Tri Coastal Community Outreach: A Rare Disaster Relief Group Success Story

Deep in the bayou of southern Alabama, thousands of people live in a state of poverty unmatched anywhere in this country. Unlike more publicized areas which receive constant media attention and help from many large charities; this predominantly rural area is both unknown and uncared for. There are pockets of prosperity down there as there are everywhere in this country. But there are also scores of people of all types of ethnic origin that have “fallen through the cracks” and do not receive much if any assistance from the government or charities working in the area.

When hurricane Katrina roared ashore in western Mississippi, its effects were felt as far east as southern Alabama. Unfortunately, little if any media coverage extended past the central Mississippi coast. It is not as though agencies such as the American Red Cross did not arrive to help, for they did; the problem was the smaller relief groups were stretched too thin to provide any assistance. Once FEMA and the other large groups left the area, a void quickly was created that festered long term needs.

Directly on the Gulf of Mexico coastline are thousands of “boat people” (meaning they came over on boats) mainly of Vietnamese origin. Due to longstanding prejudices going back to the Viet Nam war, these poor people live meager lives with very little outside help. They do have major advocates working on their behalf out of Washington, but until very recently most available resources were directed to New Orleans and very little aid actually trickled down to southern Alabama.

Scattered throughout the bayou are families who have lived in the area for many years. Many of these people are fishermen whose entire income is derived from what they can catch out of the Gulf of Mexico. Everything they own in life is wrapped up in their boat and humble abode. They stay there because they love to fish and because their ancestors have been doing the same thing for centuries.

The average annual income of a Gulf fisherman is under $15,000 per year. The only reason these people are able to survive is because most of them live in an older home that had long been paid for. Their income provides just enough to live on. There is no margin for error, sickness, bad fishing conditions or a hurricane. As long as everything goes as planned, these people are happy to live a simple life without the frills of modern America. But once an unexpected situation arises, these are among the hardest hit people in the bayou.

As in most of the South, there are individual African American families living in houses that have been passed down from generation to generation scattered throughout the bayou. In some cases the people living there do nothing but live off of the government. There are these types of people everywhere and of all colors and ethnic origin. To single these few out and stereotype them as the norm is both unfair and repulsive. Yet, this has been done not only in the Alabama bayou, but in just about every inner city in America as well as much of the rural South.

What northern white people do not understand is that the rural black people in the South are people of dignity. They take unbelievable pride in their ability to NOT accept charity, to NOT live off the handouts of condescending white people and to NOT be a burden to anyone. These are proud people who absolutely DO NOT fit the horrible stereotyped perception the majority of northern white people have of rural southern black people.

Many of these people are quite elderly. They live in a home that most people would immediately place a “condemned” sign on. Their furniture is simple and functional. Their vehicles are nothing but a means to get from point A to point B. Their clothing reflects their simple attitude toward life instead of a designer’s logo. Their meals are full of carbohydrates but also full of homemade flavor. These are truly “salt of the earth” people if ever there were any on earth.

The economic hub for this entire area is a small town called Bayou Le Batre. Until recently, its claim to fame was Forest Gump. Around 2800 people live in Bayou Le Batre and the economy revolves around the fishing industry. Over one third of the residents are Southeast Asian and just three years ago there were more than 300 fishing vessels docked there. This area is no stranger to major hurricanes and suffered extensive damage from Camille in 1969, Carmon in 1974 and Frederick in 1979. In each case the city clawed back and reassembled its fishing industry enough to survive.

Bayou Le Batre is not a wealthy town but far more prosperous than Coden which lies on the coast to its south. Coden is not a pleasant area for it is deeply impoverished. In fact, the majority of southern Mobile County would be considered the same. The area lives and dies off the fishing business. Like any area in this country which has a one dimensional economy, there is great risk of economic collapse if the one industry in town fails.

Sitting like a horizontal toothpick out in the Gulf of Mexico is Dauphin Island. This barrier island is roughly three miles from the mouth of Mobile Bay and is accessible only by bridge or ferry. Almost 1500 people live on the island permanently and during the spring and summer months the island is flooded with tourists. Due to its location, it has been in the bull’s eye of many hurricanes. Yet, it has persevered due to the tourist industry. The western part of the island is strictly private residences and is not commercially developed. Many senior citizens live on this part of the island and have most of their lives.

