Friday, March 24, 2006

photos by Virginia Hart

Reverend Samuel Burton Sr. When I first met him he sitting under the big oak tree on the corner by his ruined house, his cousin James sitting near. His clothes were worn and dirty, his white shoes had long since served their purpose and his face was lined with wrinkles, but his eyes were sparkling. I introduced myself and we talked awhile. I asked if he needed anything, a tarp, blankets, food, but he politely declined. He did accept a bottle of cold water, "James here is an ole man, he might could use a drink." I believe James was 86. "Someone down the road probably needs it worse than I do, I'm doing fine."
As we sat there making polite conversation a car pulled up and a tall man with a gun strapped to his leg got out. He had some Ensure with him and he took it over and placed it in the old black truck parked across the street. He introduced himself, and asked the Reverend if he had told us about his tree. He hadn't yet as we had only just met, "Now you know they don't want to hear that ole story Benny" he said, but it was obvious that the Reverend had a story to tell.
Benny just smiled, "sure they do" and that was all the encouragement Reverend Burton needed.

"Walk with me child, you see that tree?" and with that, the story began. "I was in my house with my nephew and we was a looking down the road and I says to him, you see that stop sign down there?" "that water gets to that sign and its going to flood out Pearlington" "that water ain't never got that high." And they watched as the water crept past the stop sign and towards the house. "we was sitting in the house, just a watching and the water got up to the floor and my nephew he says "Unc we better get on up out of here." As they went out the front door the water swept the Reverend off of his feet and his nephew had to help him up. They were headed down the street, trying to make their way to Reverend Burtons daughter's house when the water gushed towards them. As they were swept down the street the Reverend grabbed a vine that was hanging from a tree "take my hand son, he said, don't fight the water" "that water is going to raise us up and when it does we are going to get up in the fork of that tree" "The wind was just a blowing, and the trees were shaking, but the water done raised us up and we got in that tree." Reverend Burton's dog floated by and they managed to grab her and get her in the tree with them. As they looked towards the west they could see Reverend Burton's daughter and grandchildren huddled on the roof of the church across from his flooded house. "I knew they was trying to get to me and I yelled that I was alright, just stay up on that roof"

For hours they stayed in that tree with the wind and rain beating on them. "The wind was a howling, and the water hit so hard it burned and the trees all around me were shaking and bending."

I asked if he was afraid.

"No child, I sang, and the more the wind blowed the louder I sang and I just talked to the Lord. I said "Lord you know I am your servant and I done everything you ever asked me to do and I know that if I asked you for something you will do it, I'm asking you now... please don't touch this tree I'm in." "You can take all these trees around me, just don't touch this tree I'm in." "And one by one the trees around me just split, they was breaking and popping like twigs, but the Lord left my tree alone - and there it stands"

He had walked me down the road and I looked to the wooded area he pointed out. There stood a lone forked tree in the midst of a cleared area. The trees were snapped off near the ground in a complete circle around that tree. It didn't look sturdy enough to have even held the dog, yet it held two grown men in a rough wooden embrace, for hours.

And that was the first of many visits with Reverend Burton. It took a week of daily visits before he would accept anything other than my friendship. And another few visits before he really started to talk. I remember the first time I asked him about his house. He had tried to salvage a few things, but hadn't found much. He wasn't upset about the house though.

"That house, was just a house, it wasn't home. I've been building me a new home, been working on it most of my life. One stick at a time, one good deed at a time, oohh is it going to be fine. It will be a glorious place with rooms for all my family, but it ain't ready yet. I'm not done. The Lord will tell me when my home is done."

We talked of many things on my visits with the Reverend. He is wise, beyond his years. The lines on his face a testament to his character, and the constant sparkle in his eyes a sign of his faith. He was always my last visit of the day. Even though he was long since retired, he still held court at the base of that old oak tree. People would stop to ask for directions and end up lingering for hours.

Some would just see an old man, in dirty tattered clothes with a baseball cap pulled down over his unruly curly gray hair and not look beyond that. He knew what they were thinking and it didn't bother him. I would watch as his eyes would start twinkling and he would say "I only went to school three days, the first day et' lunch, the second day I had recess and the third day I played hookie but I can count to ten and I can write my name." The people who only saw the outward appearance, those who missed the twinkle in his eye, missed alot.
Reverend Burton is an Alumni of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia.

For those of us who looked deeper, who took the time to listen, he would sing. He sang for us as he did for the Lord while he was up in that tree. And we listened and for a little while, our hearts were lighter.

UPDATE - My second visit - The Rev has an RV! A kind soul saw his story on CNN, drove down and signed the deed over to Reverend Burton. He has a bed that is not owned by the government, and he has hope. Volunteers still come around frequently and he does love to visit with them. He still holds court under that old oak tree on the corner.

