I started this blog to keep my church, friends and family updated on my year volunteering in Katrina recovery with the Presbyterian Church (USA). I've now signed on for a second year working in disaster recovery and another year living in Mississippi. It's getting good....

Friday, March 30, 2007

Wish List- Just for those who asked or might be interested

Not everyone has the time or money to come down to the Gulf Coast and put up drywall, lay flooring or run electrical wire. But everyone really can contribute to the rebuilding effort. Recently, several people have asked me how they can help:

1. Pray! These people need all the prayers you can offer: for homeowners, pastors, the homeless, construction workers, volunteers, emergency responders, government leaders...

2. Send some love. Right now we could really use the following:

For homeowners: Lowes gift cards (for construction materials), Sears gift cards (for appliances and household necessities).

For our homeless ministry: shampoo (even those little bottles you take from hotels), laundry detergent, gas cards.

For Easter: Any baskets or fun stuff to give to the kids at Andy's Club, local children and special needs homeonwers.

For our pastors: Notes of encouragement and hope.

For our congregations: Many of the Gulf Coast Presbyterian Churches sponsor dinner and fellowship with members, volunteers and homeowners, on weekday nights. I am sure they'd love some Winn Dixie or Sam's Club gift cards to defer the cost of the meals.

Any of the above can be sent to me at:
Erin Counihan
Presbytery of Mississippi Disaster Recovery
1304 E. Pass Road
Gulfport, MS 39507

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


....I woke up and searched property rolls to verify homeowner information. Sleepy.
....I went to a Long Term Recovery Meeting to learn about the $435million the state has in funding for hazard mitigation, that they still haven't exactly figured out how to disburse and share with homeowners in desperate need. Frustrated.
....I presented a case to the Long Term Recovery Committee in order to apply for funding for building materials and was told I needed to go back to the client and get more personal information to share with a room full of strangers who get to decide which people are most deserving of assistance. More frustrated and almost angry.
....I had lunch with fellow volunteers working at another camp in town. Happy and full.
....I went with my program coordinator to pick out a new wheel for Burt, the green machine. Thrilled to have fixable car and support of program coordinator.
....I returned to the office to push some paperwork and call some homeowners. Busy.
....I met with a casework volunteer who is kicking butt and helping lots of homeowners in the devastated East-Biloxi neighborhood. Inspired.
....I checked the mail at work and received a sweet card (and check!) from a wonderful church member back home. Loved.
....I called a college friend and learned that she got engaged over the weekend. Beaming with joy for K and J.
....I walked with my housemate who's in the midst of a work crisis. Back to frustrated and a bit heart-broken.
....Ate dinner with housemates and program coordinator and reminisced about our old, wild college ways and funny things that gross boys do. Old.
....Sat down to reflect on the day, say a little prayer and think about how to do it all again tomorrow, plus Wednesday office hours. Tired. Excited. Frustrated. Ready. Unprepared. Hopeful. Hopeful. Hopeful.

Monday, March 26, 2007

My favorite Sunday of the year.....so far:

Two great church services, chatting with volunteers readying to return home, fun lunch on a blanket outside with housemates, playing at the beach all day with housemates and pastor's 5-year-old daughter, spontaneous BBQ at home and a little Apples to Apples to end the day.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


My brother-in-law, Rob, made it back from Iraq today!

We're all so grateful for his safe return!


Okay, so I didn't find a new wheel, bake cookies or change my attitude today. Duuurrrr.

Instead, I woke my bum up early and went to the church Advance today. They didn't want to call it a retreat, so they called it an Advance. Despite the funny name game, it actually was a day well spent.

I was witness to 7 people fighting, really and truly fighting to do God's work in their community. These people took the whole day out of their lives to talk about how to be better friends, caregivers, teachers, listeners and worshipers. It was awesome just to be among them. Just to take the time out of our busy existences to think about how we can do that, individually and collectively.

Then the Advance leader kept talking. And talking. And talking.

Just like any church retreat I've ever been a part of, there was a lot of good substance and a bunch of baloney all rolled up into one messy package. But I left that place with such hope for these two struggling congregations that I'm sharing with down here. And I left with a lot more hope in my own personal faith journey.

