Monday, November 07, 2005

FEMA, Storms, and Shelter

Here is an update from my friend Dan on his mission to construct shelters for Gulf Coast residents. You can read more about it here, here, and here.

Hi all,

I've been back from my deployment in support of the World Shelters Katrina Aid mission for nearly four weeks, and this week the last of our volunteers returned home, a long 2600 mile drive back to Seattle from the Waveland/Biloxi area.

I've jotted down some notes on my experience; If you don't have time to read it all you might jump to the Live Journal link and you can peruse pictures posted by other team members and journal entries.

I only was down there for 11 days (9/19-9/29), but it seemed like a month. It was very intense, being thrown together with people I only vaguely knew in a hot, humid environment devastated by the power of Mother Nature weeks before.

We were there to help World Shelters, a somewhat new non-profit organization, build and deploy temporary shelters for emergency workers and Hurricane victims (

We were the first deployment - we had to figure out how do something that this group had never done. Luckily, through Hancock county/FEMA we were put up on Stennis Space Center (where the Space Shuttle engines and rocket boosters were made) along with the other aid workers. This
meant hot showers out of a truck, hot food (also out of a truck), ice, and water. And some grass to pitch our tents. We were camped next to the Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant, tormented with fire ants (little red welts on your legs etc) and swarming love bugs (they don't bite but land all over you, your food, everything else).

The World Shelters team had arrived earlier in the week and set up their production shelters with the materials to make over 60 of the 25' x 12' quonset style canopies. They had also erected a few of the canopies at the County Emergency Operation Center for use by firefighters.

Chris and Sam showed us the ropes and we were ready to go out and deploy some more shelters to firefighters that had lost their station - metal buildings blown/washed away by the 16'+ storm surged that devastated the Waveland/Bay St Louis/ East Biloxi coastline. This area is just over the border from Louisiana, 40 miles from New Orleans. Just when we were all getting the hang of setting up the shelters (3-4 people can put one up in less than an hour, depending on the wind), we learned that Rita had taken a turn in our direction and was heading our way with 50+ mph winds. The decision was made to get the heck out of Dodge, and the closet motel we could locate was nearly 4 hours Northeast in Grove Hill, Alabama. We hastily packed up camp, throwing it all under the two shelters that were up. We piled in three vehicles and drove through rain squalls to the middle of nowhere. Two nights in Grove Hill (in a *dry* county) left us itching to get back to the task we came all the way from Seattle to accomplish.

Our camp made it through Rita unscathed, but most of the shelters we had set up did not. Building on our mistakes, we improved the staking of the new ones we would set up as well as experiment with strengthening the PVC ribs of the structure.

The rest of the first deployment had clear, hot weather, allowing us to scout out sites for shelters and set them up. We built two long shade structures for a Red Cross aid distribution center, where people had been passing out from heat exhaustion the day before. They also got a canopy to store medical supplies under.

We build a canopy for medics to use at the "New Waveland Cafe", an point of distribution set up by the Rainbow Gathering folks. I also spend much of my final few days prepping more canopies at our base camp, so future deployments would have shelters ready to be set up when they arrived.

My final day I was able to tour the beachfront drive in Waveland - nothing but slabs and steps remained of historic old mansions. 300 year old oak trees uprooted, the remaining leafless trees sprinkled with debris - like a giant salt shaker had hit. Cars in swimming pools, people's lives scattered over blocks and blocks. As you went inland, houses appeared, without roofs, or moved off their foundation. Windows of all the big stores smashed by the waves, 16' of filthy mud coating the inside of the Wal-Mart.

Piles of debris were out in front of every standing structure, people had began the enormous task of gutting buildings down to the studs, removing all the ruined furniture, carpet, drywall, and insulation.

Ice, water, food and clothes were available everywhere, but not much else. Broken and uprooted trees where being sawn down and hauled out in a continue stream of trailers.

In view of this widespread destruction, I was amazed that less than 2000 people perished in the storm and it's aftermath. Despite the shortcomings of FEMA/the aid response, we live in a very rich country with many resources. That's not to say that we could have saved more lives with more timely aid, but compared to the earthquake that hit Pakistan (50,000+ dead) we were lucky.

I think it will be a long time until the Gulf coast returns to normal. There is so much clearing and rebuilding to do, as well as discussion and planning to take place so that this doesn't happen again.

Thank you all for your donations (I raised over $1500 + $1440 from a party we threw to raise money) that allowed myself and nearly 50 volunteers from all over America to help World Shelters provide over 60 shelters to Hurricane victims and Aid workers.

I encourage you to look at the photos and read more about the rest of our deployments via the web links below. I'd be glad to chat more about any of it if you are interested also.



email sent out by Jesse Robbins, Seattle Taskforce organizer:


It's been 7 weeks since we began this mission. In that time we've recruited 50 volunteers, sent 26 people to the field, and done 290 *DAYS* worth of work giving shelter and whatever else we could where it was needed.

The aid we provided to the Red Cross, Hancock County, The New Waveland Cafe, The Temple, and others helped bring services to tens of thousands of people. The shelters we provided families will provide a stable base to reconstruct homes, lives, and hearts.

Our work provided the spark for a new collaboration of humanitarian organizations to fill the transitional housing gap left by FEMA.

Lastly, we proved that "Direct Aid" can be effective and easy, requiring only time, money, and heart. This is only the beginning."


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