The road to Biloxi

Aman Ali

With the Biloxi, Miss., relief trip 10 days away, organizers have finalized the plan to take Kent State students down to the Gulf Coast region during spring break.

As of yesterday, 365 volunteers have signed up for the trip, but that number could go up or down depending on outstanding registration forms and payment, undergraduate studies dean Gary Padak said.

The Agenda

“We’re not putting anyone in war zones,” George Garrison, professor of Pan-African studies, said. “Even the most inexperienced can contribute and feel good about the experiences they have.”

From March 25 to April 1, volunteers from the Kent State community will help out in relief efforts in the cities of Biloxi and Pass Christian (pronounced “Christienne”) in Mississippi. Work projects on the trip include laying down sheetrock and building drywall, repairing roofs and cleaning up debris. Other volunteers will be baby-sitting or tutoring the local children, the organizers said in a meeting Monday.

Volunteers will be assigned to the projects based on the skills they mentioned on their applications.

“Nobody will be doing anything that they can’t do or don’t want to do,” Padak said.

The Area

Biloxi and Pass Christian are within 20 minutes of each other and are both along the Gulf Coast. According to assessment reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hurricane Katrina created “catastrophic damage” in both cities.

“This hurricane happened almost seven months ago,” Ron Perkins, assistant director for University Dining Services, said. “Now we’re coming onto another hurricane season and really nothing has been done.”

Two weekends ago, Perkins, Garrison and Padak visited Biloxi and Pass Christian to assess the damage themselves. The three shared the information with volunteers who attended the Biloxi trip orientation meetings.

During the last orientation meeting on Monday, Padak showed photos of houses damaged by the hurricane. In one particular house photo, the only part still standing was the porch steps.

The major tourist attraction in Biloxi is the local casinos. But after the hurricane, the casinos were forced to shut down.

Some of them, however, are slowly starting to re-open.

Garrison said Pass Christian needs much more relief work than Biloxi. He said Biloxi was much more organized with relief efforts and its citizens are moving back faster than those in Pass Christian.

“Pass Christian is still a ghost town,” Garrison said. “There are no young people playing outside. The noise children generate is an important part of a community and when that noise is gone, it changes the character of the community.”

Other parts of the region damaged were the natural habitats.

“What struck me initially about the area was how gray the trees were,” Perkins said. “Saltwater destroyed these 1000-year-old trees. I also noticed an absence of creatures in the area like the spring bugs.”

Padak added the hurricane knocked down many trees and lodged them deep into the coast’s beaches. Volunteers on the trip assigned to cleaning up beach debris will also be removing these trees.

The people

Garrison had the chance to visit the city in 2001 with his son and did an ethnological study of the area.

“It was during that time when I discovered the large Vietnamese community,” he said. “Many people came here as a result of our governmental policies.”

The policies Garrison refers to were a result of the Vietnam War. After the United States pulled out of South Vietnam in the 1970s, many southern Vietnamese feared retaliation from North Vietnam. As a result, the United States and European countries welcomed Vietnamese refugees into their borders. Many of the Vietnamese in this country emigrated to the Gulf Coast region.

“This community of Vietnamese was very entrenched in Biloxi over the past three decades,” Garrison said. “These people were well established economically, socially and religiously.”

Garrison explained the Vietnamese were able to establish themselves by working in the shrimp industry and other job sectors for much longer hours than other workers.

After establishing themselves, Garrison said the Vietnamese were able to “live in harmony” with major ethnic groups in the area, including blacks.

“If there is ever a melting pot anywhere in this country, you’ll find it in that region,” Garrison said.

Social life

Religion in both towns serves as important establishments. Garrison explained both cities feature multiple denominations of Christianity and followers live peacefully together.

Many churches focus on addressing social problems their people are facing, such as gambling.

“The downside to gambling here is that it brings a criminal element,” Garrison said. “Casinos may create jobs, but they also create a class of addicts.”

However, Garrison explained the churches in the area aren’t necessarily “at war” with the casinos.

“They (churches) walk a middle ground and try to understand the people who go to work everyday,” he said.

Garrison added the more important problem with gambling is the state’s dependency on casinos for revenue.

“When the state brings in gambling to take care of welfare, then that shows a failure of government,” Garrison said.

Padak said registered volunteers should return their medical forms to the office of Undergraduate Studies by Monday. On March 22, a dedication service will be held in Risman Plaza to rally support for the trip.

Contact student affairs reporter Aman Ali at [email protected]