The Forming of the New Waveland Café
from a post to alt.gathering.rainbow by Hawker
When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast we were all amazed at the images and stories coming in via various means. As the magnitude of the disaster began to sink in, I started receiving phone calls from around the country from my Rainbow friends suggesting we go down and feed folks. What a great idea, I thought. If anyone knew about keeping people healthy in a primitive setting and dealing with creating refugee camps, it was Rainbow. Add to that that we knew each other and how to work with each other already, and we seemed like a natural. The mission I was about to undertake will change my life forever, but I didn’t know that then.
After much planning, phone calls and fundraising, Arjay, Scot, DragonFly and I left from Asheville, North Carolina, on Saturday, September 17th – much later than we planned, but prepared to feed the masses and meet up with other Rainbow Family kitchens heading down. Word was that we were setting up on a military base in Louisiana for the Black Caucus. After talking with that crew, Arjay and myself felt that was unlikely to happen anytime soon, so we made other plans. Based on a recommendation from a friend, we went to the Salvation Army command center at Yankee Stadium in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Nothing – no news media, pictures, stories, or anything – could have prepared me for the destruction I saw when I arrived. The smell of rotten sewage hit my nose driving down 150 miles north, giving me a clue as to what was to come as did the broken trees and damage seen as far north as Montgomery Alabama. Driving down I-10 I first noticed every billboard either down or ripped to shreds – what an eerie sight. There were miles and miles of destruction as far as the eye could see. Picture the entire lower 25 miles of Mississippi totally wiped out. Almost every structure below I-10 would need to be bulldozed and started over. Most that were north of I-10 for a few miles would need this too. On waking up the first morning I had three stray dogs under my cot desperate for any human loving they could get. The town was awash in stray animals frantic for a new companion. Perhaps this was the first true message of the emotional impact this hurricane had made.
From Yankee Stadium we made initial contacts and got a tour of the destruction and needs, mostly in the town of Gulfport, from a Salvation Army chaplain. Here we linked up with the NAACP and were asked to feed in the underserved poor black neighborhoods. The tour gave us a better idea what we were dealing with. The first lesson was that people would not come out of their communities to feeding areas. They wanted to stay in their house, or what was left of it. They were clinging on desperately to what they had left, and losing any more, even losing the nothing they had left, was more than they were ready to face – so they stayed put at what was left of their homes. This meant that what was really needed was many small feeding areas, not one large one. There was no shortage of need, but we wondered if we could work in these areas or if the cultural differences would be a problem. We were assigned a spot in a wiped out church near a community of 2,000. On the day we were going to move onto this site, we heard that Felipe of Kiddie Village had left Aaron, Clovis and the others in Louisiana with the feeling that their plan would take too long before it would come to fruition. He had set up in Waveland, MS. We decided to divert to there to join as one.
Let me tell you about Waveland, MS. It is a small, mostly upper middle class neighborhood that was ground zero for Katrina. The whole town was wiped out by a 30-foot wave that took the town out completely. Almost nothing salvageable was left. Katrina was the great equalizer for this town, making poor and rich equals in the struggle for basic food, shelter, clothing, and survival. For reasons I don’t fully understand, Waveland was almost completely ignored by larger relief groups. The only folks doing any real work were the small, mostly church based relief groups. There was no sign of the Salvation Army. The only Red Cross presence was trucks picking up foods from other groups and re-distributing it. This seemed like the place we were needed.
We arrived in the parking lot of a Fred’s food store and met a local Christian relief group from Bastrop Texas called BCOC (Bastrop Community Outreach Center). They were down there, as they said, “to just love on everyone as much as we can”. That sounds like Rainbow to me. We joined forces in a common goal to serve and help as much as we could. We were two totally different groups united by a common cause. The relationship couldn’t have been better. We set up a common serving area but two kitchens, one of BCOC and one Rainbow. After time Rainbows went to the BCOC kitchens and BCOC folks came and helped in the Rainbow Kitchen. We become one together.
Together we did our best to give the people what they needed. We cooked, set up a “wall-less mart” where people could get basic food, camping, clothing and other needs. We unloaded tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer of supplies. We provided medical needs in our first aid tent (up the road Carolina Medical from Charlotte, NC, set up a larger mobile field hospital for more serious needs). But mostly we tried to give the town the love and support they needed. One of my favorite tasks was to sit down and eat dinner with locals each night. They usually couldn’t wait to tell you their stories. They needed to get them out and begin the healing process. I became one of many ears.
