In Waveland, Miss., the little town that arguably received the worst punishment Katrina could mete out, those credited with the swiftest response are not disaster-relief groups or government agencies, but a bunch of hippies and a rock band.
"I hate FEMA and I hate the Red Cross," grumbles a police dispatcher as she files paperwork outside the crumpled shell that had been the Waveland police station. "They didn't show up for a week and a half. If it weren't for them," she says, gesturing to a relief center across the street, "we wouldn't have anything."
3 Cheers for 3 Doors Down
The dispatcher will remain nameless here, given her worry that ill talk about FEMA might affect its response to a ravaged police department that, five weeks after the storm, still awaited much-needed federal help.
"Them" is the New Waveland Cafe, a feeding station, medical clinic, supply depot and burgeoning community center serving the newly homeless multitudes around here. It was started by the unlikeliest of bedfellows: the Bastrop Christian Outreach Center, a full-gospel church from Texas, and the Rainbow Family--counterculturists who meet yearly at "Rainbow Gatherings"in national forests.
Meanwhile, the band 3 Doors Down, upon learning Waveland had lost its fleet of city vehicles, quickly purchased a fire truck and three police cruisers for the town--the first new vehicles the city received. The four musicians, all from coastal Mississippi, loaned their tour bus to firefighters who needed shelter, weeks before FEMA provided trailers to the workers who'd never left.
"I cannot say enough about those guys," Fire Chief David Garcia says, gesturing toward the band's autographs scribbled on the fire truck door. "They really came through for us."
In what could, and probably should, be a disaster-response blueprint for the future, locals are identifying smaller groups as the ones who saved the day after Katrina. These include the police and fire departments who drove down with personnel and supplies, the individuals who showed up with backhoes and chainsaws, and yes, the churchgoers, the hippies and the rock band. "The difference is that we are actually doing what needs to be done," says New Waveland Cafe volunteer Shanda, doling out organic potato salad in a macrame bikini top, "instead of sitting around talking about it."
"Rainbow Gatherings" are probably the least likely places you'd think you'd find swift emergency response. But there, amid the council fire, "chanting for peace" and drum circles, are portable kitchens.
"We're used to hauling 'em two miles into the woods," volunteer Arjay Sutton says with a grin. "Here we could just drive up and park in a parking lot."
Aaron Funk, another volunteer, describes how the first group rolled into this coastal town expecting to find an established relief station and to pitch in however they could. Instead they encountered unspeakable destruction and no one there to help. They stopped near some woods, and the noise of their vehicle drew locals who'd survived the vicious winds and the 35-foot surge that took their homes. People emerged from the woods, some naked, the rest wearing tatters, one woman cradling a limp baby and pleading for help that was already too late.
No one expected this level of desperation. "The first days everyone was working really hard, double-time," Funk says. "We were the only hot-food facility on the Gulf Coast when we opened."
As the Red Cross and Salvation Army were setting up their relief stations nearby, the New Waveland Cafe was growing.
Just Not Right
Local residents weren't the only ones who needed help. Waveland emergency workers and other city employees stayed on duty during and after the storm, though they were now as destitute as everyone else in town.
"We hadn't got any help, but we stayed here the whole time," narcotics investigator Jeremy Skinner says. "It got rough. For the first four weeks we bounced around trying to find a place to live," until FEMA sent some trailers down, a month after the storm.
Skinner removes a rusted police baton from his belt and shows how it won't extend anymore. Like all the other Waveland cops, Skinner, and all his gear, was immersed in salt water for hours--all 26 members of the department, cops and dispatchers alike, endured the storm in roof-high surging Gulf waters outside the police station. Two and a half miles inland, growing hypothermic in the cold water, they clung for dear life to whatever they could grab. Somehow everyone made it, though the employees are all that remains of the Waveland Police Department.
When you work on a small force like that, Skinner explains, you buy your own gear. "I lost close to $3,000 or $4,000 worth of personal equipment that I need to do my daily job: my guns, my belt, my vest, everything." He puts the baton away. "But then you try to get assistance from FEMA, and every time you talk to them it's a different story.