And it is still beautiful here! I am in love with March in Mississippi.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Not just a flat tire.

I'm driving to a home visit in Pass Christian when all the sudden my car shudders, I hear a pop and the green machine begins to veer off the road. I end up half-way in the ditch with my right front tire blown. Urg. Physically I'm fine (Mom, really, I'm fine). After I utter a few choice swear words, I throw on my hazards and jump out to inspect the damage. The mangled rubber from the tire is so meshed in the swampy mud that I can't really tell how bad this bad situation really is from this angle. Now, the feminist in me wants to say that I didn't panic, I rolled up my sleeves and handled the situation. And that's almost how it happened. I called a housemate, a co-worker and even my dad, and they were all totally unable to help me. So I decided that I had to fix this. I needed to fix something today. Something! So, I read my owner's manual (who's the smarty who thought to give those away with the cars?) and learned that I really shouldn't attempt to change the tire while my car tilts precariously into the swampy ditch. So, even though somewhere in my memory I thought I recalled my dad saying that I should NEVER drive on a flat, I risked my life, and my wheel, and backed myself out of the ditch and on to level, dry land. I pulled out the spare and began working on those lug nuts. A sweet old man pulled up and offered to show me his trick for how to loosen the lug nuts and talked me through most of the process. As we talked about cycling, kyaking, dogs, trees, and all things Pass Christian, this man restored my hope in this community. He was sweet and patient. He was helpful but didn't try to save me. He and his dog wanted to make sure that I was doing the work, and that I knew what I was doing, so that I'd know how to do it all next time if I ended up alone again. It was sunny and lovely and really, not too bad of an experience. Until Mr. Mississippi Mud drove up. This guy, in his big red truck, wanted to force his way on the entire situation. I know he meant well and that he wanted to help me. But he was what a yankee like me would categorize as a classic southern man- pushing his way where it wasn't needed. While these two men duked it out over how much pressure I should have in the doughnut tire and which directions I should follow to get to the scrapyard to look for a new wheel, I was changing the freaking tire. After a quick trip to Mr. Sweet's house to put more air in the doughnut (both men agreed that it wasn't safe for me to drive home on only 15 whatevers of pressure when the tire says it needs 60 whatevers) via his air compressor--- side note: why does every man in Mississippi own an air compressor?---I drove back to the church safely on my little doughnut.

So here's the thing. I think that when I work down here I'm often more like Mississippi Mud and I'd rather be more like Mr. Sweet. That's the thing with all this disaster recovery stuff. Folks from all over come down here and want to help. But then we want to push our way on this place, without asking how they'd have us help. We blow in to town and want to fix, fix, fix. We mean well. We just want to help. But it is cold. And arrogant. And rough.

Tomorrow I've got to work on finding a new wheel (tire's fine, but the wheel is toast), bake some cookies (for Mr. Sweet) and check my attitude. Thank goodness the sun will be out again!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dear Gulfport, Mississippi,

Thanks for being so beautiful today. I mean, I know God had a lot to do with that, but really, ya looked good today and I just had to tell ya. I was so happy to enjoy your clean roads, your fabulous gulf views, your cleaned up sandy beaches, your friendly folks waving at me everywhere I turn. It was nice. People were hanging out on their porches and chatting with neighbors while enjoying this great day! And you know how we've all needed that beauty and fun. Especially since you seem to have told the mosquitoes that it was time to come back. Hey- maybe you, Gulfport, Mississippi, can do something about those pests. They're back and they've started biting the heck outta me again. If you'll just take care of those bugs, I promise to keep trying to help you and your residents rebuild. That sounds fair. Okay? Let me know....

Thanks again for today!


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Yup, there's still a lot of work to do.

It's been a while since I've posted Gulf Coast photos. Last week one of the homeowners that I am working with asked me to take some photos of her home while we worked on it. That got me driving around town, camera in hand. Here's what I saw that I thought you all might like to see- the progress, and the lack of progress. I've also posted many more photos to my Shutterfly Photo Album. All photos are from this past week!