When hurricane Katrina came ashore it brought with it a storm surge of monumental dimensions. Directly east of the center, this surge was estimated at over 25 feet and wiped large areas of Hancock County, Mississippi literally off the map. The farther east of the center, the surge diminished until it was only a few feet. A few feet is all it takes to cause massive damage in coastal communities, especially ones with river outlets or small bays.

Although southern Mobile County sits almost 100 miles to the east of Katrina’s landfall, there was enough power left in the storm surge to flood Bayou Le Batre, western Dauphin Island, Coden and many rural areas of the bayou. Bayou Le Batre perhaps suffered more than any other place due to its geography. Well over two thirds of the houses and businesses in town were either destroyed or heavily damaged. Almost all of the fishing vessels were destroyed or swept up onto dry land. Low lying areas all around Bayou Le Batre were flooded with 3-6 feet of water.

Katrina’s winds were strong enough to rip shingles off roofs and in many cases rip the actual roofs off. Once a roof has been compromised, rain water is given free access to the dwelling. Water is drywall’s mortal enemy. Nothing destroys drywall quicker than water; whether coming up from a flood or going down from a hole in the roof. Not only do walls suffer, but also ceilings, floors, electrical wiring, carpeting and furniture. As if all this were not enough; if the problem is not immediately corrected black mold quickly grows and becomes not only a destroyer of all it grows on, but the people who touch it and breathe it.

What few people understand is that Katrina’s winds caused roof damage to thousands upon thousands of homes in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and even in Tennessee and Georgia. Winds from any kind of storm in any part of the country can rip off shingles on a roof. Once the shingles are damaged, water gains entrance to the wood roof and in due time to the house itself. In a severe storm that hits a city, the local contractors usually manage to fix the majority of roofs soon enough to prevent major structural damage. In Katrina’s case, there were so many thousands of heavily damaged roofs, all that could be done was hope the blue tarps put on the roofs immediately after the storm would hold far longer than they are designed for.

Due to the double impact of Katrina and Rita happening within a month of each other; the entire Gulf Coast from east of Houston, Texas all the way to Pensacola, Florida was a sea of blue tarps by late September of 2005. Thousands upon thousands of homes, businesses, schools and churches had a thin layer of blue plastic protecting the building from nature’s elements. The biggest enemy blue tarps have, besides the sun, is wind. Anyone who has covered a trailer or a car with a tarp knows what becomes of that tarp after exposure to wind, rain and sun. Blue tarps provide excellent immediate protection but were never intended to still be protecting a roof two or more years later.

Compounding the problem is the unfortunate fact that many buildings didn’t get a blue tarp for days or weeks after the storms. That means moisture was allowed free access during that time. Then, that moisture was trapped with no way to evaporate once the tarp was placed on the roof. This became a breeding ground for black mold. Black mold is literally like a cancer. It grows and spreads and destroys all in its path. Given enough time, mold can totally destroy the wood frame of a house along with everything else that is not metal or cement.

Countless thousands of people filed disaster claims with FEMA immediately after Katrina. Inspectors were dispatched and an initial damage estimate was given. This estimate was for the actual damage inflicted by the storm. Over and over again the same scenario has played out. Homes suffered minor to moderate wind damage to the roof. Damage assessments were made reflecting this damage. Blue tarps were placed on the roof. Money was given to the homeowner to help repair the damage. All went according to plan up to this point, but then the problems set in.

Due to the staggering number of buildings needing roof repairs and replacement along with the more important need to “gut” buildings which had been flooded; there was no one available to fix the vast majority of roofs that had incurred damage. Even wealthy homeowners could not find anyone to fix their roofs. There are homes in Florida which still have blue tarps on their roofs from hurricane Charley. There are homes in Pensacola, Florida which still have blue tarps on their roofs from hurricane Ivan. This is not a problem limited to Katrina; it is a problem that comes up with every major hurricane.

