T.J. Eisenstein, art director for The Hurricane, was one of the students that traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to aid in the hurricane relief effort. Here he recounts his experience in this two-part series.
The inside of Frank’s house was almost unrecognizable as a place that was once livable. Looking around at the piles of Frank’s former possessions covering nearly every inch of the floors-and the layer of what can only be described as “slush” that covered all of this-it was hard for me to imagine that this was someone’s “stuff.” This was someone’s home. All the makings of Frank’s former life laid piled like trash throughout the house, and at this point, it was all trash. After a deep breath, followed by gagging from the smell, we got to work.
Everything had to go. The 20 of us that were at Frank’s (the other 20 were working down the street) split into groups and each took on a separate room of the house. Using shovels, hoes, pitchforks, axes, sledgehammers and especially our gloved hands, we began to clear out the rubble and form a trash mound in front of the house that would eventually become as large as the house itself, it seemed.
Eventually, we cleared out every single thing from the house, something that could only have been done with amazing patience and teamwork. It took about eight hours to finish, and we left Frank’s house power-cleaned, bleached, dry and empty. It was hard to imagine Frank being able to move back in and live in that house after all it had gone through. It would probably, we would find out later, have to be torn down. Only one thing kept the 20 of us, who had put all we had into cleaning that house for eight hours in the blistering southern sun, from feeling our efforts had gone in vain. Digging through the mess, we were able to salvage a few sentimental items for Frank to keep, the only tangible reminders of a past life before Katrina: a few framed family photos that were peculiarly still hanging on the wall amongst the rubble of his home, his and his wife’s wedding album, which was found relatively unscathed under two feet of ruined possessions and a few other items that had meaning in one way or another to Frank. His sister-in-law, who stopped by the house to pick up the photos for Frank’s wife, would tell us through teary eyes that these were the only things that they had left of their children. This alone was enough for us to know we had made a difference in someone’s life, regardless of the fate of the house.
The 41 of us on the trip repeated this routine in three more houses, finding in one of them the owner’s wedding band which had somehow been swept away and lodged underneath the wall. In another, we were told by a grateful Biloxi resident that “the world needs more young people like you all. I’ve never seen any young folks work as hard as you all.”
Every night, after eight to 10 hours of work, we would all go back to the makeshift Salvation Army headquarters and eat Papa John’s pizza from a donated pizza-making truck. We ate pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner for every meal while we were there. Then we’d set up our cots in the middle of the abandoned high-school football field we were staying at and play poker, share stories and get to know the 40 forty other strangers we had been put together with. Eventually, we’d go to bed, tired, sweaty, dirty and for most of us, without even a blanket or a pillow, to wake up bright and early the next morning and get back to work.
In perfect cyclical fashion, we spent the last night of our trip sleeping on the bus on the way back to Miami, just as we had spent the first night. We arrived back for midday classes Monday, and to many around campus it may never have seemed like we had gone at all. But for those of us who did go, we know our lives will never be quite the same.
T.J. Eisenstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.