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In his own words: Dr. Joe Dumas

Photojournal

My wife, Chereé, and I watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina for several days, before and after it made landfall. With parents in Mobile, AL and Columbia, MS, as well as numerous friends and relatives in the Gulf Coast area, we were very concerned about where the storm might hit. We knew that regardless of the actual impact point, people we knew would be affected.

As we watched the devastation on TV Monday and Tuesday while waiting for our own skies to clear, we wondered what we could do to help the people trying to make it through the aftermath. By Wednesday, August 31, the storm itself had left Mississippi and passed through Tennessee on its way north, and we began to think seriously about making a trip south to help bring supplies to those in need.

Wednesday evening, we made the decision to leave Friday morning (fortunately, all my classes this semester are TT or MW only) with as much in the way of useful items as we could carry. I sent out a UTCSTAFF message asking for donations of water, food, clothing, and any other supplies that people could spare. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Many people wanted to help and our planned trip gave them a concrete way to do it.

UTC employees who offered supplies or money included (I hope I'm not leaving anyone out) Janetta Bradley, Sharon Brueggeman, Linda Collins, Billy Harris, Karen Henderson, Michel Holder, Irene Loomis, Cliff Parten, Joyce Powell, Verbie Prevost, Angel Ulmer, Holly VandeWalle, and Li Yang. Several others offered prayers for a safe trip and various snippets of information (or simply rumors they had heard) regarding travel restrictions, fuel availability, and so on.

Meanwhile, Chereé sent out an "all page" Thursday morning to her Realtor colleagues at Crye-Leike's Signal Mountain office; several of them joined our UTC friends in responding with donations of water, food, and money. (Altogether we collected about $300 in cash, which allowed us to buy more supplies when our original load was exhausted.) Chereé also received two Igloo coolers and a five-gallon gasoline can from Jeff Jones, manager of Mill and Mine Supply, where she had taken my chain saw for a replacement chain just in case we needed to use it.

The hardest part of the whole effort for me was actually finding time Thursday - a day on which I had a class, a lab, and a Faculty Senate meeting - to collect all the donations. I didn't make it home until nearly dark, but when I arrived I had a carload of supplies to match Chereé's. We immediately realized that we had no hope of getting everything into either car, so we called our older son Johnathan, who had borrowed my well-worn 1993 Toyota pickup for a move, and asked him to return it, which he did about midnight after getting off work in Murfreesboro.

We had hoped to leave Friday morning, but first I had to go buy a few things, fill our gasoline cans, and get the truck serviced (it was way overdue for an oil change). Then it was time to go back up the mountain and load the truck. Besides all the donated supplies, we took the chain saw and a neighbor's portable generator (power was still off at my in-laws' home in Columbia, MS which was our planned base of operations).

By the time we finally got on the road, it was about 1:00 Friday afternoon. We made a stop at the Wal-Mart in Gadsden, AL to buy more supplies (as if the truck wasn't full enough already ... by the time we were done loading our purchases, the leaf springs under the bed were almost completely bottomed out). Later, we stopped in Birmingham to refuel and visit briefly with a friend from college who had evacuated there from McComb, MS.

Fearful of not being able to find gasoline in Mississippi, we stopped again in York, AL (just over the state line) and waited in line a good thirty or forty minutes to top off our tank. Finally, with darkness approaching we entered Mississippi, driving south on Interstate 59 to Hattiesburg before taking U.S. 98 west to Columbia. It was nearly 10:00 at night by the time we arrived (technically in violation of the dusk-to-dawn curfew - fortunately, the mayor and police know Chereé's family well) and we were thoroughly exhausted. We did stay awake long enough to celebrate when electrical power was (surprisingly) restored almost at the stroke of midnight.

Saturday morning we awoke and unloaded the truck, removing the chain saw and the fortunately no-longer-needed generator, and organized the supplies for easier distribution. Then we reloaded the truck and set off for Baxterville, about 20 miles south of Columbia. We saw much devastation, as the storm's eyewall had passed directly over the area. The residents, who lost electrical power during the storm and had no prospect of having it restored any time soon, appreciated the food, clothing, and especially the cold water.