On my most recent visit in August Reverend Burton was looking good and on the surface his spirits seemed to be up. Both of his houses were demolished and the debris and old cars have been removed from his lot. He is walking with a cane now, says his back is hurting. And he confessed to having nightmares. The attention on the coast is waning, as are the volunteers, but he has a pup underfoot who he adores so he is not completely alone. I worry that he will fall in that trailer. He is not as steady as he was even just after the storm. I've been told by other locals that he does love that RV and tools around town with it constantly, God Bless the man who donated it.

UPDATE: I received news this afternoon that Reverend Burton has passed away. He never did get out of that FEMA trailer and back into a house. A church group was in the process of building him a new one, and I'm told he enjoyed watching the progress. I worried about him. As the weather grew cooler I wanted him back in a house of his own. He told me not to trouble myself with worries about him, that he would be alright. That someday soon his house would be done, and he would go home.

He is home now, that glorious home with rooms for all his family. Promised to him by our Lord. I will miss him, but he is blessed. He no longer has back pain and doesn't need a cane in his new home. He sleeps with angels who prevent the nightmares that have worried him since Katrina. He and his beloved wife are together again. Truly, they are home.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

photos by Virginia Hart

Meet Claude and Cookie Bello. They lost everything. The trailer on the right is home now, and a church group built them a shed. The trailer is small and cramped and though they dream of a home of their own they don't complain. They are just happy to be alive.

Take a good look at Claude, you may not realize it but you are looking at a hero. His story will break your heart.

Before the storm Claude and Cookie were content. They owned a small piece of land near the river that Claude loved. His income from crabbing supplemented Cookies pay from her job answering phones 10 hours a day. Claude and Cookie had a nice little trailer with three bedrooms that they had bought with Claude's aunt. They had moved her in so they could take care of her. When she needed a handicapped accessible home she moved on and they kept the trailer. It was still in the Aunt's name, she had found out that if it was in her name only they wouldn't have to pay property taxes because the aunt was elderly so Claude's name was taken off the title.

And then came the storm...

Claude and Cookie did not evacuate and soon they were joined by family members who couldn't leave. They went to Mr. Russes place. It was a beautiful old place directly behind and to the left of Claude and Cookies place. It had survived Camille and Mr. Russ offered it to them as shelter from the storm. Mr. Russ and his family had evacuated because his wife was ill and his son handicapped.

They stood in the living room and watched the Pearl River, directly across the road from Mr. Russes house. They watched as the river crossed the road, Camille had not crossed the road. Soon the water was up and even with the porch. They watched as it crept towards the glass doors and started seeping into the house. As they stood in ankle deep water the cellphone rang, it was Mr. Russ. He wanted to know how close the water was to the road. "It is ankle deep in your living room Mr. Russ" Cookie replied. He seemed not to understand and asked again "how close is it to the road?" Cookie handed the phone to Claude. "Cookie doesn't understand me Claude", Mr. Russ said, "I asked how close is the water to the road?" Claude replied "we are now knee deep in water at your dining room table."

"My God, Claude get your family to the attic, that river is going to wash away Pearlington" yelled Mr. Russ. At that same time an announcement came over the battery powered radio. "Thank God for miracles, the storm has turned north" "it is now headed up the coast of Mississippi along the Pearl River"

Dear God, thought Claude it is headed right for us, we have got to get higher. He forced open the door in the rapidly flooding living room and got everyone else headed upstairs. Just as he was turning to go up himself the glass doors burst inward and he went under. He could feel himself pushed into first one wall and then another. He wanted badly to breath but knew if he did he would die. He fought the current and pulled himself back towards the entrance to the attic, under water all the way, his body bouncing against the ceiling of the flooded house. When he felt the corner that would take him to the attic he pulled himself around it and the current shot him upward. He came out of the water gasping for breath and weak, and needed help standing.

The rafters shook and heaved with the force of the water and they knew that even then they were not safe. The only possible exit, a small window. Claude kicked out the window and pushed everyone out. The roof was metal, and the women could not hang on. Only one of the women could swim, and they had the baby in a plastic tote. After shoving the women back into the flooding attic Claude knew their only hope was a boat. The water was at the roof line now and the house was being battered by the current and debris. Claude scanned the horizon for a boat and when he spotted one he left the relative safety of the roof and jumped into the water. Somehow even though the wind and current were strong, he managed to get that boat back to the house. There was no rope or anything to tie it to the house, but there was a metal pole at the end of the house that had been in place since before Katrina. One of the other men got in and helped hold the boat in place for the women.

