Wright Leads Hurricane Relief Expedition
by Jeff Wright and Ari Armstrong, September 20, 2005
Editor's introduction: While probably millions of Americans have donated to charities such as the Red Cross, Jeff Wright, a longtime political activists from El Paso County, decided to go the extra mile to provide aid to those harmed by Hurricane Katrina. Actually, he went several hundred extra miles, bringing cash and supplies directly to those hit by the storm.
Wright said he started planning for the trip around the first of September, then hit the road from the 10th through the 16th. His notes about the trip are reproduced below, along with some of his pictures.
"What a God-awful mess," Wright said; "It's unbelievable -- it's just so huge." Wright said the area probably lost a billion dollars worth of timber and most of the region's chickens. "You want to smell something, smell 30,000 dead chickens" from the road, Wright said, adding, "They just bulldoze everything, and then they burn it." He predicted, "Materials prices -- they're going to skyrocket." He pointed out that, while "natural gas production is probably the hardest hit right now," the natural gas industry is expanding in Western Colorado and Wyoming.
Wright expressed skepticism in some of the national government's efforts to "help" the South. However, he was encouraged to run across "a lot of little individual efforts like ours."
Wright said his decision to call the relief group the "Colorado Free Militia" raised some eyebrows locally. Indeed, one church refused to allow a drop-off box associated with the name, Wright said. However, he added, "The reception we got for the militia down there was excellent." He described the militia as "the first line of civil defense."
Colorado Spring's Gazette covered the trip on September 12 and 13. One story estimated that Wright's group distributed around $24,000 of cash and supplies.
Wright said his is the "only group in El Paso County distributing directly" to the impacted areas. "People know exactly where their money's going," Wright said. He added that he plans to go on the road again in a couple weeks. -- Ari Armstrong
Katrina Relief Diary -- by Jeff Wright
We have returned intact from our 7-day venture into southern Mississippi. We accomplished our first mission and are now continuing our efforts to provide as much support as we can from our tiny effort. No matter how small, all such efforts are important to the people of the region right now. CFM helped around 150 families with the essentials we delivered. Below is a recap of our trip:
Gulfport: First Three Pictures
Day 1 (Sept. 10): Last-minute collections completed and loaded into trailers. All the travelers, including our two embedded press people, arrive at Mark Madigan's for final preparations and discussions. We lost one of our trucks yesterday due to too many other commitments by the owner, so our final caravan comprises two loaded trucks and trailers and van. The travelers are Mike Remington, my oldest son Travis, Terry Hinners, Mark Madigan and his son Jason, the Gazette reporter, DeeDee Correll, and photographer Bryan Oller. We depart a little after 11am heading out highway 24 from Peyton to Limon where we pick up I-70 east.
After experiencing some heating and sealing problems with the transmission on the F-350, just repaired the day before, everything begins to smooth out and the little caravan rolls away into the evening heading east and south. Outside Tulsa I made a navigation error, (duly noted in the newspaper on Monday), which we then corrected and continued south. Then on the way we also blew a tire on one of the trailers. Travis had it changed in about 10 minutes and we were on the road again in about 15 minutes.
We stopped in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, for a couple hours sleep and then again at the Vicksburg, MS Walmart to finish filling up our trailers with essentials. Noted several things were in short supply even up there. After shopping we headed on south of Jackson. At Jackson we immediately started seeing the first effects of Katrina with downed power lines, bent/blowndown roadsigns and the first of many, many ripped up roofs.
As we made the turn-off from Hiway 49 at Magee towards Mize and Taylorsville, it was immediately evident that the level of tree damage picks up. Started seeing many more down powerlines, tree and house damage. We also started smelling the first of many unpleasant odors as we began to pass chicken houses with tens of thousands of dead chickens inside. We would learn that the entire chicken house would have to be razed and burned as the salmonella and bacteria levels were simply too dangerous for anyone to enter without full bio-suits, which were not available. There are approximately 30 million chickens raised in Southern Miss./ Louisiana. We would smell that smell a lot in the next few days, along with many others that were pretty obnoxious. Finally rolled into Taylorsville about dusk on Sunday.
Taylorsville had most of its electricity back the day before and things were starting to work again. The outlying areas were still dark. Folks were waiting for us at my Wife's sister's house. Lynette and Gary Blakeney would put up half our group and the other half would stay at Marilyn and Tony Moran's home. Terry Hinners went to stay with his relations in Morton. A few hours sleep was greatly appreciated by all. We learned that the National Guard had pulled out on Friday after it was clear there was not any serious criminality being seen in town or around Smith County, but further south or over in Laurel. However, the Guard brought no significant supplies or help. Just occupied the Fire House and took up positions around town at the bank, gas station and Piggly Wiggly. Dusk to dawn curfew was still in effect though.
