DIVINITY Online Edition

In Biloxi, Katrina Played No Favorites

By Bob Wells

On that last Saturday in August, Katrina was only a distant storm to folks in Biloxi, one of many that spin through the Gulf of Mexico every year. In fact, it was so beautiful that afternoon that the Rev. Carol Burnett and her family celebrated her birthday by sailing in the Gulf.

The next morning, though, they awoke to news reports that Katrina had grown into a Category 5 storm, and was heading their way.

A Mississippi native, Burnett, who attended the divinity school from 1976-78 and then graduated from Union Seminary in 1981, had lived in Biloxi for years, working since 1989 as director of Moore Community House. A local mission agency of the United Methodist Church, Moore Community House provided child-care and other related services to low-income families in East Biloxi. Established in 1924, the program had 40 kids enrolled in an Early Head Start program, and another 24 children in a preschool program.

Infant bibs hang over the door at Moore Community House, a mission for low-income families. Floodwaters from Katrina inundated the children’s center, which was established in 1924.

As Burnett and her staff made their own preparations to evacuate, they quickly notified as many Moore Community parents as they could reach to watch the local news for word on when the center would reopen after the storm.

“Looking back, we thought we would be away for the weekend and then be back to work on Monday morning,” Burnett says.“We had no idea how severe the impact would be.”

After riding out the storm with her husband and four children at her parents’ house in Jackson, Burnett spent an agonizing week, unable to return home. With trees and power lines down, highways across southern Mississippi were closed and only emergency vehicles were allowed into the area.

When they finally made it back to Biloxi, they found block after block reduced to rubble. Their own home was destroyed, only the rough two-by-four framing propping up a collapsed second story.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Burnett. “It washed everything out of the first floor. A huge upright piano . . . a refrigerator . . . everything. It was all gone.”

At Moore Community House, the damage was just as bad. The program’s eight buildings—essentially small frame houses used for classrooms and offices — and three playgrounds had been submerged to the rooftops. One building had been knocked off its foundation by the storm surge and another had been rammed by a neighbor’s house that had floated into it.

Inside, ceiling tiles had fallen in, and desks and equipment was scattered and covered in muck. On the playgrounds, jungle gyms and swings were crushed beneath fallen trees.

“We’ve had so many hurricanes since I moved to the coast, but it’s always been just minor repairs and then you move on,” says Burnett. “This has been completely different. It has completely changed life throughout the area.”

For Moore Community House, the most pressing task since the storm has been to locate and equip an interim facility. For now, the center and its board face a long process of assessing damage, filing insurance claims, and working through the decision to rebuild what was left behind or start anew. Architects gave her a preliminary figure of $2.5 million in damages.

Meanwhile, the center has been caught in something of a “Catch 22.” Unable to provide services, the program currently has no revenue, either from Head Start funds or other sources. As a result, they have had to cut staff. Only five employees remain from the pre-Katrina staff of 32.

While Katrina played no favorites, demolishing the homes of both rich and poor, its impact arguably falls harder on the poor, says Burnett.

“For people who had jobs, but lived paycheck to paycheck, it was a catastrophe,” she says. If there has been any bright spot in the aftermath of Katrina, Burnett says, it has been the outpouring of support from across the country, particularly from United Methodists.

UMC congregations from northern Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and elsewhere have sent relief teams and other assistance. Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., has talked with Burnett about establishing a long-term relationship to provide help throughout the recovery process.

“We’re an organization that provides services, but now we’re an organization that needs services of our own,” says Burnett. “We’re supposed to meet the community’s needs, but now we have needs ourselves.”

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