'Veggie Bus' Delivers Sisterly Love and Goodwill

Port Townsend Artists Paint a Brighter Picture for Katrina-battered Mississippi Gulf Coast Town
Scott Landis picks up a passenger at the Houston Astrodome, two weeks after Katrina hit Photo by Bill Dentzel. All photos courtesy http://www.sistercitysupport.net/

Hurricane Katrina left the city of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi with a very literal translation of its motto: “A Place Apart.” 

Until last August, Bay St. Louis was a place where visitors could walk through Old Town and experience breathtaking paintings, photographs and stained glass. It was a place with a proud history going all the way back to King Louis XIV of France, who claimed the land at the dawn of the 18th century. Bay St. Louis is just 62 miles from New Orleans, and stands out as a gathering place for local artists. Author John Villani listed it as one of "the 100 best small town arts communities in America."

Then Katrina came to visit, bringing winds in excess of 140 miles an hour and a tidal surge of 30-40 feet. Artistic treasures were left blowing in the wind, as were the lives of the city's 8,000 residents.  In the aftermath of the storm, electricity, communications services and hope were in short supply. In addition to its art galleries, the city is famed for the giant oaks that lined downtown streets before the hurricane.  The giant oaks were treated like match sticks by Katrina's furious winds.  More than four months after the storm, widespread devastation is everywhere you look.  More than 50 residents of surrounding Hancock County have been confirmed dead. 

Four months later, only 3,000 of the town's 8,000 residents remain.  Electricity and communications services are still in short supply.  Hope, however, has been restored in large quantities, thanks to a flood of private relief streaming into Hancock County from all over the world.

The destruction in Bay St. Louis was met with compassion and action in another of Villani's 100 best small town arts communities.  Port Townsend, Washington is 2,800 miles away, but its residents were quick to realize that together they could do more than send a check to a relief agency.  Within a couple of weeks of Katrina's devastation residents of Port Townsend,  loaded blankets, building supplies, food, water and tons of goodwill on a bus borrowed from Port Townsend's Chautauqua organization. Fueled entirely on bio-diesel, the bus entered the ravaged region without having to compete for limited fuel supplies. “Every once in a while we could stop at a pizza place and load up on strained veggie oil,” says Scott Landis, a retired fisherman who led the Port Townsend volunteer mission.

fueling the vegie oil
The Katrina caravan was fueled by heaping helpings of veggie oil Photo by Bill Dentzel 

The bus stopped first at the Houston Astrodome, where displaced residents were offered rides back to the storm-ravaged areas they had escaped. The bus stopped in New Orleans and Covington, Louisiana, and then crossed into the heavily damaged Mississippi Gulf Coast. Eventually, the bus arrived at Waveland and nearby Bay St. Louis where Landis and his crew settled down for a heavy dose of cleanup and volunteering.

Mike Cuevas
Miss Mike" delivers hope to her new friends in Port Townsend photo by Michael McKee

One of the first to greet the crew from Port Townsend was Mike Cuevas, director of cultural affairs for the city. After the hurricane, Cuevas - known as "Miss Mike" to her admirers in both Bay St. Louis and Port Townsend - was put in charge of directing relief efforts that poured into the city. Mayor Eddie Favre made it clear to the world that he would not rest until “every resident affected by this storm is 'adopted.”

Help has poured in from municipalities and organizations across the country – from Pinehurst, North Carolina to Edmonds, Washington. In this culturally, economically and racially diverse city, Katrina has been the great leveler, Cuevas noted. “I can remember standing in the same Rainbow Kitchen food line with the CEO of the largest food chain in this area,” she added.

One of the first missions for Landis and his crew was to join with the local Rainbow Kitchen organizers and set up food services for displaced residents and volunteers. Landis uses his bicycle to wheel around the devastated area.  “This town is made for bicycles,” Landis says, “unlike Port Townsend it's flat and easy to navigate.” Streams of volunteers flowed back and forth between Bay St. Louis and Port Townsend, while the “veggie bus” stayed in the region well into December. Volunteers helped recovery efforts in homes that were not totally destroyed, and brought much-needed building supplies. 

They also brought some of the “spirit of Port Townsend” with them, bringing Northwestern culture to a region rich in old Southern traditions. Cuevas, who started the New Year with a weeklong respite in Port Townsend, says there are some concepts still a bit foreign to Mississippi. She was introduced to Port Townsend's celebrated “Waste Not Want Not” store, where locals recycle still useable building materials. “Recycling is still a strange concept in Mississippi, as is the importance of vegetables,” Cuevas quipped.

She says she is taking other things she learned in Port Townsend back to the FEMA trailer (“it's like living in a tuna fish can”) she now calls home. “I've learned a lot about voluntary simplicity and sustainable futures here,” she says. Like many Gulf Coast residents whose homes were destroyed by the storm, she waits for rebuilding answers from an insurance industry mired in a bureaucratic holding pattern. She will return to Mississippi to await the day that Bay St. Louis can return to its historic strength. “We've been around 300 years,” she says. “We're not going anywhere.”

Landis, meanwhile, will continue to gather volunteers and continue his efforts in Bay St. Louis on behalf of the Sister City Project. He plans to return to Mississippi within a week.  A January community meeting heard a growing number of success stories as Port Townsend reached across its resource base to add additional human and financial capital to its diverse project.  A group of builders, led by Seattle Contractor Ben Hines - who is married to a Bay St. Louis native who lost relatives to Katrina - plans to rebuild a number of houses destroyed in the storm.  In the tradition of Habitat for Humanity, the builders will begin with four houses, joined by local homeowners, who will then join in the rebuilding of other homes in the neighborhood.

While the Mississippi residents have learned some things from Port Townsend, Landis says his group has learned a lot in Mississippi. The deepest lesson out of Bay St. Louis is its sense of community, he says.  “Most people have lived there their whole lives,” Landis says. “It's quite clear that they want to stay.” 

For more information on how you can help, see http://www.sistercitysupport.net/
For more information on how to help Hancock County artists see http://www.hancock-art.com/

Barbara Sehr is Online Editor at YES!
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