1.10.2006

 
We awake in Pensacola Florida. At First Presbyterian Church, we have occupied every electrical outlet with our charging cell phones and sleeping pads, piles of clothing, sleeping bags and pillows from home are scattered across the large linoleum floor. As Tracey Harding, our gracious host and coordinator of disaster management instructed us, we avoid the 7am men’s bible breakfast by sleeping in till 8 on our large linoleum floor.

After breakfast and our morning meetings, Tracey returns to tell us about Pensacola’s experience of Ivan. We heard how 911 operators told Residents calling from the attics of their flooded homes that help couldn’t come to them. Operators were instructed to ask for their name, address and next of kin, should the family not survive the night. A man Tracey knew survived the storm sitting in waist high water in scuba gear in the second floor of his home, watching the water level rise around him. We tour the damage, 16 months later, vacant lots and dented white FEMA trailers can still be seen in Pensacola. Harriet from the United Ministries Interfaith Coalition tells us that domestic violence and child abuse rates have rose as tension builds for families with limited resources living in 27-foot trailers. 1800 people still live in FEMA trailers.

Dr. Peggy Walker notes that in the five years after Ivan, Pensacola will search for a new normal. Ivan served as a “great equalizer” leaving all types of residents across Pensacola without power and roofs. Over time, class differences emerge. Those with insurance and savings rebuild homes and buy new furniture. Others return to rent and utility bills and no jobs.

16 months after Ivan, affordable housing has made it on to the city’s agenda. But who will advocate for low-income residents now that low-income housing residents have been forced to leave?

As we learn about the experiences of evacuees and refugees, we begin to experience taste of the strain of evacuees ourselves.

For forty something of our diverse group, travel is slow and often confusing. We are moving through the south, but we don’t always know where we are going next or how we are getting there. At points we feel frustrated and helpless, isolated and a float. We try to build systems and norms for living together, cooking, reflecting, prayer but each new place and activity brings a new set of challenges to working together.

Group living means doors are open and many people are wandering in and out. On day one we have had money and credit cards stolen. Such a theft could be detrimental to someone who has evacuated his or her home with very few belongings.
Sleeping in large groups on church floors means that many of us don’t fall asleep until the last person comes in and we wake up when the first person does. I can tell my classmates to shut their cake holes, but would I be able to say the same to a fellow evacuee who I don’t know? Though I deny it, I’ve turned to pharmaceuticals to help me sleep. A Tylenol pm helps me isolate from the group when I need to get away and ensures that I get the sleep I need. I bet real evacuees and refugees turn to available substances as well to help coop with the hardships of group living.
Eating together means that members sometimes have few options, meals may be late or unpredictable which can further strain refugees. Unlike Katrina and Ivan refugees, we have an open kitchen and can make snack runs at any hour of the night. Some of us have pledged not to leave the south without a trip to Waffle House, which seems to appear along side the road about every 1/2-mile. Stay tuned for more details.

Comments:
I'm going to begin by stating the obvious. I'm not there with all of you. One reason for this is that I can't be. There are a few things that still give me all-out anxiety attacks (the rocking, sobbing and hyperventelating kind) and they include the Southern United States and being in unpredictable situations I cannot control. This brings me to my contribution to the conversation. How much more does it complicate the already terrible living situation of the homeless or displaced to have experienced previous trauma? What sort of traumas have the individuals who become homeless experienced? How many rape and abuse survivors are among them? How many more after disasters such as hurricaines?

I am in an unpredictable and uncontrolable situation right now but I am very fortunate to have someone I trust to take care of me. I feel safe. I believe that this is a big part of what is needed. Tallu, I know what you mean when you say you feel small. No one can do it all and not everyone can do the jobs that look more important but every contribution is necessary. I am so proud of each of you and I will continue to follow zour progress from afar.
 
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