Thursday, May 29, 2008

Some images from the deep south.

The beginning.

The Center.

Well, the most important word made the cut.

One of the eleven FEMA parks we visited.

And another.

Two empty lots. These trailers were likely evicted.

Can you see what's at the bottom of the photo? A lot of the FEMA residents choose to have pets so they can maintain a sense of home and normal residential living.


Our liberal propaganda.

They are the sweetest kids. Although they didn't have much room to run and play in the trailer park, they didn't seem phased by this at all. They were very polite and welcoming.

My first Mississippi sunset. This used to be prime beach front property. Now it looks like nobody really discovered this area. When you're driving down the beach road you'll see scattered buildings and hotels. The state is spending a lot of money redeveloping this area. Many citizens complain though that the state is spending millions of dollars budiling casinos, while FEMA residents are suffering.

Speaking of gambling... here is our first charming, drunk, country gambler. He followed us around a bit that night.

Dinner. In Mississippi, they love two things: all you can eat buffets and casinos. And some people have a number three.. alligator sausage. emmm. I was told it tastes like fishy-chicken.

Michelle is preparing for another long day of Mississippi sun by putting on her sunblock.

Angus, on the other hand, needs a couple more z's before the work starts.
Regardless of our morning routines (I was infamous for not being able to function without my coffee), we worked hard together.

Working. In this picture, Shira and I were calling our clients back to answer questions and were also preparing a presentation for the staff attorneys about various legal issues.

The bayou. In this swampy trailer park, some folks said they sometimes see alligators.

Picture Perfect.
We had an amazing lunch at Mockingbird Cafe. This place was completely themed after "To Kill A Mockingbird." I had the Atticus=)

With every meal, we enjoyed some good ol' southern sweet-tea.
The cafe also had a really cool garden.

The group.

Another tired soul. Usually folks fell asleep on the way back to the hotel because of our long days.

May 15th, it's my birthday! We're on our way to New Orleans. There was lots of construction on the bridges because they were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans, the French Quarters.

Birthday dinner.

No thanks. I like my food cooked.

But, I loved my birthday bread-pudding. New Orleans has THE best bread-pudding. It simply melts in your mouth.

...and then there was Bourbon St.- the street of ultimate debauchery. Or as someone else put it, "the gates of hell."

The church at nighttime. It was beautiful.

Last day in Mississippi. It's been a long and intense trip, and Shira is excited to go home.

Peace out Mississippi. And God bless you.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Story of Ms. P

Ms. P is pissed. She is not polite or friendly. She hasn’t asked me to sit down, nor does she thank me for trying to help her. If it wasn’t for her son letting me in, she probably would not have spoken to me. She is impatient and often rolls her eyes at the things I say.

"Mississippi Center for Justice? What kind of justice are ya'll talkin' about?"

Her anger makes me nervous. I find it difficult, all of sudden, to remember all my reassuring phrases: "I know the feeling, ma'am," "I understand your frustration, ma'am" and, " I am soooo sorry to hear that, ma'am."

Ms. P doesn't care that I am standing in the living room of her small FEMA trailer. She often looks away when I speak. I realize at that moment that reassuring someone is easier when she has some hope in betterment. People with hope are receptive to learning about their rights and options. Ms. P has no more hope left. I don't know what to say. I fall silent.

She holds up a white cloth that has strange red stains on it and tells me that this cloth is from her son's morning nose bleed. I gasp.

The cloth makes my stomach turn. It is a startling realization. The cloth reminds me that I am breathing the same poison that pushes blood out from that little boy's nose. I am breathing the same poison that swells her eyes shut in the mornings. I am breathing the same poison that caused her children's asthma, and that causes her regular headaches and congestion.

The blood on that cloth is real. These children are real and so is their looming, lurking, death. It is possible that at least one of the children I met will develop cancer and die because of prolonged exposure to formaldehyde.

Ms. P says that FEMA is trying to kill them. The hurricane didn't kill them, but FEMA will. And they are going to do it one trailer at a time.

The Story of Ms. C

Before she leaves for her vocational training classes in the morning, Ms. C has to drop off her three year old daughter at daycare and then take her five year old son to kindergarten. Because her classes finish late, Ms. C's sister picks up the children for her and watches them until Ms. C comes home. She says that the only reason she's able to participate in the program is because she has someone who can help her with her responsibilities. Those who aren't as blessed to have supportive family or friends have to forego such opportunities so they can tend to their immediate needs.

Ms. C is a determined and ambitious woman. She has lost her home and belongings to Katrina, but she continues to persevere. She is participating in a vocational program to be trained as an electrician so she can eventually afford an apartment for her and her children. Her hopes of escaping the FEMA trailer park are fueled by her health problems, her children's health problems, the crime and danger to which they are exposed, and a general desperation for maintaining her dignity as an autonomous woman and mother.

But this isn't so easy. She has gone through ten case workers in the last two years and they have all been unresponsive to most of her complaints and questions. But what frustrates her most is her own lack of information. Ms. C has heard rumors that FEMA will be shutting down her trailer park in a month but she doesn't know if this is true and where she'll go if this occurs. She's read that her headaches and her children's nose bleeds, coughing, and asthma are all caused by the formaldehyde in the trailer walls but she doesn't know if FEMA will be held accountable for this. She sees lawyers going around the park talking about filing a class action suit against FEMA, but she doesn't know what this means and if it will help her. She saw her neighbor's trailer being hauled away the other day and she doesn't know if her trailer is next in line for eviction.

Somehow, she hasn't let this frustration make her feel powerless. She calmly lists the things she needs from FEMA. She says she needs help with the medical bills. And she needs FEMA to respond to her concerns about repairs to the trailer and about assistance with relocating. But what Ms. C needs most of all, is for FEMA to know that she is more than Lot Number 25; she is a person who has a name and a heart- a heart that aches at the sight of her child's blood and at the sound of her child's wheezing.

Ms. C gets up early every morning to conquer her fears of being trapped and powerless. She is a woman of great dignity who finds strength in working hard and finds hope in planning for her children's future.

Mighty Mississippi

I was recently in Biloxi, Mississippi volunteering with the Mississippi Center for Justice. The center, along with offering many other services, acts as a legal liaison between the FEMA trailer residents and FEMA. During my time down there, my team and I helped interview clients, gathered information about their legal issues, compiled this information into various documents for the staff attorneys, and followed-up with certain clients about further assistance.

Before I came down to Mississippi, I assumed that the people hurt most by Hurricane Katrina were those who lost their house, car, and other belongings. After my first day of meeting and speaking with hurricane survivors in the FEMA trailers, I realized that the hardest hit were those who didn't have much in the first place. Such folks were those who, before the hurricane, were of low income, received disability benefits, social security benefits, subsidized/assisted housing, etc. These people have less economic mobility now than before Hurricane Katrina hit because what resources were once available to them through the government have now become scarce.

Many residents who want to seek employment cannot do so because they have no viable transportation- either they no longer have a car, or their trailer park is placed in a remote area that is too far from public transportation routes. There are also disabled residents who are either physically unable to seek employment, or in no condition to work.

Even if a resident has retained employment, it's quite difficult for her to leave the FEMA trailer because it's difficult to find housing. The average one bedroom apartment in Biloxi, MS used to rent for around $400. The exact same apartment is now priced around $800 because after Katrina, landlords and property managers doubled rental prices and deposit fees. While minimum wage has not budged, property has become expensive, scarce, and inaccessible.