By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, CNS | Published September 15, 2005
More than anything else, people wanted bleach.
That’s what the Catholic Charities USA disaster relief team found as it drove its caravan of vehicles through Biloxi and the surrounding area hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. Victims of the hurricane were happy to get food and water, but above all they wanted bleach and other cleaning supplies such as mops and paper towels to begin the long, arduous process of cleaning up.
One woman literally broke down in tears when she was handed a bottle of bleach. Others simply glanced at other giveaway items in the back of the pickup truck, not interested in bread, power bars, fruit and water, just hoping for a big bottle of Clorox.
Catholic Charities USA set up a disaster relief center Sept. 8 in the parish hall at St. Mary’s Church in Woolmarket, just outside Biloxi, to provide immediate relief to the thousands of people with damaged homes. The parish center was also a base of operations for World Outreach Ministries International, a nondenominational aid group.
The Catholic Charities workers organizing the distribution center and helping with deliveries of food and supplies to people who might not be able to get to the center were all from Florida’s Catholic Charities agencies.
“The seven dioceses of Florida agreed: We’ve adopted the Biloxi Diocese,” said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, president of Catholic Charities in the Venice Diocese.
“We’ve had six hurricanes in the past year. We’ve been through this,” he told Catholic News Service Sept. 9 in the parking lot in front of the parish hall under blue skies and a blazing hot sun.
He said the work of distributing food to the needy was a start, especially since the “local and state systems were totally overwhelmed” by the devastation and the needs in southern Mississippi.
As the Catholic Charities relief caravan made its way through devastated streets of Biloxi Sept. 10, people with flood-damaged homes were handed bags of food and supplies and asked if there were certain items they needed.
On the edge of the yards of each home were huge piles of household belongings: sofas, rugs, chairs, insulation, toys, television sets, mattresses, clothes and furniture, all mud-covered and soggy from being covered with the rising floodwaters that accompanied the hurricane.
At almost every stop, residents were quick to tell how high the water rose in their house, and hesitant to say what they were going to do next because most simply did not know.
In a suburban neighborhood in D’Iberville, on the outskirts of Biloxi, the homes and yards were a little bigger, but the stench from mud and water and the piles of household furniture and belongings were about the same.
Some families were outside hanging clothes out to dry on bushes, the front yard or driveways. Others were clearing branches or fixing roofs.
Sharon Vance, who was wearing a mask over her nose and mouth to keep out some of the mold and mildew smells, was in the front yard of her daughter’s home washing out toys with a bleach and water mixture.
“We’re just trying to salvage stuff,” she told CNS.
Down the street, Suzanne Ledet, a member of St. John Parish in Biloxi, was also starting an overwhelming cleanup project. Her mother and brother were both staying temporarily with her because her home was in better shape than theirs.
“There’s nothing here we can’t clean up and fix,” she said. “It’s just stuff.”
Back at the base of operations, Father Dominick Fullam, pastor of St. Mary’s and the newly appointed coordinator of disaster relief for the Biloxi Diocese, was overseeing the distribution center at his parish while also supervising the roof repair on his church, checking in on his parents who were living with him because their Biloxi home was destroyed, and celebrating daily and weekend Masses.
In the course of a few days, the priest was meeting with his bishop, working with fire and police officers to coordinate deliveries and pickups at his parish, and also operating a forklift to haul bags of ice.
Joyce James, one of his parishioners who has been helping Catholic Charities deliver house to house, said she was thrilled to be part of the recovery effort and noted that she has received more than her share of thanks from the people they have served, many of whom hugged her simply for handing out food or supplies.
She said the places the disaster relief team visited make “you want to get on your knees and thank God for what you have.”
And amid the work she keeps in mind the image she saw in her yard the day after the hurricane when she prayed for a sign that the area would be able to rebuild and found one red rose amid dead, broken trees.
“I took that as a sign that God is here with us and will help us,” she said.