I heard amazing story after story of heroic clinging to life in the storm as 30 foot waves washed over them, of total house destruction, and of trying to find a way to start over with nothing. I have heard these kinds of stories before on the news, but the power of hearing so many from so many people first hand moved me to tears. It was one of many times I cried there, being part of the power and healing that was going on. It was amazing to watch the people go through the process of grieving of lost homes, possessions, dreams and their life. When we first came, they were still in a state of stunned disbelief. Over time this changed to sadness, frustration, anger (those were the hardest days), and then gradual acceptance. We were there to love them through this all.
The days were long and the heat tremendous. This was the hardest I have ever worked, as I got up at 7 am to work till midnight each night with sweat pouring down me all day in the 95 to 103 degree sun. Yet the faces who came each morning and thanked us for giving them hope made it all worth it. I head many a story from folks telling us our food was the best, or we had the only diet varied enough to keep them out of the hospital (we were a favorite feeding area for those with medical dietary needs such as diabetes). Most relief centers served instant food or re-heated already made food. Apparently we were the only feeding center with real food made from scratch. Folks told us they came to us for over 50 miles, had sampled all the food stations, and we were the best.
We fed locals, cops, military personnel, construction crews, volunteer crews, and anyone else who came. I have no idea how many meals we served per day, but 6,000 is a decent guess. All this eventually (according to FEMA) made us the largest and most liked feeding center (or POD as they called them) on the Gulf Coast. We went through the back door, just doing what we do best without any agency support, and came to the attention of FEMA and hence their support as we became known for our good work. Eventually we became a main pipeline for supplies, getting donations of any sort with ease, and we grew and grew.
Relations were good all around. We had our own group of Florida cops that loved us, worked with us, and guarded our area for us. Perhaps this was the first time in Rainbow history we truly worked hand in hand with police, military, and others without fear, paranoia, or agendas – just cooperation. No attitudes on either side, just an acknowledgement that we were working together to help the town. This was also, we noted, perhaps the first time government agents openly and willingly ate Rainbow cooked food.
So here was the birth of the New Waveland Café from members from many Rainbow kitchens. We created a rainbow environment and the people came en masse. It was amazing to see Rainbow love spread and work its magic on the unknowing. I watched cops put down their guns to join and help, government officials adopt and use Rainbow words, and Rainbow love change not only locals, but provide hope and feelings of love and worth to volunteers whose lives had been missing love and appreciation for years. As many previously non-Rainbow volunteers left, many a tear was shed at the realization of the life changing growth we gave.
We grew and grew and the gifts kept coming. First Cisco folks, in order to test a new wireless mesh based internet system, put up a satellite feed and provided us a wireless repeater, VoIP phones, and three laptop computers. A school in North Carolina gave us 240 high school kids as volunteers. The mayor gave us an oven/stove out of the Waveland Civic Center and Blossman Gas gave us propane and hooked the stove up. An oil company dropped off a 150 KW diesel generator, and trucks of whatever we needed came in many times a day. Here in this town your money was worthless; there was nowhere to spend it. Everything was free now. I wondered how this would affect the town in the future as the residents learned the power of free giving. Most got it, but some refused to take for fear that others needed more. Others hoarded, stole, or took too much for fear that they would never get it again, or from not quite understanding what was happening. But most got it and freely took and gave as they were able and needed.
As time went on Rainbow became more the feeding area and BCOC took on distribution of goods, unloading of trucks, and helping with infrastructure. We had a massive operation taking the corner ⅓ of a Super Wal-Mart parking lot. The rest of the parking lot was taken by a Seventh Day Adventist group. While our cooperation with BCOC was great, with the Adventist group it waswas poor. Eventually the Red Cross also pulled out from the Adventists because they could not deal with them. Then FEMA couldn’t deal with them either, and their leaders pulled out – leaving everything in the hands of “Rocking Robin”, a 16 year old member, and cooperation started. The issue was that the Adventists worked by mowing over everyone and not working with them. They created an environment that was hostile and unliked, and hence people didn’t use their facilities. This created more anger and resentment on their part and the problems continued.
Eventually we became victims of our own success. The town and officials were now beginning to take back control. We started getting visits from FEMA, health departments, and other groups. They wanted us to stay, to be the last large center. They would give us everything we needed – large tents, support, equipment, food – but we would to do it all their way. This left us wondering if it would still be real; if we would destroy what we had created that was good; if we had a choice. There was no doubt that we would be needed till at least Thanksgiving, but what we would be by then is anyone’s guess. Transition to permanence was pending and things were changing. We would have to see what happens.
The Waveland Café served its last meal on Thanksgiving, and some moved on to another Rainbow kitchen that had been set up in New Orleans, while the others “were tired and wanted to go home”.