Biloxi, Miss: a journal from devastation

Friday night: It's midnight. We left Geneseo almost six hours ago, and the bus hums beneath the passengers. Outside, the world slides by, illuminated by streetlights. The snow is gone, but the interior of the bus is just five degrees too cold, like a doctor's examining room. Most are sleeping by now, but I'm too excited. I'll pay for it tomorrow.

Saturday morning: It's 4:30 a.m. and we are somewhere between Cincinnati and Louisville. I'm groggy, and the reflections of streetlights look like fireflies. The bus rolls on, and I fall back to sleep.

Saturday afternoon: We arrive in Gulfport, Miss., two hours ahead of schedule. We've been on the bus for almost 24 hours continuously as of right now, and we exit the bus to stretch our legs and squint in the bright Southern sunshine. We've stopped at the Armory, the base camp for the North Carolina Baptist Men, which will take us in for the rest of the trip.

Sunday: Today is supposed to be for rest and relaxation before our work starts on Monday, but it turns out to be just the opposite. We begin by taking a trip to what remains of the Biloxi boardwalk. The experience is surreal. Massive signs advertise casinos that no longer exists. Even two years later, piles of broken drywall and twisted metal dot the roadway. The landscape looks like a world of building blocks, half ripped apart by a child.

Unfortunately, our day at the beach ended quickly, with John Butler cutting both his feet in a game of barefoot soccer. As we dug deeper we found that John had been cut by a half-buried ceiling fan. The tetanus shots came in handy.

Monday: We had made our beds on the concrete floor of a bare white room in the back of a Baptist church. There is no hot water, but the floors and halls are very clean, and although there is only one bathroom per floor, we all wait our turn.

We rise in the morning, blurry-eyed and sore, file slowly onto the bus and drive to the Armory for breakfast. We eat scrambled eggs, grits and bacon. The main dining hall reminds me of a military mess hall, and our 50 person group is dwarfed by the warehouse and the four other teams from across the nation.

I get on the bus to see our house for the first time, full of expectations, sure of myself and my abilities. And then I see the house. While the outside looks passable, the inside is a nightmare. There is no electricity, no water, and it was clearly a construction disaster even before the hurricane. The house was built before the 1950s, so nothing is standardized. Every doorway and wall is a different size, and the beams have been warped and bent by the water so that almost nothing lines up. I'm overwhelmed by the amount of things we have to do. Then someone suggests taking out all the rusted nails sticking out of the walls. I pick up my hammer and get to work.

The next few days pass in a blur, and I haven't had the time or the energy to keep regular entries. We get up before sunrise, break from work for sandwiches, then work more until we leave for the day. Every day brings more challenges. The work is complex, difficult and time-consuming, but we see gradual progress. Every hour of exertion brings us closer to making this house back into a home.

Thursday night: After work, we shower and drive 45 minutes to Ocean Springs for dinner at a restaurant called The Shed. Imagine a building cobbled together from a junkyard. Never more than one story high, the roofs are corrugated tin, the interior made of buckets, old beams, and a thousand other odds and ends that someone threw away a long time ago. Writing speckles every conceivable surface, most of it from customers.

The specialty of The Shed is barbecue, so I order a rack of ribs without actually understanding how much food that is. It ends up being a huge slab of meat that makes people from other tables turn their heads. Before I dig in, everything that has happened in the last few days finally hits me: I am in the deep South, at a barbecue restaurant, less than 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. I suddenly feel very far from home. This homesickness is coupled with a strange sense of other-ness, like I've been dropped into the middle of someone else's life. Then I study the faces of my new friends, illuminated by bar signs and torchlight, and crane my head up at the stars. Things aren't so surreal after all I suppose.

Friday: Knowing that this was our last day to work on the house instilled a sense of desperation. We scramble to hang as many doors as possible, finish grouting the tile floors, and hammer the last bits of molding into place. We begin reconstructing the wall we had demolished in order to hang the bathroom door. It becomes my job to make some sort of threshold to bridge the two tile floors. Using a planar sander I carve a threshold out of a plank of hardwood. Being able to set it in the house, seeing how well it fit, made all the work worthwhile.

And then all of sudden it was over. And there wasn't any great climax at the end; we didn't finish something at the last second. Everything sort of just wound down. And as I looked at our house, and at the tattered and broken neighborhood that surrounded it, I felt such a great sense of sadness, but there was also triumph, anger and joy.