Valley responds … or not
By Crystal Graham
(This is the final installment in a six-part series on The Valley Responds, an effort that links the Shenandoah Valley with residents of Long Beach, Miss.)
Helping school children return to classes.
Assisting an elderly couple in efforts to rebuild their home.
Clearing land so that churches may resume services …
The rebuilding process of hurricane-ravaged Long Beach, Miss., starts and ends with volunteers.
Universities and churches are sending small groups to work with residents of this coastal community – preparing food in kitchens, giving out supplies in distribution centers, lending a hand wherever help is needed.
Long Beach resident Francis Carruba-Leblanc told The Augusta Free Press that the people of Long Beach are united after Hurricane Katrina because of their faith and even more so because of this tumultuous ordeal.
“The sense of family is definitely here,” Carruba-Leblanc said. “Everyone helping each other makes you appreciate the simple things.”
While help is coming and going, there are a few organizations that are in Long Beach to stay – no matter how long it takes to rebuild – with the goal of getting the close-knit community back on its feet.
The Valley Responds, an organization that adopted Long Beach on behalf of the Shenandoah Valley, is one such group.
Situated at ground zero, the group has erected a large yellow-and-white tent known to residents of Long Beach as Camp Responds.
It’s the first place many people stop for help – people who have, in many cases, lost everything to Katrina. Some need advice on what to do next, others just need someone to talk to, to console them, to offer a hug …
Jim Sullenger is the point man for the Valley group – and he’s overseeing Valley volunteers and volunteers from across the United States that come to Long Beach wanting to help with recovery efforts.
Colorful push pins mark work sites on a map in what appears to be command central for the group.
“In spite of our small crew, we’ve probably done 30 to 40 projects of varying sizes,” Sullenger said, giving an update to coordinators and volunteers with the organization. “We’ve been so busy, we don’t even have all of them on here yet.”
A typical day
On the ground in Long Beach, no day is necessarily the same.
For volunteers, some projects take five hours … others take 185.
One day, volunteers constructed a roof to conceal the showers at the fire station; the next, they moved tree branches and other objects in front of a house so that a family could reach their home.
From clearing debris to surveying a structure, there’s something for anyone who wants to assist Long Beach.
For the Valley Responds, they’ve been able to help a cancer patient who wants to live her last days in her flood-ravaged home. They’ve helped first responders get their homes in liveable order – medical workers, police men and women, public-works crews – so that they may then focus on the greater good and not worry constantly about their own families.
So much to do, so little help
Several weeks ago, The Valley Responds made a call to residents of the Shenandoah Valley. The group asked for volunteers to spend a week in Long Beach, a week repairing the damage left by the storm.
“We need volunteers to come here for however long they can,” administrator Emily Purdy told The Augusta Free Press after an exhausting day recently in Long Beach. “It pretty much takes a day and a half to drive here. It’s 940 miles, so that’s a 15-hour drive.
“If they can commit a week, that’s what it should be. We’d like to have teams leaving every Sunday morning and coming back every Saturday night,” she said. “You can see there’s just so much need. There’s no way we can send too many people.
“We know there are 700 homes that have been lost, but then there’s probably 700 more damaged,” she said.
A slow start
Despite the call for volunteers in this worthwhile effort, the response back home has been minimal, says Purdy.
“We’re disappointed in the reponse,” she said. “We think that most people think that it’s all cleaned up because it’s been two months, and people think it’s done.
“But this town isn’t going to be cleaned up for three years,” she said. “So there’s always a need.
“And the response has been very slow for volunteers to come here, but we understand that it’s hard to come.”
So far, the Valley has sent around 10 people over a two-week period to assist in efforts – and one Nelson County construction company sent a group of employees as part of the effort.
“Some people are leaving today,” Sullenger told The Augusta Free Press, “but we’ve had a core group of eight or nine here almost all the time.”
All forms of help needed
While Purdy tries her best to understand the reasons for the lackluster response for volunteers, she doesn’t understand why people in the Valley aren’t helping out in other ways.
“It is hard to understand why we asked for 500 cases of copy paper, and we got one case,” she said.
The group also asked for help in putting together kitchen and linen kits for families who have nothing – but are finally getting Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.
“It’s hard to imagine that we asked for 700 of these kitchen and linen kits, and we’ve gotten 25 so far,” said a frustrated Purdy.
“And they have 35 trailers placed right now, and another 35 coming in a week,” she said. “So it’s time now to get the kits.”
Bob Paul, the director of Parks and Recreation in Long Beach, agrees with Purdy that the immediate need is for help with everyday items.
“FEMA trailers aren’t coming with anything in them,” he said. “The biggest thing that we are being asked for are things to outfit the trailers with.”
Paul said that the residents of Long Beach are thankful for everything that people around the country have sent to Long Beach – pots and pans, cooking utensils, bed sheets, items that are sent to a central distribution center and then passed on to those in need.
“When people come in, and we can give them what that need,” he said, “it’s just overwhelming.”
The need will soon be even greater, he said, because FEMA is putting around 80 teachers together in a trailer community, so they can concentrate on the children of Long Beach and not worry where they are sleeping that night or the next.
“We’ll get it done,” Paul said. “I’ve never seen so much outpouring. It’s just incredible.”
Long Beach resident Stella Wolf finds it hard to believe that so many people, including those from the Shenandoah Valley, have given their time to help families like hers. Particularly, she said, she is in awe that so many people pitched in at her children’s school so that they could reopen last month.
“We live in the best country in the world by far,” she said. “In 10 days, (a skating rink) turned into this unbelievable school. And there was nobody being paid.
“It’s amazing. Our country is always ready to give,” she said, watching her children play outside the now-open St. Thomas private school. “It’s not just the government – it’s the people.
Having volunteers and donations from around the world has also helped the Allen family get back on their feet. They lost their home, their belongings, everything except each other, to Hurricane Katrina.
“There’s people that just come to help out,” said Corri Allen, 17. “It’s a blessing to know that they (volunteers) are there. Helping especially my family because we wouldn’t be living in the camper that we’re living in now if it wasn’t for some of the money that we’ve been getting from outside sources,” she said.
Valley Responds … or not
Purdy hopes that the local media attention will open the eyes of Valley residents – and show them that help is still very much needed.
“I think there’s something for anyone who can take the time to come here, whether it’s your vacation … the weather is beautiful today, you couldn’t ask for nicer weather to work in.
“If you can come to Long Beach, it will change your whole life forever.”
For now, she prays that residents up and down the Valley will answer the call – for volunteers, for supplies, for any help they can offer.
“I’m disappointed that we can’t get Long Beach what they need and what they told us that they need,” she said. “For the people who have given, it’s been very touching.
“But we have an empty warehouse,” she paused. “We have a whole warehouse, and there’s nothing in there.”