Springfield Journal Register

September 05, 2005

'God is good'
Biloxi residents grateful just to be alive amid devastation


BILOXI, Miss. - Many of them have lost virtually everything, yet on the first Sunday after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, residents of Biloxi came to church to give thanks

Here, in the hard-hit area of East Biloxi, where hurricane-borne floodwaters rose to ceilings, the interiors of their churches were destroyed.

One church held its services in a parking lot covered with leaves, branches and shingles blown down by the hurricane, under the sweltering Mississippi sun. Some of the worshippers had evacuated through their ceilings.

"Keep your heads up: The Lord brought you out of the ceiling," exhorted Kenneth Hollins, a Mississippi state trooper who doubles as pastor of New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. "We could be dead sleeping in our graves. But the Lord saw fit to allow us to go on just a little bit longer."

Off to one side, an enormous swath of black roof lay draped over a power line like a wet towel tossed over a clothesline. Floodwaters had drenched the church's interior. Outside, a women described her family's harrowing escape through their ceiling.

When the storm hit and her house began filling with water, Hazel Price and her family took refuge in the center of the house. As the water kept rising, her husband and son got on top of a counter and punched a hole in the ceiling. The family escaped into the attic and remained there until the waters receded.

Now, the house, which is uninsured, is a total loss.

"I'm really exhausted," said Price, among a dozen displaced people who are staying in the church. "But I thank God that I am able to tell about it."

Several blocks away, another congregation also was holding its first service since the hurricane.

Vivian Kelly sobbed quietly outside Lighthouse Apostolic Church, where the floodwaters reached 12 feet.

"I've been through hurricanes. I've been through tornadoes in Texas. This was worse than anything I've ever experienced. It was a tidal wave," said Kelly, a supervisor at the Grand Casino, who added that she'd experienced tsunamis and typhoons while living in Okinawa and Japan.

Kelly lives less than a block from the church, just past a huge tree ripped down by the storm.

Though she had never been to the church before, Kelly said she felt so grateful when the hurricane was over that she had to give thanks.

"If you had seen the water and how high it was," she said. "When we came out, that cross (on the church) meant everything. It was just like the Earth was at peace.

"I'm giving thanks for just knowing that God is good. This is a wake-up call. Maybe I haven't done as much as I should for my fellow man."

Both churches lost several members of their congregation, who the pastors said drowned.

Many more have lost all or most of their possessions.

As the service at New Bethel Baptist Church ended, a sport utility vehicle pulled up and its driver, John Beaton of North Biloxi, shouted, "Anybody need anything?"

"We fared better than a lot of people," explained the former Air Force meteorologist, who with his wife, Arlene, retired in Biloxi, where they found the people unusually friendly and optimistic. The two gathered their extra water, fruit and granola bars and went distributing them Sunday.

Beaton said he's been disappointed with what he considers a slow federal government response to devastation in the area, but he added, "We've seen more activity since (President) Bush was here" two days before.

Beaton and his wife continued on their journey, stopping to hand off items to a family whose front yard displayed a huge pile of destroyed furniture and other possessions.

One grateful recipient yelled to him: "This is going to be a whole new city when we get through with it,"

"You betcha," Beaton replied.