[StBernard] Katrina: One Year Later Central Baptist members back from cleanup trip

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 30 21:25:16 EDT 2006

Katrina: One Year Later Central Baptist members back from cleanup trip
Published 8/29/06 in The Times-Herald

latina at newnan.com

As the nation is observing the one-year anniversary of the loss suffered by
Hurricane Katrina, Newnan artist Cecil Cornwell reflects on his and others'
efforts to restore the Gulf Coast area.

Cornwell and a group of 47 adults and adolescents from his church, Central
Baptist Church in Newnan, recently participated in a mission trip to St.
Bernard Parish in hurricane-devastated Chalmette, Louisiana. Chalmette is
the parish seat of St. Bernard Parish. Cornwell and his church members spent
one week working to clean up the area, from June 25-30. Participants in the
Katrina clean-up project were housed in a nearby school building.

The group braved intense heat and unfavorable conditions "mucking" houses in
one of the many Louisiana neighborhoods destroyed by the storm. "Mucking" is
the term used to refer to cleaning out the houses and removing all of the
debris, Cornwell explained.

Cornwell was one of 350 total volunteers as part of a larger group organized
by Hilltop Rescue and Relief Organization in California, which coordinated
the clean-up project. Cornwell is also an active participant in several
other community service projects such as Adopt-A-Stream and the local
Habitat for Humanity. The Adopt-A-Stream project works to clean and protect
our waters.

He was recruited to participate in the church mission project to serve as a
role model to the younger members of the group, he shared. Cornwell, 73
years old, is no stranger to hard work, and labored alongside people half
his age with resilience and determination, said his wife Maxine Cornwell.

"It's like a war zone," Cornwell said of the area. The black mud, dead
animals, snakes, and the heat and humidity made the conditions almost
unbearable, he said.

Cornwell referred to the smell as "indescribable." He and his church members
had to wear masks in order to endure the stench. There was no light or air
in the homes, he said. Workers only had the small light on their helmets to
guide them as they tried to knock out the walls in the houses.

Chalmette was one of the areas where the levee actually broke; and as a
result, the water was deeper in this town compared to most areas, said

"The water would rise as much as 20 feet in 20 minutes in some of those
places when the levee went down," he said. "When the water would rise, the
sheet rock would collapse and all the insulation would come down."
Everything inside of the home, furniture included, would float around the
house, he said.

"In some places, the muck would be six or seven feet thick and you had to
dig a tunnel to get in with a wheelbarrow and begin to take that stuff out,"
said Cornwell.

Everything that people owned was dragged out of their homes to be thrown
away until only the frame was left, said Cornwell. "All that is left would
be the two-by-fours," he said.

Cornwell and the other volunteers had to separate the belongings into
categories of chemicals, appliances such as washers and dryers, and general
debris - which was the largest pile of all, he said. He watched as people's
whole lives, their safes, CDs and pictures were added to the piles.

"It was overwhelming," he said. Cornwell became emotional speaking about the
loss the people of New Orleans and other areas stricken by the storm have
experienced. He says he will never forget the sound of glassware crashing
down as they cleaned a home, every single dish shattering onto the floor.

"The owners of the homes, in many cases, would stand there and see
everything they have ever owned thrown away - their jewelry, their
glassware, their children's trophies, everything they had ever accumulated.
One family had lived in this house for 40 years and everything that they had
collected was dragged out - there was nothing salvaged," Cornwell said.

"Just picture your entire house and everything that you had accumulated over
the years, and having it all being dragged out and just laid out in the
yard. And it's still covered in stench and mud and you know it's going to be
carried off. It's overwhelming," said Cornwell.

Every once in a while, a child would find a trinket or a crucifix to save
among the debris, he said. However, most of the time, when the families were
asked if they wanted to save anything, Cornwell shared they would reply,
"Not really. We'll start over."

"The memory of that place in that ordeal was so painful that it's like they
were saying, 'No, I just don't want any memory of it,'" he said.

Cornwell referred to the piles of debris as "mountains." Even if the
residents did try to salvage their belongings, it would be impossible to fit
them in the space allotted in the trailers, Cornwell said.

He recalled that the temperature was 93 degrees outside, stating that "water
ran down their bodies." The work day began at 8 a.m. and lasted until 5
p.m., he said.

"You had to pick your site to eat your lunch because it smelled so bad,"
Cornwell said. One day the group pulled a couple of dead dogs out in one
place, he recounted. The group had to move all the way down to the end of
the street to find a place to take off their masks and eat their lunch, he

He and his church were able to complete eight houses. But there are hundreds
more to go, Cornwell said. He referred to the project as "the most strenuous
ordeal he has ever experienced." Cornwell shared that it took approximately
20 people to clean out one house and that it was simply impossible for a
family to do all of the work alone.

He recalls small moments during the restoration project such as when an ice
cream truck came and everyone reverted back to their childhood days by
racing to the line, or the taste of watermelon which was delivered to the
workers during a break. "Watermelon never tasted so good," he said.

Many organizations also helped by making donations, said Cornwell. On one
occasion, a truck brought $14,000 worth of drinking water to the area, he

Of all his memories, Cornwell says the appreciation of the victims of
Hurricane Katrina is what he will remember the most. "They were so emotional
and appreciative," he said.

He spoke of the work that yet remains in the storm-devastated areas. "It's
ongoing. They'll be working there for years," he said. "As we were driving
out, there was a shrimp boat on top of a house," he said. The boat had come
over the levee and landed on the house, he explained.

Many of the residents do not want to start repairs now because they are
afraid there will be another hurricane, said Cornwell. They would rather
wait until after hurricane season, he said. "There's still this idea that it
could happen again before they get started cleaning this up," he shared.

Cornwell realizes that a picture is worth a thousand words. "I encouraged
people to make pictures that told a story of the devastation," he said.

"One picture that burned in my mind was our young people sitting on a huge
pipe in front of a house with all of this debris that had been dragged out
of the home. And behind them was this tattered American flag. That picture
tells a story. Here's a younger generation, and here's an American flag, and
here's these young people who are working to restore this so somebody would
have a decent home."

While making donations is important, Cornwell emphasizes that going to the
area and working in the trenches is absolutely essential. "I talked to a
number of people who went that said they would go back again."

To find out more about Cornwell's artwork, check out the latest issue of
Newnan-Coweta Magazine.


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