Downtown Gulfport:

Some from Biloxi:

And now for some photos of progress. On the left is a new condo building right on the beach, just down the road from Handsboro Pres. Below is my beloved Waffle House. This one is under construction on the beach (Hwy 90) on the Gulfport/Long Beach city line. Look at how much they have to elevate to build at that location!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Thanks for the prayers.

Lil' George is home. He survived three days in a lovely New Orleans hospital, complete with cable tv, WiFi and sweet tea. He's hurting a bit, but he's home safe, minus one appendix. Thanks for the prayers.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Say a little prayer for George....

Georgie's sick!

I'm writing this quick note from Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans where I'm visiting my roommate George to ask you to keep him in your prayers this weekend. He had an emergency appendectomy in the wee hours of this morning. He's still in quite a bit of pain, and will remain in the hospital for a few days, but he'll be okay.

Please join us all in praying for his speedy recovery!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

And now for an honest opinion....

I'm tired. I ate at a new place today and I think it made me sick. Then I tried to keep working. I had a couple of rough home visits. They're people in a lot of need, but I am not totally sure we're going to be able to help them because they don't exactly fit into one of our categories of eligibility. I think. I'm not really sure though because none of that has ever really been outlined for me. I was frustrated. So, I needed a pick-me-up so I went to visit a couple of homes that we're working on. I was so excited to see some progress happening! The sun came out. Teams were working at homes I had visited two weeks ago. Rooms were getting completed. Drywall was being hung. Floors were being reinforced. It was good. It was really, really good. And I was a part of that. Then I went back to work and walked into yet another frustrating agency disorganized, miscommunicated mess. I got out of there because I couldn't do that again today. So I went home to try to work from there and to get some online time for work email. But our Internet at home wasn't working and I was feeling sicker, so I watched a little Gilmore Girls and went to bed instead. I woke up cranky for our family meeting and was a pretty rotten to my housemates.

So the point is, I think, that I love what I do, but I am struggling to love this agency/program/set-up. I think that this community living thing is supposed to be some way of bringing us closer to our true selves, to learn more from one another, to be honest and in doing so get closer to God's calling on all our lives.....I think. So maybe a freaking disaster zone isn't really the best place to foster that lifestyle. We're working together, living together, worshiping together, and we're doing all of that in the most disfunctional and least supportive environment in which I've ever lived (and that's saying quite a bit, if you've ever met my family or ever been to OWU). The agency I work for is ripping at the seems. I think every person who works there is miserable. Our program leadership seems completely unable to support/encourage/befriend us. Don't get me wrong, I know that I've been blessed with fantastic, loving roommates and an incredibly supportive home church and I am so grateful for them. And my family has been amazing this year. But for what? Because this is nuts. And I feel like every time I write home or call friends or post to this blog that I am whining and complaining. And I hate being that girl. I feel like I am the worst version of myself most of the time here. I know my frustrations are legitimate, but when do I reach the point where I admit that I've become the fool in this game? I mean, do I honestly expect to wake up one morning and see real change in this program or in our agency? I guess I do. And that's what makes me a fool. Or faithful. It's a fine line these days.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Three things I figured out today:

1. It is officially spring in Mississippi. I know this not because of the beautiful 72 degree weather, not because of the early morning birds chirping outside of my double-wide, but actually because of the fact that I can no longer pass by a pick-up truck on the road that doesn’t have a shirtless man driving it. Seriously, what is up with the shirtless pick-up drivers? And ladies, we ain’t talking Abercrombie models here. No, I mean, fried-shrimp-loving, Marlboro-Reds-smoking, gun-rack-having, honey-please-shave-my-back, Mississippi men.
(side note: I really am enjoying the weather, though)

2. Wednesdays are becoming a bit much for me. It’s my office day. It’s a chance for me to catch up on paperwork, phone calls and really just to be a presence in the office. But it is also when I get slammed with phone intakes, walk-in visitors and volunteer requests….so many that I don’t ever get to actually do the work I need to get done. I get frustrated with that and then the fact that I am frustrated frustrates me. But today I was distracted from my frustration by two men in need who just happened to walk in the doors of our building. Each at a different time, but both desperate. I think that we were able to provide some help for these men and that always makes me feel like there is a reason God called me to this place, to this church to work this year. I was meant to work with these men. I was meant to pray for these men. I was meant to hope for these men.

