‘It made us look beyond our doors’

Published 10:31 am Wednesday, August 20, 2014

One was just five days old, another had seen a century. Some were business owners, some knew destitution before the devastation. They were retirees, students, Catholics, Muslims, singles and family groups 17-members strong, but stretched out on the cold, hard floor of Brookhaven’s Faith Presbyterian Church gym, each person took on the same general label – evacuee.

Church member Susan Aycock remembers being there on Magee Drive nine years ago “stirring pots while others tended people” and estimates that at its peak, the church/Red Cross shelter housed more than 300 Katrina victims.

“We were cooking all the time,” she says, describing a three-meals-a-day task that went on for nearly two months. “A lot of the people who came were on special diets, so we tried to accommodate them. Some were significant diabetics.”

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She stresses that churches far and near joined in the work, like one in Iowa that sent a trailer full of nonperishables and another in Georgia that butchered a cow for their use.

As distraught Louisiana and Mississippi residents took flight from the storm on Aug. 28, 2005, space normally used for after-church dodge ball games at Faith became filled with air mattresses and anxiety.

Aycock paints a sobering picture. “Here they were, with no idea what was going on at their home, having to sleep next to strangers. Some stand out in my memory, like one sweet elderly lady and her daughter. They were so refined,” she pauses, trying to find just the right words. “You know, they were ladies. We tried to find them a corner for privacy. It was real hard on them.”

Aycock goes on to tell of the Barakets, a large family of immigrants from Jordan who took up residence in a Sunday school room. Their losses – four homes and a New Orleans car dealership – made the family think of returning to the Middle East.

Faith was only one of several Brookhaven congregations that shouldered shelter responsibilities after the storm. Facilities at Easthaven Baptist became a command center of sorts for the Red Cross, according to staff member Phil Turner. “We put their personnel on the second floor, as well as some members of the military,” he recalls. “That was in addition to evacuees, which some weeks numbered as high as 250.”

Turner admits Easthaven had never before been challenged to that degree. “We were without a pastor then, and Katrina drew our folks together. We had cooking teams, cleaning teams, people to schedule the showers. We were required to have a nurse on hand 24 hours a day. Volunteers coordinated activities for the children. Members took laundry home to do.”

He adds that Easthaven did not have the manpower to continue the effort alone. “In a sense the community came together. Smaller churches that weren’t serving as shelters joined forces with us and enabled us to keep our doors open.” And the work didn’t end when the doors did eventually shut. Generous donations continued to pour in, allowing Easthaven to maintain a temporary trailer park for evacuees who desired to make a fresh start in Lincoln County.

Like Turner, Aycock sees her shelter experience as a positive one, pointing to a card she recently received from a single mom who stayed at Faith. “We still get notes of appreciation,” Aycock says. “It changed our perspective of those in need, and made us look beyond our doors. We shouldn’t wait on the government to help.”

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.