The night before was somewhat restless in anticipation of the long drive down to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where an AiG event had been scheduled just about the same time this nation's worst natural disaster struck the gulf region. Naturally the event has had to be postponed, but the connection we had with Pastor Michael Barnett in the many months prior while planning for the event placed us in direct contact with a community that felt the brunt of Hurricane Katrina's fury. This coastal community was dead center to where the hurricane hit land with winds clocking in at 140 mph lashing and ripping buildings apart. At the same time water from the gulf swelled to an unprecedented 30 feet as it swept through the town, flooding hundreds of homes and businesses.
It's 5:00 am and most of us are there at AiG headquarters in Northern Kentucky loading up the truck with the last personal effects we might need for the long trek south to this devastated land. Saying goodbye to our wives who can't quite manage to completely hide a little anxiety as we head south, knowing that we might face another category 5 hurricane. Still, go we must; we've made a commitment; we have an appointment. As Rita gains momentum she displays the typical volatility these dangerous, enormous monstrosities are wont to do. As the day unfolds we monitor the news tracking Rita as we occasionally drive through the drenching bands of rain she spews hundreds of miles away from the seven-mile-wide eye center out in the Gulf of Mexico, and still I manage to catch a little sleep on the way as Tom Miller drives the whole way down. Literally thousands are fleeing from Texas and western Louisiana: the next predicted land target. Cars are lined up bumper to bumper on the I-10 as they head east and we go in the opposite direction. We finally get to a fuel station that sells diesel, but it's being rationed to 50 gallons per truck. Tensions mount as we fill our extra cans of fuel. As I walk into the truck-stop store to order the fuel, the line is long and almost reaches the door-there the tension is palpable. I see the faces of anxious people in a hurry while they're being slowed to a grinding halt. Others are oblivious to their surroundings. At the truck stop I'm approached by a person who obviously has lived on the street for a long time. I thought he would ask for a hand-out, but as he got closer he scrunched up his face and peevishly asked, "That's not the way 'Genesis' is spelled in the Bible is it?" as he points to the side of the AiG trailer. My thought is, "Wow, that's some ice breaker for a conversation. Surely he didn't come all the way across this big parking just to ask that." "Yes, it is," I tell him and he suddenly becomes downcast and says "Ah man, I lost!" Apparently he was a gambling man and he'd lost the bet.
It felt good to drive into town with this huge shipment of supplies: we might be able to do some good. As we pulled up to the church, we are warmly greeted by the Pastor and some of his staff. He remarks on how awesome it is that AiG keeps its word as folks in this town have been promised much and not seen quite as much. He recounted how he told others here in town what we were bringing and how he could see the skepticism in their eyes, but he would insist, "These are men of their word. This outfit's different: you wait and see." The sights were remarkable as we came into town. It was starting to get dark but we could see the damage to so many buildings downtown. Tomorrow we take a tour.
Earlier this morning we delivered the huge tractor trailer full of school supplies: 24 pallets stacked high with backpacks, and various writing instruments, paper, notebooks, markers, etc. As the pastor, Dr. Michael Barnett, predicted, they were quite surprised to see so much out-pouring from AiG's generous supporters. The boxes of supplies just kept pouring out of the back of that truck. It is truly more blessed to give than to receive. The pastor rejoiced that this was such a victory for Jesus in the public schools. We rejoiced too. The local media showed up: newspapers and television interviews galore. We had an opportunity to share how AiG's supporters really came through on this one. We recounted how we were originally scheduled to have an AiG event at First Baptist Church of Ocean Springs about a week after the hurricane struck. We recounted how Pastor Barnett had finally reached us with the message that we needn't come and how we had asked him if there was anything we could do to help. That opened the door for AiG to respond personally-something so many of us watching the nightly news had yearned to do. As Pastor related to us how school was scheduled to start and how so many kids had practically nothing, much less school material, AiG issued an appeal to the public-and especially AiG supporters-and the response was overwhelming. It showed how Christians can step up to the plate and deliver! Around here, I suppose they heard all about it on the local news tonight.
Later in the afternoon we were given a tour of some of the neighborhoods here in Ocean Springs. What we found was stunning to the point of instilling a silent pall among those of us in the van as we drove around and saw the destruction in one neighborhood after another. We saw homes that were damaged by flooding, we saw homes contorted beyond recognition as to what they looked like before, we saw the insides of homes outside in the neighbor's yard or scattered for blocks down the street. On one street the houses weren't damaged they were gone-nothing there but floor slabs and debris. Near the marina we saw a boat sticking out of someone's living room. Boats and boat parts were scattered all over the neighborhood, as were automobiles, hot tubs, porches, trees, walls, toys, tools, books, televisions, stairs, dolls, doors, pillars, fallen pillars ... . Simply try to envision everything in your home, then see it scattered and piled up in every mishmash way imaginable for block after block after block along with everybody else's things in the neighborhood. We were able to give some folks small packets of personal hygiene products and they were appreciative but the packs seemed like such small tokens as we were standing in their front yard and able to see, right through their house, what was their back yard. Some wept. Some, we prayed with. Many had the blank stare of one who has just lost the most important battle in their life: a life they will never ever go back to. Still they're going through the motions: sweeping, cleaning, hauling almost everything out of their home if not onto huge trash heaps of debris on the curb. So little is salvageable. On some streets there was more debris and rubble than intact structures. This was an eye-opener. More coming soon regarding conversations with the alderman and the mayor.
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