3. LOST is going to be freaking GOOD next week!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Birthday Round-Up

So my birthday was last week. 29. I'm still in denial.

We celebrated with dinner at the home of my favorite Episcopal priest's house. She was so sweet to invite me and my 5 roommates over for hamburgers and home made mac-and-cheese.

Then, this weekend we really celebrated by going camping. It was outdoors, out of town, away from FEMA trailers and building permits and everything, really. I layed on the dock and had girl talk with a housemate, watched my Houma pal make a fire, watched another housemate erect a tent with duct tape, stayed up way to late and drank way to much camp punch and had too good of a time with friends who really were too good to me. It was perfect.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Wednesdays are long

It's the day that I've committed to being in the office- no home visits, no meetings, just office hours. It's great for homeowners who need to get a hold of me. But it makes for a long day. Today, I'd had enough and was bolting out the door just before 4pm (yes, early, I know. But I was due back at 5:30 for dinner, followed by Lenten lecture series #2, and then a prayer meeting). On my way out, I was tired, annoyed, frustrated and just done. As I was shoving the rest of my work into the car, a man approached me and asked for help. His name was James and he was from Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a carpenter by trade and had come to Gulfport to find construction work. He came with a friend who abandoned him and worked for a boss who never paid him. Weeks and weeks went by before he finally found himself homeless and penniless. He was at CVS today when one of the volunteers staying at our church spotted him and sat to talk with him. The volunteer told him to come by the church and see if we could help.

Unfortunately, this man's story isn't so rare. Many people have come here with good intentions of working, rebuilding, and making money and instead just get screwed over. Handsboro Pres can't house all of those people. We try to feed them, and talk with them, and we encourage them to return to their hometowns and their old support systems. The Gulf Coast is just too broken-these communities can hardly support themselves; they can't take on the nation's homeless, tired, and mistreated. So we pray with these unfortunate folks, we offer a meal, and we help them buy bus tickets. Today we managed to get a man home and to give him a bit of hope for the journey.

As I drove to the bus station with James, he told me that he'd go home and work to save some money to prepare better before coming back to help again. I'm not sure if he'll make it back to the Gulf, but I'll be praying that he does.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Birthday Wish

So, today I am supposed to celebrate getting yet another year older. If I must mark the occassion, I'd like to do it by making some use out of the day. Not only is it my birthday but it is also the middle of a truly great occasion: Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week!

Most of you reading this (is anyone reading this?) know that I've been very involved with the National MS Society over the years- walking, running, working and volunteering to help them raise money to fight Multiple Sclerosis. My sister Jenny was diagnosed with MS almost 20 years ago and she's been fighting hard ever since! We've come a long way in the efforts to learn more about and try to find a cure for this crippling disease since that time. Much of the success in research and support for those living with MS is because of the great work the National MS Society has been doing.

I hope you'll join me in supporting the National MS Society this week. Here's how you can help:

1. Read and learn about Multiple Sclerosis and find a way to get involved in your community by visiting the National MS Society's website: www.nmss.org.

2. Support TEAM JENNY. We walked in the 2006 MS Challenge Walk in DC (3 Days, 50 Miles) and raised over $12,000 for the National MS Society. Now we're gearing up to do it again! This year, you can walk with us, volunteer with us, or become one of our favorite financial contributors. For more info or to register or make a donation go to the TEAM JENNY website.

3. Say a little prayer for Jenny and the thousands of others who are living with MS and fighting it every day! Don't forget to pray for the researchers working in those labs to find a cure.

(Above: My sister, Jenny, and her husband, Rob.

The other two photos are from the 2006 MS Challenge Walk)

Monday, March 05, 2007

You went where for dinner? Alabama?!?

