Harvey and Janet Ross experience devastation

Published 1:35 pm Friday, January 6, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC - Harvey and Janet Ross recently returned to Dowagiac from New Orleans, where scum coats the ravaged landscape, houses still “vomit” debris more than four months later and “horrendous” traffic makes even ghostly neighborhoods seem populated.
Others appear fine, but they spent too much time submerged.
The landscape has a surreal quality of its own.
Janet said, “It looked to me like what I think the earth would look if there was a nuclear attack. You don't see any people. Most of the vegetation is brown with a crust dried on it. There are scum lines on houses” from standing water.
But “the most amazing thing to us was the spirit of the people,” Janet said. “I expected a lot of anger, and people were smiling and grateful to be alive. The other thing that was amazing and hit me is the generosity of the American people, the volunteers from all over who took time out of their lives to help and all the people who gave money to support all those efforts.”
They met one woman who had cleaned up her house, hung Christmas decorations outside and was holding church services inside for 50 people.
They encountered a neighborhood barbecue in another sector.
The traffic is from contractors commuting from Baton Rouge for clean-up and reclamation.
Maybe 10 percent of the Crescent City's inhabitants have trickled back.
Others return on weekends or days off. Many will never return. It's still more of a big mess than the Big Easy.
The first two weeks of December the Rosses camped in a Methodist church sanctuary beneath an illuminated cross that struck some as a bizarre nightlight.
Opening four days after Katrina last August, the makeshift staff shelter still houses dozens to more than 100 people each night. Relief workers who have stayed there included state police and two FEMA employees. The site manager from Ohio usually works for a fire department in a General Motors plant. She's lived there since September.
Red Cross provides the cots which are shoved aside on Sundays for worship services.
Janet expected more of them to be retirees like her and Harvey, 67, whose job with Edward Lowe first brought them to Dowagiac from their native St. Clair County on the east side of the state.
Now it's 2006 and New Orleans as it was no longer exists except in fond memories. The Rosses spent a week there a year before Katrina, in September 2004. The French Quarter, which escaped floodwater, bears the only resemblance to what they visited. Call what they found before Christmas Now Orleans.
Though they have bicycled across Michigan and more than 600 miles down the Natchez Trace and done mission work in Guatemala and Haiti, “I've never seen a a flood before,” so Janet wasn't sure what to expect.
They were assigned to bulk distribution.
About 10 stationary distribution points were replaced by their fleet delivering ice chests, brooms, mops, five-gallon buckets, bleach, respirators, blankets and personal hygiene kits.
Issued a map each day of a designated area, Harvey drove the truck and Janet rode along as they went to that neighborhood and walked up and down the deserted streets, honking and shouting.
She spoke with a man in St. Bernard's Parish who spent three days trapped in his attic before being rescued from his roof.
Months after the initial shock faded from TV screens, “We don't hear about it,” Janet said, “so we think everybody's coming back and fixing their houses up. It will be years.”
Harvey spoke to one young man from Kentucky earning $10 an hour raking front lawns from the fence to the curb, staying a certain number of feet from any downed wires or trees.
The result looks like the aftermath of a Michigan blizzard if it snowed debris and plows banked the trash high along roadsides.