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The Katrina Connection

By Anton Wishik
Photography Courtesy International Aid

West Michigan churches, businesses and individuals continue to donate thousands of hours and millions of dollars to help the communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina one year ago.

Chuck Hinken was on the 13th tee when he got the call: You’re needed in Mississippi.
It was about noon on Monday, the 29th of August, last year, the day Hurricane Katrina attacked the south. By that evening, disaster volunteer Hinken and four employees of International Aid in Spring Lake had a semi-trailer and two box trucks on the road, full of tarps, blankets, hygiene kits and water. They made it as far as southern Illinois that first night, headed down I-55 with no clear destination, driving to an area with no power and no communication. By Wednesday morning they were distributing supplies to hundreds of desperate Mississippi residents who were trying to survive without shelter, food or water —the very first help these folks had seen.

Now it’s a full year later, and Hinken, a retired pressure technician for MichCon, has been volunteering in Mississippi for most of the year since. He was there for four months last fall, made additional trips in the winter and spring, and was there in June when he spoke to Grand Rapids Magazine by telephone from Camp Coastal, the camp of 20 bunkhouses for volunteers built in panels by Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and trucked to Kiln, Miss. Hinken was scheduled to return to Mississippi in July to help rebuild a church. And his story is just one of dozens — maybe hundreds — of tales of West Michigan residents who have turned their lives upside-down to help turn around the lives of Mississippi and Louisiana residents hurt by the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

They say New Orleans will never be the same. Well, neither will International Aid. A year ago, the agency had 5,000 volunteers. Now it has 22,000 and a true international reputation. The value of the food, water, blankets, medical supplies, construction supplies, equipment and more delivered through the agency now exceeds $50 million. About 25 percent of that is from West Michigan businesses. Cash donations exceed $3.5 million. About 70 percent of that is from West Michigan donors.

The Red Cross has raised even more, almost $4 million locally. Bethany Christian Services, the Salvation Army and Red Cross helped find temporary shelter in West Michigan for more than 450 evacuees. Local businesses have donated everything from airplanes to propane.

For years folks have talked about this region’s incredible spirit of charity emanating from churches and businesses and citizens. Now there is absolute proof.

And yet there is so much more that needs to be done. Hinken, a tough blue-collar guy who fought in Vietnam and has volunteered at many a disaster, can’t talk about it without tearing up.

“ I come home and go back to church in Hudsonville, and they ask, ‘Isn’t it back to normal?’ And it’s hard to tell them no,” Hinken said. “The other disasters I have been to were confined to a narrow area. This thing is 100 miles wide. The whole coast of Mississippi — 98 percent is gone for hundreds of yards up the shore. People with no flood insurance … nothing has really been started for them. (In) most of the poorer areas, many people haven’t even come back yet.”

In New Orleans, massive public housing sits empty, as does most of the 9th Ward, a huge section of working-class, single-family homes owned almost exclusively by African Americans. A Brown University study suggests that 80 percent of displaced New Orleans blacks — more than 100,000 people — may not return. Houses still sit smushed together, just as the water left them. There are cars perched on top of houses, houses on top of cars, and cars balancing in trees. You can walk up a brick front stoop — to nothing; the house is gone. And there are painfully few of the white FEMA trailers that dot the white neighborhoods, denoting families who have returned to their property and are living in the trailers while working to make their homes livable.

But another side of the race issue is that predominately white churches, including many in West Michigan, have led the effort to help mostly black communities in the south. The church that Hinken’s mostly white church is helping to rebuild is all black.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Asian, Catholic, Protestant, Jew or whatever,” Hinken said. “Everybody is helping each other out.”

Hinken’s first stop the Wednesday morning after the hurricane was in Macomb, Miss. The local sheriff led the International Aid trucks around downed trees and power lines and past police blockades. By the time they stopped at city hall, there was a line of people waiting. And so it went, town after town. By Friday, three semi-trucks from Meijer had arrived. Alticor loaned a plane and donated Amway supplies. Dick DeVos loaned a helicopter that was used to scout truck routes and could land in church parking lots with supplies.

Commercial Contractors Inc., of Grand Haven, heard that International Aid needed a warehouse, and got The Gap to make available an Old Navy retail store that Commercial Contractors was building in Hattiesburg, Miss. In a week International Aid distributed $10 million in supplies from that location, which was shared with other relief agencies. Commercial’s owner, Ken Sharkey, personally donated $40,000 in fuel. Virtually every trucking company in the area offered vehicles and drivers for free.
Great Lakes Motorcoach provided 21 buses that delivered water, generators, sleeping bags and air mattresses to Mississippi — and then went on to New Orleans to bring evacuees to Michigan.
Many local churches have sent volunteers to the area, including hundreds through the Christian Reformed Church’s World Relief Council.

Local volunteers know they are doing great work, but they also are haunted by the destruction they have seen and the stories they were told.

“I was in the tsunami area in Sri Lanka a year ago in March,” said Dean Agee, Kent County commissioner and International Aid’s officer in charge of the relief effort. “What I saw in the tsunami was identical to what I saw in the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi.”

Barbara Misenheimer is a Red Cross volunteer who has been to 23 disasters in the past decade, including 9/11. For four weeks last fall she served as the mental health manager for eastern Louisiana, then returned in the spring.

“It was very definite grief,” she said. “People were coming back and starting to realize what happened. They had heard about what had happened to their neighborhoods, but until you see your own house, you don’t believe it … and you don’t begin to feel it.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, eight days after Hinken left Michigan with those trucks, he finally made it all the way south, to the gulf coast of Mississippi.

“I was in Vietnam,” Hinken began over the phone, and then he had to stop. There was a long pause. He struggled to resume speaking.

“ When we drove in there,” he said, “you could just smell the decay, the death. There was a debris line up the beach, debris stacked to the tops of houses: cars, trucks just piled up on the houses.

“ The destruction … (In Vietnam) you would go into an area that was bombed, and it was that same feeling. You knew they were going to find bodies. You could just tell, a sense you get … the smell and the eeriness of it.”

Some of the toughest stories to hear are from children, kids 10 and 11 years old describing how they had to swim through sewage and past bodies, how they climbed onto roofs as the water rose and screamed for help to boats going by, how they looted stores, first for food and then for anything they could carry.
Many of the volunteers find themselves returning to Mississippi and Louisiana again and again because the need is so great. Even the local need here in West Michigan is acute, according to Lisa Marks, local CEO for the Red Cross.

“ Everybody thinks about the Red Cross during disasters like Katrina, but not about people here who lose everything to a house fire,” Marks said. “People sent donations for Katrina and we sent on every penny. … And now we are in a deficit (locally).”

So West Michigan will keep giving. The volunteers will keep volunteering. Because the need is great — and the reward is great. Hinken plans to visit some of the folks he helped months ago, including one woman in January.

“ I went up to a lady’s house and knocked on her door. She was in a FEMA trailer. I introduced myself and she started to cry. She said she had lost her husband two years ago, and now lost everything she owned. And she said, ‘I was just sitting here talking to the Lord and to (my husband) Bob, saying what am I going to do. And you knocked on the door!’

“ Two days later we had a crew down there — roofers, and we did some electrical work so she could get her wash done. “A lot of these people, you keep in touch with them. People on the Mississippi coast are the most grateful people I have ever seen.” GR

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