Last night we went out to dinner in Mobile, AL for my roommate Sarah Ann's birthday. I forgot the camera, so there is no photographic evidence of the hilarity that ensued, but rest assure- it was a good one. We went to a great restaurant on the waterfront called Felix's. Wonderful food, fun atmosphere, fantastic view and charming service. The best crab soup of my life! (And that is a big statement coming from this Marylander) But then they ran out of grits. But it was okay because they let my housemate substitute another cup of crab soup. We liked it so much that the server told us that we could buy a gallon of soup....for $92! No thanks. Back to the mean. They served us a special birthday dessert for my roomie. But then they ran out of fudge for dessert. We substituted hot moon pie and ice cream. And then they ran out of tea. And then the server dropped the moon pie and we all just started howling. It was a dinner comedy of errors...and quite possibly the best time I've had in weeks.

I guess that got me to thinking about what this whole experience has been like: one big, beautiful mess. Nothing looks like it should. So we ran out of grits (constructive conversational forums)? And tonight there's no more tea (or patience or grace)? But we're still loving each other and enjoying the process (and God's work), right?

Today that was hard to remember. I love my work, but I don't love the work drama it brings along most days. Managing a disaster recovery operation is just plain hard. Coordinating volunteers, fundraising, managing donated money, public relations, crisis counseling, making all the right people feel happy all the time, working with multiple agency interests, navigating government regulations, partnering with people who are still living that year-and-a-half-old trauma as if it were yesterday, trying to provide stability and consistency through frequent staff turnover and burn-out.....really it is a miracle anything ever gets done down here. Maybe I shouldn't cry so much over spilled grits? Maybe I should remember that a messy meal may still be a great feast!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

All in a week's work

My week- the short version:

Oscar Party.
Visit homeowners. Try to find them help.
Go to meetings. Try to make sense of funding application process.
Go to the office. Try to make sense of agency miscommunication.
Go home. Try to understand why ants are attacking the dishwasher.
Go to bible study. Try to understand God's word and how we interpret it.
Try to go to sleep, instead, spend fun time chit-chatting with housemates.
Visit homeowners. Try to find them help.
Obtain funding applications. Try to write grant requests.
Pick up housemate from the airport, glad he's back.
Back to office. Try not to get frustrated with doing-good-but-getting-in-the-way volunteer.
Go to dinner and Lenten lecture series at little church. Try not to cry when I realize how full little church is that night.
Go to prayer meeting. Try to connect with the folks God's put in my life this week. Pray for my little church back in Maryland. Pray for homeowners. Pray for that doing-good-but-getting-in-the-way volunteer. Pray for patience.
Watch LOST with friends. Try to figure out what's going to happen next!
Visit with homeowners. Try to understand what they are feeling.
Receive yummie and fun package from my home church. Try to remember to write them a thank you note.
Try to go visit homeowners. Forced to turn around because the freaking President is in town and so we've got to shut down main access road on the Gulf Coast.
Try not to get angry at President.
Remember that President is only here looking and isn't actually doing anything to help.
Try not to get angry at President.
Angry at President.
Try not to drive off the road.
Visit homeowners. Remember why I'm here.
Hear the twister warning come over the radio. See no twister.
Talk to mom on the phone. Try to explain that I'm not a twister victim.
Go to office. Try not to quit job.
Go on a homevisit. Remember why God called me to this job. Remember that I love working with homeowners.
Go on another homevisit. Pray with homeowners. Laugh. Cry. Love.
Go back to office. Try not to let the man get me down. Man got me down. Run out of office. Try not to cry. Cry.
Check mail. People Magazine is in the mail. Jump for joy. Call sister to tell her that the magazine subscription she ordered me a year ago has finally arrived. Read magazine.
Go to Chuck E. Cheese with housemate's afterschool program. Try to understand why anyone would choose to work at Chuck E. Cheese. Eat Pizza. Try to understand how Chuck E. Chesse is allowed to call that pizza.
Home. Prank on housemates. Movie. Sleep.
Sleep in!
Eat Mac-and-Cheese and try to finish the crossword puzzle.
Visit friend in Louisiana. Enjoy good conversation and good food.

It was a good week!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

In case you were wondering

Those crafty folks over at the PCUSA came up with this nifty article and a couple of fancy slide shows that may tell you a little more about what's going on down here in Coastal Mississippi.
Check it out: