MICHEL MARTIN, host:
While relief efforts are under way for victims of Hurricane Ike, a new documentary, "Trouble the Water," tells a story of a couple swept up in Hurricane Katrina three years ago. Commentator S. Pearl Sharpe says the film and her own experience proved that the stories that come after a storm can be complicated.
Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Commentator): Within hours after Katrina ravaged the Louisiana and Mississippi coast in 2005, survivors started showing up in Los Angeles. An organization here has a campus on the grounds of a former hospital, and they opened their doors. The Dream Center offered Katrina survivors a guarded shelter, three meals a day, and access to a bunch of social services.
Then they began matching local volunteers with survivors. I teamed up with my friend Liana (ph). We agreed that, together, we could probably give some time and cash to support a single woman or perhaps a single mother and child. I have a family of seven, the Dream Center's representatives stated. Seven, oh, we weren't really hoping to - seven, the brother repeated emphatically. Four adults, one teenager, two children, and I really need somebody to work with them.
We met the head of the family. I'll call her Marge. Her story brought us to tears. An old man in their community knew he would not make it through the storm, so he gave them his van. They packed what they could salvage from their rental unit and headed west to start a new life. Marge had a heart problem. Her adult daughter was not well. The adult son was out of control. Her teenager was restless. Her niece had these two young children who had their own needs.
Within days, a myriad of services were set up inside the shelter: medical van, Social Security, counselors, the DMV, lots of food, crates of clothes. Still, Liana and I got busy. The children needed to be in school. The family could use an outing in the park where the little ones could run free. We gave Marge our cash. We shopped. We chauffeured. We created laughter. We consoled, and we were excited. Our small offerings fed our own spirits.
By the end of the first month, things had shifted. As the women became more relaxed, they unintentionally began to drop bits of information. Liana and I pieced together that they did not lose their apartment in New Orleans. The van may not have been a gift. The free meals at the shelter were viewed with disdain, and the family was doing the Big Mac thing breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite Marge's protests, the adult son was mostly missing in action, getting high with his new buddies, but showing up long enough to steal money from the Red Cross.
We had been taken. Liana and I tried to hold on to some sense that our efforts mattered, but the experience was unsettling. Now, three years later, sitting in a theater enveloped in "Trouble the Water's" empowering, true story, I came to understand how urgent the drive can be when you truly need to change your life and a door, even a door waste deep in water, opens toward that new path.
After surviving the storm, the couple in the film, Scott and Kim Roberts, left Louisiana and tried to make it in Memphis. Scott states, I hated my life down there. I wanted to see what it was like to start over and do it right from the beginning. The film let us watch them struggling toward that new beginning.
And watching, I suddenly saw our experience several years ago with Marge's family in a different light. I know that one can never tell what pain a person carries behind their smile or where the deferred dream has been planted. But I thank Kim and Scott, this brash, tenacious and black, loving couple, for restoring my hope.
MARTIN: S. Pearl Sharp is a filmmaker and poet living in Los Angeles. Her new poetry with jazz CD is "Higher Ground."
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