"I didn't get to evacuate my stuff because I had to stay behind to help, but then FEMA turns a blind eye. It's aggravating, and it's just not right. People are filing claims for losing their privacy fence and FEMA will reimburse them, but I can't get them to cut me a check so I can go buy me a gear belt and a gun to protect myself and other people. They just expect me to go buy it, and I lost everything, too," Skinner says.
"Why isn't FEMA helping us to replace our equipment? Why doesn't FEMA come to the local departments, knowing that we lost everything, and not get us set up to do our jobs?" he asks. "It's other people, it's the public, who's helping us."
As he speaks, a fire truck from Prince William County, Va., roars past.
The Occasional Whiff
A FEMA spokesman in Jackson answers Skinner's question as best as he can: "There's a process they can and should go through," Eugene Brezany says. "It's going to depend on getting their application in."
Brezany says FEMA will reimburse fire and police department losses through its Public Assistance/Infrastructure Program. Even his brief explanation of the process seems daunting. Each applicant has to fill out a project worksheet, "which identifies the scope of the work that is needed to be done," he says. "Then we have a meeting of the minds as to what that is going to cost. It's a reimbursement program; the local communities can pursue eligible areas of expenditure which we do reimburse them for."
Asked about the specific complaints of Skinner and other emergency workers, he says: "The guys you met may not have been well-informed as to how the process works. This is not a secret program If they need that equipment right now, today, there's an expedited process that can get them some funding.
"If you're talking about guns and belts for officers--some communities require their officers to provide their own equipment--and if that's the case that would not be something we do," Brezany says. "This public assistance program is to restore the community to its predisaster conditions." Which means officers must abide by the conditions that existed before the storm, when they were asked to purchase their equipment out of their own pockets.
Brezany says that since the cops' weapons and gear are considered "work tools," they can apply for loans through FEMA's Small Business Administration Loan program. In short, the officers can and will probably be helped through FEMA--just not anytime soon.
Skinner says tersely he doesn't have time right now to fill out loan paperwork or find a computer in a neighboring town where he can apply online. He and other officers have been using secondhand equipment supplied by other departments, donations Skinner calls "a godsend," but he'd expected those reinforcements to be temporary, until FEMA could replace his gear. "The reason I like having my own stuff is because I know what's happened to it, how it's been treated," he says.
Skinner looks across the street at the New Waveland Cafe. "It's sad that people like that are who's stepping up, rather than our government." He grins when he talks about the hippies over there, how he's turned a blind eye to the occasional whiff of pot coming from their tents. "You know what?" he says. "They're working hard, feeding 4,000 people a day."
We'll Be Here
Across the street, emergency workers, government officials and FEMA inspectors are among those who stand in line for what is arguably the best meal in town.
After the initial shock of realizing that they were among the first responders in Waveland, the group issued the call that serious help was needed. It came, via truckloads of produce from organic farms, kitchen and medical supplies and volunteers pouring in.
Volunteer Arjay Sutton says the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center has told the group its center will likely be needed at least until Thanksgiving. Until then, the area will probably remain without an economy, with all basic living supplies coming free from relief centers and the big tent set up by Wal-Mart in its parking lot. "If there's need after Thanksgiving, we'll be here," Sutton says. "We're not going to compete with the local economy. As soon as it gets back to normal and people can support themselves again, then we're out of here."
But Sutton isn't holding out hope that normalcy will return to Waveland anytime soon. "I'm worried about these people," he says. "They're feeling powerless. We're starting to see the desperation. They're worried everyone's going to abandon them. We were the only ones who didn't pull out during Rita. We stayed and fed the people who could not go, and that was a turning point for them. They realized they were not going to be abandoned, at least by us."
He nods toward the long line of people snaking up to the food counters. "They're not seeing a lot of improvement, and that's very tough on them," Sutton comments. "This place doesn't look any different today than when I got here, except there's a couple of traffic lights on." He looks out onto Route 90, the town's main artery. "You just don't see trucks driving by here full of debris like you'd think you would."
