Ashley Carney of Pinckneyville can attest first-hand to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, but she has also seen the hard work of everyday men and women trying to help others get back on their feet.
Carney, a member of First United Methodist Church of Pinckneyville, said she had often thought of traveling to the Gulf Coast to offer aid, but did not believe she would ever get the chance. When a committee at her church began talking about actually making the trip, she jumped on board as the youth representative.
In January, a group of about 10 people from the church traveled to Louisiana to help repair and restore the First United Methodist Church of Pecan Island, which had been heavily damaged by the storm and subsequent flooding. Carney said the church was being repaired so it could be used to help reunite families and house other volunteer workers.
According to fellow church member Charles “Bill” Roe, initial talks among church officials centered on simply collecting supplies and sending them to the small town of Pecan Island in Louisiana, but Carney had a different idea.
“She raised her hand and said, ‘Sounds good, when do we go?’ She was the first to make the suggestion,” Roe said. “She was really the one who put us in our place.”
At the Pecan Island church, a fifteen-foot wave had knocked the front doors down. Workers before her had the unenviable task of removing masses of marsh grass from the building, in which copperhead snakes often hid three and four at a time.
While there, Carney’s group painted the kitchen, restrooms and three of four Sunday School rooms. Others repaired showers or installed new ones, installed a washer and dryer, cleaned the exterior of the building, cleaned the altar and installed the first two pews.
“Going down there and knowing we had a part in repairing this church, which the community will revolve around . . . that’s a good feeling,” Carney said. “We did more than we expected. Installing the first two pews meant it was getting there.”
“It was amazing the amount of work they put in,” said Roe. After the group arrived Friday afternoon, they worked until 11 p.m., got up Saturday and worked from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and did the same on Sunday. Roe said the residents prepared genuine Cajun food for the volunteers.
Before the hurricane, Pecan Island contained about 300 people. At the time of the mid-January mission trip, only about 80 had returned. Most of those who had come back were working on their own homes, thus the need for volunteers for community projects such as this, Carney said.
According to Roe, the residents of Pecan Island were “the greatest group of people you would ever meet in your life. They have a fantastic survival mentality and there is no ‘quit’ in them. They didn’t have their hands out. They are proud Cajuns and independent people.”
During the weekend mission trip, Carney, Roe and others had the opportunity to drive around a bit and take in the scope of the damage. Roe said there were 60 to 80 houses in Pecan Island before Hurricane Katrina, and one liveable home remained after it hit. Pecan Island is isolated, with one main road running through it. It is 40 miles from the nearest store.
“You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen it. Pictures can help, but they’re nothing compared to the reality of it,” Carney said. Houses were destroyed, cars were flipped and new lakes have formed where there is not supposed to be any water, she said. Some of these lakes, which used to be pasture, could take as much as 100 years to drain, Roe said.
“You saw total devastation,” Roe said.
“It’s unbelievable and sad that we take so much for granted,” said Carney. She said her church hopes to have a youth trip to the area this summer.
As a testament to how such an experience might change a person, Roe said Carney’s grandfather, who also went on the trip, told him, “I took my granddaughter with me and a young lady came home.”
Carney is a sophomore at Rend Lake College and is studying special education.
For high-resolution versions of the above photos, click on the links in the captions.