At 24, Stephen Oliphant is the team leader and the oldest member of one of SCA’s two intern crews doing post-Katrina restoration in Waveland, Mississippi, not far from Gulfport. A collaboration between SCA and the Corps Network, this work will involve a total of 18 SCA interns over a period of six weeks in late May and early June.
"Our first job,” Oliphant says, "was in Turkey Creek, a historic community of descendants of freed slave landowners, devastated first by Katrina, then by lack of insurance, and then at risk of being displaced by unscrupulous developers. "
"We were there doing trail work to restore old footpaths that would provide residents access to fishing and swimming." On the crew’s first day of work, Turkey Creek residents learned that their town had been listed on the National Registry of Historic Communities, opening the way to additional resources and support.
The local Methodist church organized a celebration and the SCA interns got to join in. "I learned that disaster can change everything," he said, "but it can also remind people of what's important and give them the energy to fight back and hold on to it."
Despite the good news that the New Orleans population is now back to 61% of the pre-Katrina number, Oliphant described the drive through the city as... “sobering, quiet, eerie. There are neighborhoods that are just ghost towns. All the houses have been gutted, and they are just standing there, empty."
By contrast, Waveland is full of volunteers, literally tons of exposed, very expensive lumber, and construction everywhere. People of all ages and from all over are roofing, siding, framing, installing new cabinets and sub flooring, and hanging new doors. Most do not have construction experience, but they lift, hammer and paint with guidance from a few resident construction professionals.
The new construction, sticking up between FEMA trailers, has to be 27 feet above sea level, so that new houses in Waveland are being built on 20-foot stilts. “We got to roof one of those houses and that was something else,” he says.
The homeowners purchase the materials, but the labor is free. And it’s the labor that they can’t get at any price. "They are swamped with work. There just aren’t enough hands in their community to do it all," he explains. “There is progress, but it’s slow. Ten years from now, there will still be work to be done. And once people have a place to sleep, there will be the environmental devastation to deal with.”
At the time of this interview, Oliphant has just been presented with 20 pounds of freshly cooked crayfish from one of the grateful homeowners. “It’s hot, humid, and buggy here, but wonderful. I'm from the Carolinas, so I love it.”
This is Stephen Oliphant's second tour of duty with SCA. He first served as a Congressional National Parks Intern in the office of South Carolina Congressman Henry Brown and then at Fort Sumpter National Monument for the second half of that assignment.
At the end of the assignment in Waveland, Mississippi, Oliphant and his team will move to Padre Island National Seashore, off the coast of Texas, for some marine biology work, involving loggerhead turtles among other projects. Stay tuned for more news of this SCA Intern crew.