Bigger and Better
Area cleanup has been a big topic of discussion under the tents at the New Waveland Cafe. Everyone here knows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ended up awarding a $500 million cleanup contract to politically connected AshBritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla. (with an option to increase by another $500 million.) They're aware AshBritt is a client of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's lobbying firm; that in the first half of 2005, AshBritt had paid $40,000 to Barbour Griffith & Rogers for its services.
Talk of cronyism and questionable deals makes Gulf Coast residents nervous. Among those getting fed at the New Waveland Cafe are independent contractors, truckers who drove to the Coast with heavy equipment hoping to get in on the massive coastal cleanup job. Most are being turned away, much to the dismay of many living amid the debris by authorities.
Mike Eachus is one of those truckers. He came down from Cleveland, Tenn., ready to get going--all he needed was an inspection of his equipment and the green light to start work. "I sat around for three days with all these other trucks in a line five miles long," waiting to get inspected, he says. "We all sat on the side of Highway 90, and if you got out of line you lost your place. So you couldn't leave. They opened the scales one day for an hour and then closed them. Same thing the next day. On the third day, they came by and left notes at nighttime saying they weren't going to be certifying any more trucks." He gave up, and is now cleaning up debris in the much less hard-hit area around Franklinton, La.
Eachus said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was conducting the inspections, but Corps spokesman Mike Logue in Vicksburg says AshBritt is in charge of that. "That's what we pay AshBritt for, to manage that aspect of the project," Logue says. "That's a common comment that we hear. I get e-mails and calls all the time from guys who say they've been waiting in line for days and they can't get certified. All we can do is tell them it's just street-market negotiations, that the contractor only needs so many trucks and you just have to get in line."
Logue says AshBritt is actually ahead of schedule to reach the Corps' goal to have the Coast cleaned up in eight months. He estimates the amount of debris at "230 football fields, each 50 feet high--so the debris mission is about four times the size of Hurricane Andrew," he says. "The cleanup is doing pretty good."
Fire Chief David Garcia, outside his ruined fire department, says that rebuilding "bigger and better than before" has to be the focus for the people of Waveland; otherwise, they don't have much to look forward to. He points to some new growth emerging from all the bushes and trees that turned brown and dead after the storm. "Now some of the trees are growing back, and it looks like a big old bomb went off," he says.
His staff recently got trailers to live in. They still awaited portable offices from FEMA so they could, among other tasks, complete the extensive paperwork required by FEMA and the city's insurers.
"We're not supposed to be working out of the station because of all the mold and mildew that's growing in there, but if you don't have nowhere else to work you don't have a choice," Garcia says. "We can't wait for that. We do what we've got to do. And what we've got to do now is rebuild."
Eileen Loh Harrist is a writer from New Orleans' Gambit Weekly, the city's alternative weekly, temporarily living in Jackson.
Screw the Red Cross... How do you make a donation to the Rainbow People?
From the sound of it Rico just bring them some weed. I couldn't find anything about them on google about donating but their website is http://www.logoschristian.org/rainbow.html i think.
reading this story I felt tears welling up...the reality of the hardship really hit home. Also the reality of the kindness and giving that is taking place.
One of the folks from there was kind enough to send the information. I certainly wish that the JFP could put a link to this on the main page. These guys certainly deserve our help... Not sure how to make the links "clickable"- you may have to cut and paste. It is certainly worth doing, just to see the pictures, if nothing else!
Web site for the Rainbow Relief is
The donation site for Waveland and Waveland Website is
My Oct. 25 daily email from Rainbow Whole Foods has this info on what's happening:
Pick up a Jackson Free Press today and read the cover article on the New Waveland Cafe. A small group from the Rainbow Family, a traveling "hippie" group who lives in many of our National Forests throughout the year and attend national meet-ups of the Rainbow Family, are feeding over 2,000 people per meal out of a Fred's parking lot in Waveland. They contacted a grocery co-op in Pittsburgh (East End Food Co-op) and asked for grits recently which started a chain that has reached us. Vincent at East End is now in the process of wrangling food to be delivered here by distributors and then transported from our store to the New Waveland Cafe. We are excited to be a step in this process.
I'm planning on volunteering my truck for transport.
