There was no bathroom. Ashley and other volunteers had to walk outside and brave late-night gangs and stray dog packs to reach a port-a-potty located across the field.
This was how Ashley describes her fifth trip down south to help Hurricane Katrina victims. It was so dangerous that Glenn Locklin, the director of Ashley’s volunteer group, (a man who gave up his contracting career to help with the rebuilding in a Mississippi village) advised the workers to never go out alone.
In one instance, Ashley even remembered a dog that pursued her and was foaming at the mouth. She had to be rescued from its possible attack.
Why did she return so many times? Because the residents of this village of Pearlington, Miss., pop. 2,200, elevation 9 feet. Already worn down by poverty and crime, on Aug. 29, 2005, the village was swept over by a powerful 28-foot wave surge from the hurricane and they needed help. Pearlington, eight miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and 25 miles west of Biloxi, Miss., with a fire department but no police and little commerce, was following this catastrophe and remained overlooked by media and government agencies alike for a week following Hurricane Katrina. It still is, for the most part, Ashley said.
When Ashley arrived in Mississippi the first time in April 2006, almost eight months after Katrina’s wrath, she said she was shocked by the scenes that greeted her; scenes of devastation beyond anything a TV screen could portray. Every home in the Pearlington community had been either totally destroyed or severely damaged. Some residents, according to Ashley, were still living outside without a roof over their heads. Sympathetic volunteers, all working with non-governmental agencies, had arrived from across the U.S. as well as from other countries like France and Canada. Even more extraordinary, when the tsunami had hit Indonesia in 2004, the tiny settlement of Pearlington had sent volunteers to help. In 2006, Indonesians were returning the goodwill, coming to assist their overseas friends, who now themselves, were in such distress.
A year and a half later, on Ashley’s fifth trip back to help in Pearlington, many new houses had been built, thanks to the hard work of volunteers. However, smashed cars and boats were still strewn about, while draped from branches of remaining trees were shoes, clothes, towels, toys, brooms and other odd bits of people’s former lives.
Some trees and houses that had been ripped apart still lay on the ground in twisted piles.
Ashley said it was not only the destruction that affected her, but the people as well. According to another volunteer, Gail Meyer, “Ashley took to heart all the problems of the people who were down there.”
A then 17-year-old Ashley, who gave up a spring holiday in order to help the less fortunate, was profoundly changed by what she witnessed. A Pearlington resident, with whom she became particularly close, was Jackie Acker. Jackie was one of the cooks making lunch for the volunteers, who ate daily at the Baptist church. Ashley had
met Jackie on her first trip to Mississippi.
“She (Jackie) was sitting on the steps and looked very sad, so I went to talk to her,” Ashley recalled.
Jackie had lost her husband just four months before Hurricane Katrina stole her home and all her possessions. She and her daughter were living in a FEMA trailer, into which she had retreated, severely depressed, not eating and no longer commuting to her job in Biloxi.
The local Baptist minister told her she could sit there and die or get out and help others. She chose the latter. Jackie and Ashley became good friends.
Shortly after Ashley returned to the Adirondacks, Jackie’s daughter was killed in a car accident.
“I just had to go back and see her,” Ashley said.
And so, barely two months later, she returned to the south and once more offered what help she could. Jackie was so happy to see her that she burst into tears, saying, “You remind me of my daughter.”
Since then, with the money that Ashley earns waitressing at La Bella Ristorante in Saranac Lake, she mails Jackie household items, clothes and kitchenware whenever possible.
Jackie was still living in a FEMA trailer as of early February 2008.
Who is Ashley and how did she come to travel to Mississippi? Because her father’s career was with the U.S. Marine Corps, her parents, Steven and Debbie Crider, had moved several times before finally settling in Lake Clear in 1996. She attended the Lake Clear School, and later, Saranac Lake High School. In 2006, Susan Waters, president of the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, and Diane Meads, an active Habitat member, sought volunteers to go south during the school spring-break, bringing supplies and tools to help rebuild hurricane-devastated areas.
From Saranac Lake High School, science teacher Gail Meyer and 11th-grade student Ashley joined 10 others who eventually ended up in Pearlington, Miss. They worked with One-House-at-a-Time, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building new homes for the residents. This group, as well as others, have built numbers of houses and tried to help bring a modicum of order back into the devastated village.
But the job is enormous and the bureaucracy a hindrance. As of February 2007, despite all their work, only 30 percent of the homes had been rebuilt. In early February 2008, some residents were still living in FEMA trailers. As of April, 2008, much progress had been made, but families were still in need of homes and volunteer groups were continuing to help rebuild the area.
Ashley describes a typical work day in Mississippi, starting with her waking up at 6 a.m., taking a shower, going to the army tent for breakfast and being on the job by 7:30 a.m.
She said she spent the day helping to build houses, no small job considering the need for supplies, the excessive heat, the barrage of biting insects, challenges of the learning curve and the uncomfortable presence of wild pigs snuffling and pawing in the nearby bushes. Pictured at the top right of this page is a typical small house of the kind Ashley helped construct for a two- or three-person family.
The volunteers did a number of tasks including cleaning up debris, nailing, sawing, drilling, insulating, delivering building materials and painting. Ashley painted this particular house, shown above, entirely herself with the only thing available, a very small paint brush.
The volunteers usually stopped work around 5 p.m., got cleaned up, went to an army “mash” type tent for dinner, then sat around a campfire until late in the evening before going to bed and starting up all over again a few hours later.
Ashley said her experience in Mississippi has given direction to her future. She wrote four articles for Saranac Lake High School’s newspaper, Echo, all addressing the plight of those in the world who are the victims of natural disasters or exploitation. She plans to major in international relations at Cazenovia College, where she has already been accepted. At present, she is attending North Country Community College in Saranac Lake.
“I feel I should be back down there helping,” Ashley said, but she realizes that to be more effective, she should first get a college education. With her degree, she plans to focus on worldwide humanitarian work.
“I want to help everyone,” she said.
In addition to attending college, Ashley works at La Bella Ristorante and has earned money, not only to send supplies to Pearlington, but to pay her own way on the many trips she has made to this small village. Here in Saranac Lake, she has become close friends with the Bosnian family for whom she works and is so interested in understanding their culture that she took the time to learn their language. She strongly believes that a general lack of knowledge about other cultures within this country and beyond, has led to excessive discrimination as well as serious governmental policy errors both here and abroad. If the future lies in the hands of young people like this, we have much to look forward to.
Author Caperton Tissot lives in Saranac Lake and can be contacted at tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com'>tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com'>tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com'>tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.