By Galen Holley / NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – For two Tupelo ministers who worked to rebuild their communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the storm continues to be one the most formative experiences of their lives.
“I’ll never forget driving down Second Street, in Pass Christian, seeing the broken gas mains, the houses in the middle of the street, the people in tattered clothes, literally in shock. It was a terrible, terrible scene,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, now rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
Stephens returned to the Coast, where he was living and working, two days after the storm made landfall.
Stephens became headmaster at Coast Episcopal School in 2004, and he and his students were 10 days into the fall 2005 term when Katrina hit.
Not seeing police for several days, and hearing reports of roving, armed thieves, Stephens was concerned for his safety in those first few days back on the Coast.
“Like everybody else, civil defense personnel were attending to their own losses,” said Stephens. “It was just a total breakdown of everything.”
When he returned to the campus, Stephens began setting up what would become Camp Coast Care, a joint relief effort of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Their home ravaged by the storm, Stephens and his wife and daughter lived in a small travel trailer provided by the diocese on the grounds of the school.
Electricity was soon restored to the school and since it had its own well and plenty of room, the campus became the staging point for thousands of volunteers from all over the country.
A few miles to the west, in Bay St. Louis, an acquaintance of Stephens from a supper club, the Rev. Rick Brooks, now pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo, was going through a similar experience.
The Saturday before the storm, before the skies even began to darken, Brooks conducted a small, intimate wedding at Main Street United Methodist Church, his parish just a block north of the beach.
“Everything in the world was beautiful, it was just a nice vibe all around,” said Brooks. But by Sunday evening he was evacuating to the home of relatives.
Four days later Brooks returned to Bay St. Louis and discovered that with some cleaning his church building could be salvaged, but not much else could, including his home.
Like Stephens, Brooks was provided a trailer in which to live by the United Methodist Church, and he set about using his parish’s facilities as a staging point for volunteers.
When Stephens reopened Coast Episcopal School 30 days after Katrina, only 40 percent of his student body returned. Most had fled the area.
Seventy percent of the students’ families and 85 percent of the faculty had lost everything.
At Sunday services in Bay St. Louis on Sept. 4, only four of the 200 members who regularly attended Brooks’ church were present.
As the weeks passed, Brooks noticed the toll that the stress of rebuilding was taking on people’s marriages.
“Many people, like us, relocated their kids and were trying to rebuild their lives living apart from each other,” he said. “That kind of stress, of trying to sustain life, can be tremendous.”
Both Brooks and Stephens say it was the compassionate response of regular citizens that turned things around.
At Camp Coast Care, a team of doctors and nurses from Duke University served more than 25,000 sick and wounded.
Donations of tools, food and volunteer labor began pouring in. On any given day around 100 volunteers moved around the school’s campus.
More than 400,000 Katrina victims received help from Camp Coast Care in the form of medical care, clothing and food.
“It was experiences of community that sustained us,” said Brooks, whose friend and fellow Bay St. Louis resident Ellis Anderson wrote a book about her experience. Titled “Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina,” it was awarded the 2010 Eudora Welty Prize from the Mississippi University for Women.
According to Stephens, in January 2006 most people receiving help from Camp Coast Care turned the corner, moving, as he put it, from crisis stage to recovery.
“We stopped having to worry about what we were going to eat at the end of the day and started doing more long-term planning,” said Stephens.
By the end of the school year around 75 percent of the student body had returned to Coast Episcopal School.
Brooks figures that most everybody touched by the storm, including him, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Five years later, he said, trying to measure how far those people have come is like trying to measure psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief in an exact number of days.
“After people went through months of rebuilding, and got moved back in, they finally had time to stop and think, and they often experienced another letdown,” said Brooks. “They looked around and saw how far the community still had to come. People suffered tremendous psychological trauma.”
For Stephens, five years later, the memory of seeing people pull together is still just as sweet as the pain of seeing so many lives turned upside down is raw.
“We’ll continue to process what Katrina meant for years to come,” said Stephens. “In so many ways, it’s like it occurred yesterday.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.