More from Rainbow Grocery's website:
Last week i recieved a call from Vince at the East End Food Cooperative in Pittsburgh. Vince had gone to the Coast to feed the masses immediately following Katrina and had stumbled upon the New Waveland Cafe, a makeshift kitchen in the parking lot of a Fred's with a handful of people feeding over 2,000 citizens, volunteers, and emergency personell including FEMA. At this point, the New Waveland Cafe is stocked to the gills with all the non-perishable starches and beans they can handle, the need now is fresh produce. This is where we come in. I have contacted Hester Hensarling who has been coordinating work trips weekly to and from Bay St. Louis and Waveland. She went down yesterday to meet with the Cafe and discuss the organizing of this system. We are now collecting money for the direct purchase of goods from suppliers to begin weekly shipments as long as the need exists. You may make donations at our Customer Service desk. Please feel free to spread this message far and wide, it would even be beneficial to collect money yourself from others who may be interested and can not make it in to Rainbow.
Thank you for telling Waveland's story so well. And thanks to all the folks from Jackson setting up our produce supply line so that we may continue to serve "arguably" the best meals in town.
You can now find our donation URL at www.REMARelief.net Click on the forum topic "How to Donate to the New Waveland Cafe." The Action Hero Network has graciously allowed us to use their tax exempt status for donations.
Thanks again for all your support.
New Waveland Cafe
It is our pleasure, Arjay. Keep up the good work, and we'll do what we can to help.
Also, let me know y'all need extra copies of that issue with David Rae's great photos in it. We can arrange to get you some. I have a writer down there today, but I didn't think to send some. But we can send some on the next trip, or y'all can pick some up here in the Jackson office if you have someone in town. Just let us know.
Peace and appreciation,
i usually don't get emotional over news articles, however this one had me bawling like a baby.
thanks ms. harrist for the great story and jfp for the links to the rainbows, i am making a contribution today.
This update about the cafe is on nola.com: http://www.nola.com/forums/volunteer/index.ssf?initial=true
...the last remaining relief station in Waveland, the Waveland Cafe and New Waveland Market will close after Thanksgiving by orders of the local authorities overseeing the relief effort. They do not want the "free" items to interfere in the free market system that is starting to grow as stores come back online in Waveland/Bay St. Louis.
With so many still living in homes without electricity, no running water, no jobs, no banks, no vehicles, no grocery store - this is going to be interesting to watch evolve. I received a call, today, from a resident who has worked in the relief effort and he wants to know where he is supposed to "eat" now as FEMA still, to date, has not inspected his house and he can't dump it out to start gutting it. He is still living on the "porch" in a tent and can't afford to eat, daily, at the Sonic Drive-in. He is not the only one in this "boat". I really do not understand the logic behind this move on the part of the local "emergency services powers that be"? My thought on this is that they are trying to "starve" out those that can not "survive" and force them to evacuate. And many will have to do that with no relief services being offered.
The work order list continues to grow at the New Waveland Market and the shift will be to volunteers willing to assist homeowners get their properties into some sort of livable condition. The work is hard and most definitely not something a lot of people can "handle" at all. Takes a special type of volunteer - one with a good "stomach" and a very very strong back.
This is horrible. I believe that people who are able to get to the grocery store will go, regardless of whether or not the cafe is open to those who still cannot afford food.
It's happening elsewhere, too. More from another blogger on nola.com:
The same thing had started to happen in Biloxi before I left. The city government was trying to shut down the food distribution centers because the supermarkets were opening back up. I had the same thought - what happens to the people who have no home, no job, no car and no money? I don't know how much progress the city government has made on this, because I don't believe Camp Compassion was planning to leave...
3 Doors Down is still at it, nearly a year after we wrote this story last year about their efforts on the Coast:
PASCAGOULA — Members of the alternative rock band 3 Doors Down have presented two checks to aid Hurricane Katrina relief.
Guitarist Matt Roberts presented a $25,000 check Tuesday to Resurrection Catholic School, where he was once a student, to help replace library books lost in the storm.
Principal Darnell Cuevas said the school lost thousands of books when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.