soup, which of course needs frequent annoying stirs. Again, completely slipped my mind, no table. Scanning the group, I find our prey. Matt puts down is marshmallow stick to bend down and be a table, perfect for my soup. So, Kathleen and I take our seats, but another gaff, forgot the dinner rolls, really need to hit the WalMart. At that queue, everyone leaves but Matt, who is left stranded with a pot of water on his back, cruel but funny.

Meaghan is the "Carrie" of the bunch. Her story and prank clear the fire site - bloody ghost, hanging from the nearby creepy tree. We were more concerned that Meaghan might have a few issues. Thankfully she appears stable and we don't need to call the local psych ward.



There's no way to avoid the mad-dash for the bus to get us to the train. The goal was 7:30, but 7:45 was fairly miraculous, considering all the dishes and mopping and vacuuming and packing and eating and sandwich prep. We get to the painfully sparse Picayune platform with plenty of time, even if you discount the half hour delay. Fingers crossed, we might get through Atlanta with minimal incident.


We just celebrated Jamie's birthday, a danish with some matches planted to look like candles, and a round of "Happy Birthday" in the lounge. We are now 4 hours behind, and hanging out some miles from Atlanta. Apparently we are getting a new conductor, and that requires that we again sit in the middle of no where till everything is just right. Would it kill them to make a decent pot of coffee.

Earlier, "Wedding Crashers" made the rounds, and my computer got a good workout with back-to-back showings. Now I know where all the little quips and quotes come from. Educators really don't need to do all those fancy studies on NextGen. Just watch the latest hit movie, memorize all the good lines, and you will know all you need to know about current students.

I made good friends with 14 year old Daniel, and his girl iguana Emerald. Em is about 20", but should grow to about 4 feet. Daniel and his mom lived in a third floor condo, not far from downtown NO. They surely could move back, but the city isn't the same, and there might be better community and education opportunities in Atlanta or Dallas. Daniel taught me this elaborate card game involving fighting critters, weird locations and magic spells. Game was tougher than a bar exam, lost all four matches.



Now in Charlotte, a full 6 hours behind. It was already 4 hours back before the crew died (shift change), which took an hour, then somehow we picked up another hour in the wee hours. All told, after some 22 hours, we are only halfway. The other half should take 12 hours. That means that roughly 10 hours of this haul are wasted on stopping and waiting for Norfolk-Southern or CSX to get by. The freights own the tracks, Amtrak leases. I've heard cases where freights hold up just out of spike or whim. Lest you forget, the US is the sole superpower, with all sorts of advanced wonderful stuff, except passenger rail, pathetic.

I turn out to be lucky, waking up just in time for the large number of Charlotte passengers. A number of students had to be woken out of fitful stages of slumber, so that their available seat could be used. After a rousing Cliff bar and mediocre cup of coffee, I'm back in the lounge car, staring out the wide windows on a beautiful sunrise.

12pm EST

Another trip to the dining car, this time lunch. Did I mention, this is the same train I rode on the way down. I can tell by the graffiti in the restrooms. Ordered were green salads, garden burgers, and my grilled chicken sandwich. Everything looks great. Even if we weren't held captive (for what seems weeks) on a train, this was a good sandwich. I tried white asparagus for the first time, not bad. The service was a mix of surly and sarcastic, but good natured.


Josh, the Amish builder from Paradise, left Picayune with us. This is his seventh trip. He is so committed to helping coastal residents cleanup and rebuild. So far he has been able to privately fund. I told him about our organization and arrangements, and we shared pictures and cell phone numbers (yes, he has a cell). Previous brainstorming between a few of us raised the possibility of college-community ties and working through the Mennonite Service Committee. Josh is a fantastic resource, has an established connection with MSC, and is chock-full of SKILLED labor. This May and next January seem to be ideal times to reprise this effort, with old and new students, committed faculty and staff, trustee support and Lancaster community ties.

Its impossible to list all the positives out of this trip, from rebuilding efforts to our own community building. This trip has me beaming and proud to be part of Franklin & Marshall College.

Might be able to catch the 5:30 back to Lancaster. We're down to a 5 hour delay. At this point I can do the rest of the trip standing on my head.

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