By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star
Holidays have been challenging occasions lately, at least in this area. Hurricane Isaac hit the “land mass” known as the Mississippi Gulf Coast a few days before Labor Day. Halloween was the beginning of a 12-week deluge of rain. Thanksgiving brought more rain. The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was in town Christmas day and an EF-4 tornado blew through three days before Valentine’s Day. One wonders what St. Patrick’s day will have in store.
I’m writing this column exactly one week after a devastating tornado blew through my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., completely destroying 192 homes. Another 337 homes suffered major damage, and over 600 sustained minor damage. In all, over 4,300 people have been displaced.
Over the years Mississippians have caught a lot of flack in the media and press. We wind up at, or near, the end of the statistical lists in several categories, studies, and national surveys of poverty, body weight, and education. Television personalities and comedians see us as an easy punch line. I’ll be the first to admit that we might have even earned some of the flack we catch.
Though it seems that if the same people who spend time dragging us down would take a minute and see Mississippi and our people the way I see it, or during a large-scale crisis or natural disaster, we would most certainly be talking about a different ballgame.
I see a state where neighbors help neighbors. In the past seven days I have seen the citizens of Hattiesburg, Oak Grove, and Petal come together and work long and hard, from dawn until way past dusk, to help rebuild the lives of complete strangers.
In Mississippi, I see a state that, while at or near the bottom in poverty level, is the most charitable state per capita in the United States. That benevolent behavior is rampant in this area during times of crisis. I’ll concede all of the statistics in body weight and education, as long as we remain top of the list in caring and compassion. The most loving and kindhearted state—why not put that on our license plates? That’s the state where I want to live.
After a major disaster in my state, we salvage what we can, we help our neighbors salvage what they can, and we begin to rebuild. Together. We don’t complain about the federal government not doing their part because the local and state government have done such a good job already.
In my state, we don’t look for handouts, but humbly accept a “hand up” from our friends and neighbors as we work alongside them.
My state has often been called “a notch in the Bible Belt” in a derogatory way because we have more churches per capita than any other state. We are seen as “too religious,” and “too dependent on God and not enough in ourselves.” Those making those claims would not be doing so after an EF-4 tornado blows through their hometown and they witness citizens from churches all over the area operating chainsaws and cleaning debris from strangers’ backyards. I have seen Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Catholics, Pentecostals, and agnostics all working side by side, not to put forward an agenda or religious philosophy, but to achieve one common goal— to help their fellow man in a time of great need.
Churches from all over the nation were the early key to recovery after Hurricane Katrina, and churches from all over the region have been key to Hattiesburg’s tornado recovery.
What has impressed me is the attitude of my neighbors as they have helped their neighbors. There is a determination there, almost a sense of duty and a sense of pride.
A social media notification about a young, single mother with two young children who lost everything in the tornado, resulted in an overwhelming outpouring of gifts, clothes, and money. I know this, because the young, single mother was one of my employees. She is grateful. Her children are grateful. I am in awe. There are thousands of stories of similar care and compassion every day
What scares me with tornados is that they are so discriminating. Our restaurants are in tact and open. But a few hundred feet away, homes are destroyed and dreams are shattered. During a short drive though my neighborhood, one would be hard pressed to find any damage or remnants from the tornado. Yet just a few blocks away, all is lost.
This is the state of things throughout the area. During Katrina there was mutual devastation. We were all affected. My greatest fear today is that when all of the fallen timber is clear, and our lives have returned to normal, we forget about the 192 homes that were completely destroyed or the 4,500 people who are sleeping somewhere else tonight. Though it’s my hunch that my fellow Mississippians will never let that happen.
Extra Table is continuing to stock the shelves of local food pantries with healthy food. Help us keep our neighbors and their children fed through this crisis— www.extratable.org .