Remembering Mississippi Documentary

A short documentary about the long term recovery struggles some people, mostly elderly and disabled, are having recovering from Hurricane Katrina. With FEMA having evicted many individuals from their travel trailers and mobile homes to date, many of those people are now living in substandard or damaged homes. R3SM is an agency in Hattiesburg, MS that is assisting those in need, still today.

Originally posted in 2009 on the Weyo blog.

I joined Wéyo this summer 2009 as their first intern. I learned about Wéyo in August 2008, three months after their incorporation, through a friend Susan White. Susan is a journalist and contributor for Wéyo. Susan’s passion about Wéyo led me to do some research on the creative think tank. Early this spring I arranged an internship with the co-founders, Chris Tyree and Stephen Katz. Timing worked for them, as they just moved into a new warehouse studio not too far from downtown Norfolk, Virginia. So they actually had a place for me to sit! In fact, the sweet desk I sit at was custom built by Chris and Stephen themselves!

We designed the internship to allow me half of my time here to work on a project that will be donated to the non-profit of my choice and also to work on some projects of passion that Wéyo has had to put on the back burner.

I just graduated from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) this past May. I am eager to get my feet wet in learning new ways to create visual storytelling, so working with Wéyo is a perfect fit for me. I am also currently working on my MPH in UNC’s Public Health Leadership Program and am a fellow at Family Health International, working as a documentarian and a community based researcher on an HIV/AIDS prevention research project in Durham, North Carolina. The reason that Wéyo appealed to me so much is because they are interested in working with organizations that are making the world a better place. Much of their work is health related, having worked for some medical oriented international and domestic non-profits.

For the last year I have been working on a documentary project with Wake County in North Carolina, on an effort they have towards preventing and ending homelessness. Through this work I have become interested in understanding homelessness caused by natural disasters and what long-term recovery assistance is available to these homeless families.

I chose to work with the non-profit R3SM: Recover, Rebuild, Restore, Southeast Mississippi. The aim of R3SM is to provide long term recovery assistance to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who have somehow slipped through the cracks over the past 3 1/2 years. Most of these families or individuals are elderly, disabled, or on a low fixed income and unable to move back into their original home due to damages. I chose to concentrate on inland Mississippi because I feel they have not received as much media reportage. Texas and Alabama are in similar cases. Many people, even local to Mississippi, are not aware that families are still displaced from their homes, and still unable to establish a new foundation on their own. Most of these people have been able to benefit from temporary FEMA housing. And as the good ol’ saying goes, most good things come to an end. At the same time, the world isn’t fair. Although FEMA mobile homes are recently eligible for purchase for $1, FEMA travel trailers are not, and residents are being evicted. I will speculate that this may have something to do with liability for formaldehyde levels that exit in the travel trailers. The eviction notices have created an influx of cases for R3SM, and the agency is finding it difficult to uncover money for assistance so many years after the storm.

Film Setup Inside Fema Travel Trailer

I spent four days gathering footage in Hattiesburg in 100°+ weather! R3SM produced my shot line-up, and arranged case-workers to accompany me to each of the client’s homes. We chose a variety of clients, some that had fully recovered with the assistance of R3SM , one family that was still living in a FEMA travel trailer, and some that were still living in damaged dwellings.

I knew what I was going to film and photograph was (and still is) a topic of great debate. When I talk about this documentary, especially because it deals with some FEMA housing issues, I find that people’s reactions are very cynical and judgmental, off the bat, regarding people that are still living in trailers. The concept of Katrina survivor is old news and it seems every ounce has been squeezed out of it. After talking with people about their strong opinions, I walk away wondering how they can cast these judgements and whether compassion exists to help these less fortunate. I honestly believe that those that are still struggling today were most likely struggling before the storm came. Now they are in tougher times.

Terry lives in a damaged mobile home with her mother and brother.

Kevin Mooney, a father of two teens who lost his mobile home in the storm and whose wife died in a car accident last fall, told me that when he starts feeling down about his situation, he reminds himself that his family is better off than others. R3SM just helped him to negotiate and close on the purchase of his FEMA mobile home. I believe that Kevin is right. Although he seems to be living in poverty ($700/month), he is lucky compared to some families. Like Edward and Wanda Freeman who are still living in an unhealthy and unsanitary home. Or Anita Miller, single mother of two kids, who was forced to vacate her trailer, and now lives in a mobile home with rotting windows, a leak in the roof, one barely working A/C, no heater, and a stove with electrical issues. All she wants for her and her kids is to be able to cool and heat the place.

What I hope to get across from this documentary project is that help is still needed. Money, is needed. Volunteers, are needed. Getting the word out, is needed.