Wednesday October 19, 2005

A Letter From Mississippi

In an op-ed piece, University of Dayton President Daniel J. Curran writes about his experience helping students with the hurricane clean-up effort in Mississippi. The piece is an excerpt from his letter to University of Dayton alumni and friends.

Op-Ed: A Letter From Mississippi
By Daniel J. Curran, Ph.D., president of the University of Dayton

When I traveled to hurricane-stricken Mississippi to help University of Dayton students with the relief effort over fall midterm break, I expected to see devastation. The scene was far worse than I imagined.

I expected to meet people of great strength, resiliency and faith. The people of Biloxi and Pass Christian surpassed my expectations, reminding me of the depth of the human spirit and the power of faith in times that test the soul.

I expected University of Dayton students to step up and help their neighbors - despite the 800-mile distance and the chaotic aftermath left in the wake of the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. Yet I was surprised when two groups, independently of one another, organized relief trips over the same long weekend. They gave up their midterm break to give of themselves. These students, living the Marianist charism, know faith and action can transform society. They realize people uniting for the common good can make a difference that lasts.

Working through UD's Center for Social Concern, a group of 55 students, faculty and staff volunteered to assist the diocese of Biloxi, where churches, schools and homes had been damaged or destroyed. Another 37 students from UD's Chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ traveled in vans to Pass Christian, where they camped outside a church held together by wooden beams, its walls blown out. I managed to find them in this small coastal town even though many of the roads no longer have signs. Approximately 80 percent of the homes and businesses here have been destroyed by the storm's massive water surge and deadly winds.

News reports cannot do justice to the kind of damage sustained in the strip of cities along the Gulf Coast. When I flew into Mobile, Ala., I noticed blue roofs on many of the houses. When the plane neared the runway, I realized these roofs were actually tarpaulin covers. The concrete supports for the bridge into Biloxi had been knocked down like a child's dominoes. The storm picked up a casino barge and rested it 200 feet away beside a church - one of those surreal images that will remain ingrained in my memory. Rows upon rows of houses had been leveled. In her fury, Mother Nature hurled cars on top of houses. FEMA workers spray painted marks on houses, signaling grim news of death.

In Biloxi, students spent 12-hour days cleaning out an elderly woman's home full of a lifetime of keepsakes and memories - and now mold. We wore masks to shield ourselves from the pungent smell of rotted food. Debris towered over some of our heads along the roadway.

As a sociologist, I've always been struck by how societies in developing countries must inch forward while being challenged by their past. Here, thriving cities have been thrown backwards and shattered.

The devastating hurricanes exposed deep-rooted poverty in some of our urban communities. These communities will be rebuilt and reshaped. As a nation, we have an opportunity to reduce the region's poverty, provide affordable housing and modernize the schools. We need to take this opportunity to tackle the socio-economic problems and engage in a sustained national conversation about poverty reduction.

Yet government can only do so much. UD's contingent of volunteers joined thousands of others - police, fire officials, electricians, nurses - who traveled to the Gulf Coast to offer a helping hand and to uplift spirits. This volunteer relief work must continue long after cities like Biloxi and Pass Christian have faded from the headlines.

Together, we can restore more than just the infrastructure. We can rebuild lives.

–Daniel J. Curran, a sociologist, is president of the University of Dayton.