All during this time (which drug on for well over a year or more in many cases), rain, winds and the sun slowly destroyed the tarps and more and more water entered the “protected” buildings. Water damage, mildew and mold started appearing in homes that were only marginally damaged by the actual storm. Homes that perhaps had a few thousand dollars of storm damage (and this is how much the homeowner received from insurance and/or FEMA), now had damage estimates of $50,000 or more due to “damage after the fact”. Insurance doesn’t cover these losses, FEMA certainly doesn’t cover them and most people didn’t have the money to cover them. What are these people supposed to do?

In southern Mobile County, Alabama, the city of Bayou Le Batre succeeded in receiving a fair amount of both government as well as private charity aid. Teams of volunteer groups started coming in earnest in the spring of 2006, six months after the storm. During the summer of 2006 a lot of progress was made to clean up, repair and rebuild the city of Bayou Le Batre. This same thing happened in many areas devastated by Katrina. But in rural and isolated areas the work progressed far slower.

Unless one has had to deal with the mountains of problems that arise after a catastrophic storm, there is no possible way to comprehend the frustration and stress these problems cause. For many, they have no idea who to call for what. They are bombarded with enough telephone numbers to fill a phone book. Even when they do call for help, they do not understand the rules and procedures they must abide by. To make matters worse, those rules and procedures many times change in mid-stream, leaving both the victim and the administrators of various programs confused and bitter. People who have lost their jobs, their homes and at times their loved ones are ripe for innumerable psychological disorders as well as scammers.

Soon after Katrina hit, thousands of unsuspecting people were inundated with unscrupulous scam artists who took their FEMA and insurance money as deposits for work that ended up never being done. The initial relief of finding someone in a hurry to fix their roofs and other damage was soon replaced with the anger, frustration, bitterness and desperation of knowing they had lost any chance of ever getting their homes repaired. If there was one common emotion felt by all these unfortunate people, it was despair. Feeling lost, forsaken, abused and left to be fed to ravenous wolves’ intent on destroying them; these victims of our nation’s worst natural disaster also became victims of what should be considered a national disgrace.

Through a combination of factors, millions of people were thrust into situations they never expected to encounter as a result of Katrina. The bayou area of southern Mobile County provides an ideal microcosm of the far reaching effects of Katrina. Where New Orleans and Biloxi received the vast majority of media attention; places such as Bayou Le Batre and the surrounding rural areas were just as devastated. Because there were no big news stories in Alabama, the area never received the level of national assistance that other more publicized areas did.

The region has started to rebound from the devastating blow Katrina dealt it. Bayou Le Batre has been greatly helped by some very generous grants. Of course there are still many hurting families, but much has been done to repair and rebuild the city and its fishing industry. In the rural areas, the situation is far different. Individual homes still sit in various states of disrepair. Individual people and families run the gamut from being well taken care of to one step from total devastation.

Sitting on a small plot of land south of Theodore, in rural Mobile County, is Pilgrim Rest AME Zion Church. Actually there are two churches, one small old one and one big partially built new one. Immediately after Katrina hit, the daughter of the Pastor of the church, Carolyn Thompson, started a disaster relief and recovery center utilizing the partially built, but damaged new church building. For many months she provided hot meals to those who were hungry and slowly became a distribution center for clothing and canned goods.

Contrary to the prevailing trend of such centers arising after a disaster and then quickly shutting down when the resources ran out; Carolyn stuck with her dream of seeing a true community outreach program develop. When things would get tight and supplies would start to run out, she would manifest the faith of Abraham and persevere instead of giving up. God blessed her and has allowed her small disaster relief and recovery center to grow first into a fully recognized 501(c)3 charity and now a full service community outreach program known as Tri Coastal Community Outreach, operating out of nice rented warehouse near Grand Bay, Alabama.

Not only has Tri Coastal not quit helping people, it has picked up the slack from other groups disbanding or leaving the area. It serves more people now than ever before. Due to the ongoing need among Katrina victims, many of the resources of Tri Coastal still go to families unable to make ends meet due to structural damage, illness or job loss. Senior citizens attempting to live on Social Security alone, families with a member suffering from mold exposure or other disabilities, single parent families, unemployed, homeless and many other hurting people look to Tri Coastal as a beacon of light in the dark Alabama night.

