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Ike survivors welcome donated Christmas decorations

Residents affected by Hurricane Ike browse a room filled with donated Christmas decorations for giveaway at the United Methodist Temple of Port Arthur, Texas.
UMNS photos by Reed Galin.

By Reed Galin*
Dec. 19, 2008 | PORT ARTHUR, Texas (UMNS)

Sara Vines isn’t looking for advice.

Sara Vines and her 4-year-old daughter, Kassidy, hang their
new ornaments in their
temporary apartment.

She doesn’t want to be mollified, pitied, tolerated or burdensome to anyone. She just wants to be understood—and Jill Krone gets that.

Krone patiently listens to what Vines has gone through since Hurricane Ike struck parts of the Gulf Coast in September, and then responds simply and sincerely with the only "right" answer: "I’ve been there, and I know how hard it can be."

The two women commiserated in a United Methodist church gymnasium in Port Arthur, surrounded by tens of thousands of donated Christmas ornaments and decorations.

As the women talk, a few dozen people mill about and claim an ornament here, a large plastic lawn candle there, as they browse table after table of Christmas cheer—or, as close as any of them can get to that just now.

They’ve all lost their homes and are in limbo, essentially, as the holiday approaches. They are living in temporary apartments, squatting with relatives, making do in cheap motels and FEMA-issued trailers. When Ike destroyed their homes, most everything they owned floated away, too, including Christmas decorations.

They weren’t just things, Krone says. They were personal. After all, Christmas trees often reflect a family's heritage.

"People have things their little children made—symbols of family trips and experiences, decorations inherited from relatives who may have passed on and items that mean something to them much like somebody’s family pictures would mean to them. They are memories. We can’t replace that, but we wanted to maybe help folks start new memories," she says.

Remembering and rebuilding

Krone is a disaster survivor herself, flooded out 13 years ago in Illinois. Her family wasn’t completely displaced, but rebuilding was difficult and it was even harder when the holidays came. Sentimental family ornaments had been ruined, and that seemed to symbolize their troubles.

Hurricane Ike destroyed thousands of homes along the Texas Gulf
Coast in September.

The painful memories returned when Krone traveled to the coast after Hurricane Ike with a disaster relief team from her
church, Emory United Methodist in North Texas. She remembered what Christmas was like for her family that difficult year.

"The sights, the smells, the feelings were more emotional to me than I expected. I knew this wasn’t just debris out on the curb in front of all the ruined houses; this was those people’s lives."

So, Krone and her church started collecting Christmas items. It was something they figured no one else would think to do. They asked for help from other churches, and the word spread beyond Texas.

"People instantly understood the meaning of what was lost," says Krone. "Everybody has lost something precious to them and they know it’s not about the money, especially this time of year."

Ornaments new and old flooded in from Texas and a dozen other states. They came from people’s attics, personal collections, churches and school kids.

Krone and her church group gave up counting when they passed 18,000 ornaments. In the end, she figures close to 30,000 items were donated. The church loaded up a cow trailer and a van and brought everything down to giveaways near Galveston and at the United Methodist Temple of Port Arthur.

'A new normal'

Standing in the middle of it all was Sara Vines, spilling out her feelings to Krone. She had come with her 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son to pick out replacement ornaments, trying to salvage Christmas for their family.

Kassidy decorates her family
Christmas tree.

"You get up and go on, and you realize everything is replaceable, even if it doesn’t really feel that way, because the things we lost had so much sentimental value. But to see what so many people have given for us, I guess you would say that’s really the true Christmas spirit, isn’t it? It makes it a little bit easier, because you get overwhelmed with everything you’ve lost and it’s like you don’t know where to start to begin again."

So, maybe you start in a church gymnasium, with the gifts and understanding of strangers?

"You have to find a new normal," says Scottie Berg as she picks out a delicate handmade figure. Like Vines, Berg lived in Sabine Pass, Texas, where Ike submerged her house in 14 feet of water. "To dwell on everything you lost isn’t going to get you anywhere … so things like this are very rewarding because they’re helping so many families find their new normal."

Nothing is very normal, though, for Berg, Vines and the other neighbors quietly browsing in the gymnasium.

Many of the structures in Sabine Pass are now completely gone. Most of what remains is beyond repair. It’s a table-flat landscape of rotting house skeletons, dead and decaying vegetation, mosquitoes (even in winter) and spray-painted addresses where mailboxes used to be.

For many people, including the Vines family, the scene has been a recurring nightmare. Their homes were destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2006.

Jill Krone and members of Emory
(Texas) United Methodist Church
began collecting Christmas
ornaments and decorations
six weeks ago.

Vines and her husband, Jeff, now live with their children in a tiny temporary apartment in Port Arthur, 20 miles from Sabine Pass. Jeff works for a company that repairs oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico so there should be plenty of work—except that his company still hasn’t recovered from the damage. Everything in their lives is in limbo, he says, and most of their friends are scattered.

For this moment, at least, the holiday is starting to look a little brighter. The family is gathered around their Christmas tree and hanging ornaments from the giveaway. Always fussy about decorating the tree, Sara Vines meticulously strings colored beads across the limbs. "Ah, this is looking more like what our tree would have looked like, now. We always had a lot of beads," she said.

Her son Sladen is finding the perfect spot for a train ornament he picked out. Daughter Kassidy insists that a delicate Cinderella ornament be placed prominently and high. Their dad keeps the assembly line going, hooking the ornaments and supervising from the couch.

"I feel like I own this tree now, this is my tree now," says Sara, her tentative smile softly lit by lights on the glowing tree.

*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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