Day 3: At the Blakeney house we organized the first day's distribution to be for New Hopewell, south of Taylorsville. The electricity was still mostly out and the area had more tree damage with less means to clean up. They had more problems with supplies. Only a couple very small stores operating in the area around Hot Coffee with limited gas. The main New Hopewell Church has a congregation of about 2000 spread out over a good deal of the County so it was a good place to hold the Distribution. Once the news was put on the phone tree and via drivearounds, it brought people into the church from all over. The local Fire Marshal, Donnie Barnes, collected things for several families in Hot Coffee, MS as well. Split the dry goods up from the trailers and sorted and stacked the clothes. Many people came and went with one or two bags of goods and stuffed animals, clothes and toys for the kids. Many of the shoes, books and dolls were a hit with the kids. Many babies and small children came in with their families.
After leaving New Hopewell we returned to Taylorville to make sure about plans to go south to Saucier, Pass Christian/Gulfport/Bay St.Louis. Mark and Jason had already left with the van and it's supplies to head to Saucier/Pass Christian, to poke around and see what specifics were needed down there that were not available. Dropped more essentials in Taylorsville. Traveled on in to Hattiesburg to check the status of Walmart/Sam's and to get replacement for blown tire on trailer. Restocked at the Walmart/Sam's again. Hattiesburg was an incredible beehive of activity. Military convoys, clean up/repair crews. Utility trucks everywhere fixing power lines, FEMA caravans, little convoys like ours ferrying supplies south, It felt sort of like a wartime occupied city. No cleaning supplies anywhere to be had. Would have to go back up to Magee tomorrow for cleaning supplies. Drive took 2 1/2 hours to Saucier. Damage increases heavily immediately south of Hattiesburg on State Hiway 49. Arrived and unloaded supplies at the home of Monty Mulherin to act as a distribution point for that area and families down to Bay St. Louis.
There were 12-15 folks living in that home and no available accommodations in the area, so we decided to head back to Taylorsville instead of setting up the tent, since we had to go back to Magee for supplies that were in short supply further south.
Day 4: Made a large purchase of many supplies in Magee. Also bought out every mop, broom and bucket at the Walmart. On the way back to Saucier, left money to purchase chainsaw and dropped a drum of gas and case of 2-cycle oil for effort in Taylorsville to cut trees away from homes of elderly and disabled.
Back in Saucier, arrangements were made to deliver supplies to Gulfport Garden Park Hospital and Bay St. Louis. Garden Park was short on many items and still running on generators up until the day before. The front face of the hospital was ripped off by the storm. They had many indigent care emergency patients so the baby food and personal hygiene items would be used for their care and defray the cost to the hospital. Left more than 500 pounds of canned baby food, packaged food, soap, mouthwash, tooth brushes, hand lotion, sanitary wipes, TP, detergent, cleaner and other supplies.
Next we drove into the back bay communities of Bay St. Louis and Pineville. These communities had many areas obliterated. There were cars, washing machines, clothes -- you name it -- hanging in trees. Those that were standing. Huge debris piles washed up everywhere. Even for all the work clearing the roads, everything was still a complete jumble of the stuff of life in many places. Pineville school was a military staging area. The storm surge went over 7 feet in this area of the back bay even 1/4 mile from the shore. We dropped another set of supplies at Lyle Madigan's home (who also worked at the hospital and one of the few that suffered relatively minor damage in that area for some bizarre reason) to distribute through the community and left a drum of gas at a chainsaw repair shop.
We then returned to the Mulherin house in Saucier to plan the next steps and take a breather. The heat was oppressive. The Electricity was finally back on in some places around Saucier but many others were not. We discussed how to distribute through the local area and took a ride around to 3 churches to figure out their needs. Supplies would be distributed through them the next day. Had a meal prepared by Mark's relatives. Nothing like deep-fried catfish and chicken! Several other relief volunteers showed up needing a place to camp for the night so they stayed too and had some food. One group was from New Mexico and the other from Michigan.
After eating and finishing the other arrangements we returned to Taylorsville for the night pretty much exhausted.
