Opinion

Six Years After Katrina, New Beginnings and Book About Survival

 The U.S. is no stranger to crisis. In recent months, we've seen Hurricane Irene threaten the East Coast, wildfires engulf the Southwest and fears of terrorism stoked amid 9/11's 10th anniversary.

But Americans bounce back from crises. We always do. Especially those of us who call the Gulf Coast home.

Without regard to race, creed, or income, Nature’s own equalizer struck Mississippi on August 29, 2005. Today we call it “the storm”, most of the world calls it Hurricane Katrina; the single greatest natural disaster to ever strike the United States.

The storm was over ninety miles wide with winds in excess of 150 mph.

Without prejudice it leveled tens of thousands of homes all along the Mississippi Gulf coast. This ten hour act of nature may well have created the greatest expansion of homeless population in America.

Six years later, after surviving both the financial meltdown in 2008 and the BP oil spill of 2010, Mississippians have shown the world their grit and commitment. 

We did not flee or give up. 

We came together and stayed together. 

We partnered with hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the world to rebuild our cities, neighborhoods and the private and public sectors of our economy.

Today, new houses and business are back in operation and doing better than before the storm. Infrastructure has been repaired. Medical facilities and schools are better than ever.

A lesson learned by some “instant homeless” resulted in an awaking of a new social conscious. We had always been a giving community. We supported the development of the arts, education, mental health, children and elderly. 

Now, armed with a first-hand experience of not having a safe and secure place to call home, nor an address to receive our mail, many of us have come together to address the needs of homeless. By firsthand experience, we have learned that those who do not have the resources to recover or who were already living in the woods when the storm came, needed our attention and support.

The community stew pots were built back, better and more efficient.

The community social agencies that for years have offered social services to the homeless communities have bonded together in a collation of shared resources.

A new player on the scene is Mississippi Cares International, Inc.(MCI). It was formed by Fox News contributor, Washington, D.C.-based radio personality Ellen Ratner and her partner Cholene Espinoza right after Katrina to address the many needs of residents who were affected by Katrina. 

MCI’s first project was the Marsha Barbour Resource Center in the DeLisle community. The Center provides services to the youth, working parents, and seniors through a swimming pool, a NBA gifted basketball court, the Sam and Mary Haskell KaBoom playground, a wellness and fitness center and a community activity center.

Homeless issues came quickly to MCI. The homeless population had grown. After several attempts to work through the regulations and permits of the cities, which do not address homeless shelters, we elected to purchase an apartment complex to side step the process of city approvals.

Oregon Place Apartments in Gulfport, Miss., was purchased, rehabbed, and furnished down to knives, forks, and spoons to provide a safe and secure shelter and address for those who needed a hand up in their personal recovery journey. 

The rules at Oregon Place are simple: no drugs, no alcohol, enroll in educational or vocational training and be kind. We have moved our clients literally from the woods into a nice two bedroom apartments.

The Oregon project was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Mississippi Development Authority and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

This year, on this the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, MCI has introduced “Mail Box Muffins and Other Recipes from the Gulf Coast Homeless.” The book contains authentic recipes from the some of the residents of Oregon Place. These are the recipes that this hearty group of survivors used to sustain themselves while living in the woods. Each contributor is introduced with by a recap of how they became homeless, how they survived the storm, and how they will benefit from our hand up.

One of the book’s main contributors is Bobby Kelly, a current Oregon Place resident who was living in a tent just outside Gulfport, when Katrina hit. Kelly miraculously survived by clinging to the porch of a nearby house, and is now living at Oregon Place while he works on his high school equivalency degree.

In Mailbox Muffins, Kelly and his fellow Oregon Place residents share their methods for cooking on a budget, such as using cans for cooking pots, discarded mailboxes as ovens, and tuna containers as muffin tins.

There are lots of cookbooks that raise money for the homeless but none with recipes by the homeless. Not only does it show readers how to make some delicious meals on a budget, it will also warm your heart.

Bobby Kelly and the other contributors to this book are a real inspiration, and there is no better cause going on right now than Oregon Place.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to help the residents of Oregon Place and the book serves as a testament to the inspirational, personal stories that have become the hallmark of our perseverance and dedication to rebuilding our communities and our lives.

William Richardson lives in Jackson, Miss. and is a developer for Mississippi Cares International. Find out more about the book, Mailbox Muffins, at www.MailboxMuffins.com.