Frankie sent the baby down to Claude in the tote, and Claude put him in the boat. A strong wind picked up the tote and lifted it out of the boat and the water started to carry the baby away. "I thought we had lost him", Claude said, "and I jumped in again and grabbed him saying God help me, help me save that baby." After everyone was loaded into the leaky boat it was very heavy. The wind was blowing hard, the current lifting them up only to smash them back down, and Claude held onto that metal pole. They had nowhere to escape to, and as the full force of the hurricane hit they huddled in that boat, secured near the house only by the strength of Claude's arms. It lasted for hours, though there was a brief period of calmness while the eye passed and still Claude hung on. "I knew after the eye passed we would get the other side of the storm and we had no place to go". Then it hit again, with even more force. They could yell, but the wind was howling so loud that you couldn't even hear the person sitting next to them. Claude looked at Cookie and she was screaming.

Claude said "I couldn't hear her, but I understood her. She was saying don't let go baby, please don't let go." "I looked down and my arms were bleeding from scraping on the pole, but I didn't let go. " "I knew if I did we would all die." And so they hung there in the driving stinging rain, held in place only by Claude's arms, until the storm had passed.

When the storm passed they made their way to what was left of the firestation. Claude said "I knew that the pump truck had just been filled and we could use it to clear of a piece of concrete so we would have somewhere to rest." They had no food and no water, only the clothes on their backs. After getting the women settled the men went out looking for survivors. They pulled some people from the rubble of their homes and got them back to the station. Others straggled in until there were 12. And they waited for help. "After three days with no food I knew we had to feed the women, and I told Frankie that if we could find someones freezer with a good seal there may be food in it that we can use," said Claude. And they got lucky. "When I opened that freezer and the cool air came out I yelled" "there was hamburger and some shrimp in it". They managed to make a grill out of things they found and used sticks to turn the meat. "Lord was that food good."Claude remembered.

They woke to the sound of chainsaws on the fifth day. Forestry Rangers were out by the main road trying to cut their way in. Help was finally coming.

Claude is my hero, he saved those people. He only has one lung, he lost the other to Cancer some years ago. And he is diabetic. But he is a survivor and he is strong when he needs to be. His strength let others live when they would have died.

Because they didn't own their trailer Claude and Cookie are not getting compensated for it. They were able to collect for contents only. They had to use what little money they got for a car so Cookie could get to work, and that car needed tires. Claude's boat is gone, and he got nothing for it. They applied and were turned down for a SBA loan to repair the boat.

Now it is six months later and they are living in a cramped FEMA trailer. They have used old cars, some clothes and a shed. Cookie still works 10hour days and they get by. Claude has Cancer again, they cut it off his ear and it was so large he had to have a skin graft. Their cheerful optimism is starting to fade. Some church groups are sponsoring a few young families and providing homes for them, but there will be no help for Claude and Cookie. The twisted steel frame of their old home lays mangled in front of their property as a constant reminder of all that they lost. They are not bitter, but depression is beginning to get hold of them.

Please help them. They need a place to call home. A good used larger trailer or even a modular home. If you want to help or know someone who can please email me at

UPDATE - Got some wonderful news during my last visit!!! While they hesitate to believe as they have been disappointed many times, it seems that Claude and Cookie are getting a house. A church group is building them a new home. The lumber is set to begin arriving on September 11th or 12th. When I spoke to Claude on Thursday he said that in fact some Amish men were already at work doing some pre-fab. I am planning my next trip so that I will be able to put a few nails into that house myself!! Anyone want to come along?? Maybe take some housewarming presents....

This chair is in a house in Pearlington Mississippi. I took this picture in the quiet hours of the early morning on a recent visit to that small town. I first met Pearlington, and it's people on October 5th of last year - five weeks after the storm.
I was sent down from Ohio with the Red Cross and had been on the coast for two days. I was deeply saddened and moved by the destruction of the Gulf Coast, but what I found in Pearlington made me speechless. They were weeks behind everyone else in recovery.
My job with the Red Cross was Staff Health. As an RN I was to travel to the shelters, kitchens and distribution centers and make sure that the volunteers were safe and physically and emotionally well.
I first got to Pearlington in the afternoon hours of October 5th. It was miles from anywhere but seemed to be worlds away. Many of the houses were still standing, but what the wind didn't carry away the water ruined. Like a bully holding onto a small child, the trees kept the homes in place while the water beat them relentlessly.
As I said my "job" was Staff Health, but I found my duty in Pearlington. My mission. I would spend my mornings doing my official assignments, then all my afternoons in Pearlington. I would load up my assigned van and travel the dusty roads looking for people who could not come to the center. People too old, too depressed, or just unable to get to the help they needed. Many of the people I encountered just needed to tell their stories. They had wonderful stories of survival and courage, and a lot of pride.