Day 5: With the remaining money and with most basic supplies and services returning to Taylorsville, it was decided to buy and distribute the remainder of the available cash in $100 Walmart cards, so people could buy what they needed to defray their loss of income and clean-up. After that some other specific needs lists were gathered and some discussions held about the next trip. After that, the group went out to dinner in Magee to have a real sit down meal to celebrate the last 10 days of hard work. Found a good buffet in Magee for dinner (mainly so Travis and Mike could return often to the steam tables).
At dinner I fell ill with a kidney stone attack (can you believe it?). By the time we got back to Taylorsville I was doubled over in the car. I decided about 10pm it had to be a stone attack so Lynette took me Laurel Medical Center. About midnight, after a CAT Scan they finally diagnosed the stone (I told them that! This was my 4th episode in 15 years) and gave me some really good painkillers which took the pain right away --aaahhhhh!. Then I got some prescriptions and checked out of the emergency center. Lynette took me back to Taylorsville. We passed through the roadblock outside Laurel without incident once the officers saw the hospital admittance bracelet on my arm. What a night! Easily the most fun I've had in some time.
Day 6 & 7: We took off in the morning having delivered all of our cargo and money to it's various destinations. Terry and Gary went down to fill the prescriptions for me so I could travel. Though loopy (but perfectly sane--maybe), they wouldn't let me drive for some reason! The return trip came off without incident. Stopped outside of Wichita for a couple hours sleep then motored on into Colorado in the late afternoon on Friday. We found out that diesel in Kit Carson is waaaay too expensive ($3.25) even for out there.
Other then my little incident everyone else did superb, I think. We owe Mike, Terry, Travis, Mark and Jason so much for taking the time out of their lives to do this. And we couldn't have done it without our many donors and support of the volunteers. Fawn Remington deserves special thanks for continuously manning the Widefield donation site and coordinating the donation of the banners for each site. Thanks to Eric Christen for coordinating Volunteers and Paul Prentice for his financial expertise and volunteer help on setting up the 501 c(3) with Eric.
On the Mississippi end we thank the Blakeney family for the use of their home as base in Taylorsville and from the Mulherin home in Saucier many thanks are due as well Marilyn and Tony Moran for putting us up in their home. Mary Sue and the other folks in Mark's family who fed us and helped us help them. These are all great people and fellow Americans along with their communities who needed and need our help.
Of the approximately 150 families we helped, they were all open and very expressive with their gratitude and couldn't believe how all the outpouring of help was starting to come from all directions. But the need is so great. One has to see it to believe it and then it's impossible to comprehend the whole scope. The relief will take months and money -- further assistance and the recovery -- years. To return to normal is at least a decade away for these folks. For many, never.
It should be emphasized that for many parts of central and south Miss. there is still no FEMA or other large NGO agencies present. The concentration of the large organizations still lies mostly in the major population centers and along the main corridors and more along the Gulf Coast. There is a huge area involved. The small back woods inland places have little if any direct assistance. Those areas are the poorest of the poor. They do not get on the news, there is little attention to their plight. The people in those areas are doing what they can with what they have. One man said that hunting season is now year round and that the deer in central Miss. are heading for a "hell of a slaughter" this season so that families will eat. Pretty amazing in America in the 21st century.
Many will remain unemployed for some time as the chicken farms, logging operations and other agricultural businesses slowly try to get back up and running again. It will take lots of little efforts such as ours to help these areas. Pass this word along to your company, family and friends that the statements they hear from the large government and NGO operations and reassuring media pictures of assistance in the major areas is largely not touching the places we've visited. However, the damage and recovery problems are just as great. We now have our 501 c(3) status so donations are tax deductible. We put the donations immediately into the hands of those that need them without red tape or bureaucratic overhead.
Everyone is starting to suffer disaster fatigue, even the major areas begin to fade from the public consciousness as the news media diverts more and more to the "next thing." In addition, there are other storms brewing and we are only 50% through hurricane season. This is not going to stop for the short term and in fact may increase. Please don't flag in your own support or believe that the magnitude is too big to help. It is everyone pulling together that gets the job done. Please pass this on to your lists. We are in a largely unacknowledged national emergency and business as usual should pause for a time.
Now we start working on round two!
Thanks for all you do and have done.
Our donation information is as follows:
CFM-Katrina Relief Fund
We have donation sites set up at:
Falcon Fire Station
The Old Pontiac/Oldsmobile Lot (now Perkins)
[Note: The Colorado Freedom Report is not affiliated with Wright's organization. Readers are encouraged to independently verify all donation information, which is always a good idea.]