We visited several homes in Baxterville, many of them now containing more than one family since other nearby homes had been severely damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. Finally we took our remaining supplies to the Baxterville Community Center where they could be picked up by other area residents and returned to Columbia.

Since we had burned more than half a tank of fuel since leaving Alabama, I got into an around-the-block gas line while Chereé and our friend Dale Underwood (who drove down from Brandon, a suburb of Jackson, to help us) queued up in another line just to get into Winn-Dixie to buy groceries. (Lines were a common theme of the weekend's activities!) They emerged from the store about an hour later, just before I made it to the pumps to fill up. The only remaining grade at the Texaco station was premium, but interestingly it was much less expensive than regular gasoline in Chattanooga (or anywhere else along the road). The station had been closed for lack of electric power, and simply hadn't had the opportunity to raise prices since before the hurricane hit!

Later that afternoon, with Chereé resting at her parents' home, I made a solo trip to Wal-Mart to use our remaining donations to restock for another relief trip Sunday. Unfortunately, I hadn't heard that all the stores in town were being forced to close at 5:00 p.m. because of the curfew imposed by the local authorities. (Based on events in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there was a real fear of lawlessness and looting, so residents were instructed to stay home after dark.) I entered Wal-Mart at 4:57 and tried to grab all the water, food, juice, paper products, and baby supplies possible ... but I didn't have time to spend all our money. I took my hasty purchases home and we made plans to finish shopping in the morning.

Sunday, after exhausting our donated funds in a return trip to Wal-Mart, we reloaded the truck and set out again for points south. Passing through Baxterville, we continued down Highway 13 to the somewhat larger town of Lumberton. We stopped at the city hall and asked some of the police officers where help was needed most. One of the places they mentioned was Carnes, another 20 miles or so down Route 13. After dropping off a few items in Lumberton (their relief center was, comparatively speaking, well off) we set off in that direction.

We passed through the tiny hamlet of Pistol Ridge (even smaller than Baxterville) and distributed supplies to several homes there. Our main focus was on helping elderly residents and families with babies or small children. Eventually we received directions to the Carnes Volunteer Fire Department which was serving as that community's relief headquarters. There we offloaded the last of our supplies. The cold drinks from our ice chest were the biggest hit!

On the way back to Lumberton, we noticed that residents had posted a sign by the side of the road telling passers-by "We're OK, Thank God." Just across the road from the sign, one of the few remaining trees boasted a large American flag waving proudly - a symbol of survival, determination, and hope.

With the work of distributing supplies done, we drove north on Interstate 59 to Hattiesburg. There we found an open restaurant and ate our long-overdue lunch, checked in on another friend, and surveyed the considerable damage to the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi (my alma mater, and the place where Chereé and I first met). The marquee at the corner of U.S. 49 and Hardy Street said that classes would resume on September 12. Finally we returned to Columbia for some well-earned rest before our relatively uneventful Labor Day return trip to Chattanooga.

I would like to tell all the folks who helped us with donations that they were very gratefully received by the citizens of south Mississippi. One thing in particular that continually amazed and gratified us was the unwillingness of the hurricane-stricken residents to take anything they did not genuinely need. Instead, they would tell us which of their neighbors needed particular items - for example, we would be told that the family two doors down had a baby and needed diapers or baby food. In a couple of cases, we were actually given supplies by residents who had more of some things than they needed.

The sight of storm-ravaged residents getting back on their feet as best they could, and the willingness of our friends in Chattanooga to help in any way possible, made this an extremely worthwhile endeavor. I believe our experience shows that the best way to help others in need is not a one-size-fits-none government program, but rather direct, person-to-person contact. Our sincere thanks go out to all of you who chose to make yourself part of our efforts! May each of you be rewarded many times over for your generosity.

September 9, 2005

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