Tri Coastal has helped hundreds if not thousands of families in a variety of ways. It has been a constant source of essential food and other supplies for well over two years. It has been a place to find “case management” so as to receive benefits available from the government and other charities for storm victims. It has provided assistance in repairing homes and supplying materials for restoring and even rebuilding homes. It has provided resources for those with disabilities, physical ailments and psychological trauma. It has been a refuge for people to find the comfort of others enduring the same problems. It has been a place to pray and be prayed for, a place to love and be loved. It has provided an avenue of giving through volunteering for many people who needed that outlet to receive healing.

Tri Coastal has been and still is all these things and many more. Tri Coastal has made the leap from a disaster relief service to a permanent fixture in the community. Tri Coastal is not going anywhere except where it can help supply more needs. The commitment found in the heart of not only Carolyn Thompson, but the entire volunteer staff of Tri Coastal is amazing and astounding. They have succeeded in enduring a bitter separation from their original location, constant attempts by others to hinder and obstruct what they are doing, and staggering health problems endured by most of their volunteers.

Through it all, the foundation of Tri Coastal stands firm; for it is built on the faith that they are doing God’s will. Tri Coastal IS indeed doing God’s will or they would have closed long ago. Tri Coastal fills a vacuum created by the departure of other groups. They provide services no one else provides. They help people who have “fallen through the cracks” of the social safety nets. And they do all this on a 100% volunteer basis. They accept no government money and, though applied for, very little grant money. Their ability to keep doing what they are doing is totally dependent upon the giving of those who choose to be “Partners Who Care”.

The reputation of Tri Coastal is growing every day. More and more people around the Mobile area, the state of Alabama and throughout the country are becoming acquainted with what Tri Coastal does and wishes to do. In November, Carolyn Thompson was the recipient of the first “Edward Parker Award” given by the Salvation Army in Mobile, Alabama for her work in starting directing Tri Coastal. Recently, Tri Coastal was able to host its first “Benefit Banquet” to help raise funds for the coming year.

Tri Coastal Community Outreach is a success story in a field of miserable failures. For every group that hangs in and makes it over the hump, so to speak, there are five which must fold due to lack of resources, lack of volunteers or lack of administrative skills. A group such as Tri Coastal is entirely made up of volunteers. No one ever receives a penny for what they do. At their recent Banquet, the handful of people making up the core of the group spent hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars of their own money preparing for and “pulling off” the event.

Every week, in addition to the two distribution days, someone must keep up with inventory, drive trucks to get supplies, unload trucks, keep up with the mountains of paperwork, do “case work” with clients, make and answer endless phone calls, plan for future events and numerous other duties. All these things are done by volunteers who in some cases, put in 25 or more hours per week of work. The director, Carolyn, easily donates a minimum of 40 hours per week of her time to the group. An organization run totally by volunteers is difficult to organize initially and nigh unto impossible to keep going for any length of time. Tri Coastal has defied the odds and is still going and growing.

Next time an occasion arises to perhaps share resources with a group “doing it right”; I pray you would consider Tri Coastal in Alabama. I do not work for them, I simply respect what they do and lend my support to what they are doing. My prayer is that others could do the same. For more information onTri Coastal, please visit their website at: http://www.tricoastalcommunity.org/, or contact Carolyn Thompson at: carolyn@tricoastalcommunity.org . God Bless you.


1 Response to “Tri Coastal Community Outreach: A Rare Disaster Relief Group Success Story”

  1. January 5, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    There are many success stories from disasters, we just do not hear about them from the media. I went through Katrina in Mississippi, the people banded togather, businesses and people from across the land came down and helped out, but that never made the news. A small town in Texas helped my family and many others out. and the help swarmed in.

    The only failure was in areas where the people wanted a free ride and depended on Government.

    there were doctors, actors, business owners, churches, Police Depts, fire depts, orgs and too many to list that made life better for the victims. and the “victims” even helped each other out.

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