Storm Trooper

The life of Cholene Espinoza appears to crystallize, in a single person, the Zeitgeist of our time; her personal story encompasses a number of issues that burn in today's headlines: women's rights, gay rights, the role of the military in the modern world, the role of faith in activism. Now in her early forties, Espinoza, a self-described gay woman, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1987 and went on to serve as the second woman ever to fly the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Today she's a pilot for United Airlines, where she had served as a captain until staff cutbacks stemming from United's bankruptcy knocked her down a rank. What's more, she was a war correspondent -- one who covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an embedded reporter. She would also like to be allowed to marry her partner, Ellen Ratner of Talk Radio News Service.

With her first book, Through the Eye of the Storm (Chelsea Green), Espinoza inserts herself into what will likely be viewed as one of the signal events of 21st-century America: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A chance meeting between strangers on an airplane led Espinoza and Ratner on a journey to a small African-American community in the humble town of DeLisle on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Just days after Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico, Ratner was seated, by chance, next to Shantrell Nicks, a Mississippi attorney, and her two young children on a flight from Texas to Washington, D.C. Nicks was evacuating her kids from the hurricane's toxic wake of mold and debris, while her husband stayed behind to put back together the high school where he is vice principal.

Nicks told Ratner -- described by her partner as a consummate do-gooder -- of the plight of the people of DeLisle, where Nicks lived, and of the cinder-block United Methodist Church where Nicks' aunt served as the pastor. Virtually every home in the church's vicinity needed to be rebuilt -- even those left standing. What the wind hadn't taken down, the mold was eating away, and people were living in conditions, in Espinoza's words, that were "not fit for animals."

The church led by Rosemary Williams, Nicks' aunt, had become a clearing house for all those in DeLisle who needed the very basic supplies of daily life: food, clothing and shelter. And she had little but her church building -- shared, in the storm's aftermath, by three congregations -- to work with.

Within two weeks of the storm, Ratner and Espinoza pulled up to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in DeLisle, pulling a U-Haul full of supplies and food. From this first mission of mercy began a community enterprise in which Espinoza and Ratner remain involved today: the building of a community center near Rev. Williams' church, to which the proceeds of the book will go. (To learn more, click here.)

Espinoza is an engaging writer, especially when narrating events in which she has taken part, be it her foray into Iraq in a missile-mounted, unarmored Humvee or her descriptions of the visits by President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton to the DeLisle/Pass Christian area, some five weeks after the storm. Bush paid a short visit, doing nothing more than a two-minute-long photo op inside a school while the people of DeLisle stood outside waiting for a chance to shake his hand, to hear him tell them what he was doing to restore the communities of the Gulf, or simply to catch a glimpse of the sitting president of the United States. They never got so much as a look at him. Clinton, by contrast, sat and listened to the concerns of people for a couple of hours, and shook hands with everybody within reach. Yet, neither visit seemed to do much good, Espinoza says, for the people of DeLisle. Five months after Katrina, relief had yet to arrive.

She tells of the unavailability of FEMA trailers and FEMA dollars, and the refusal of insurance companies to pay out, even to those who had both flood and hurricane insurance. One of the narrative's most searing moments is Espinoza's tale of a visit to a FEMA trailer lot by Ratner and Nicks to press for a trailer needed by a disabled teacher who was living in a tent next to her mold-infested home:

One young man at the lot was very friendly and talkative and told them that the Bechtel Corporation operated the center. He told them that dozens of sets of keys were missing and that was part of the reason that the lot was full of new, uninhabited trailers. Suddenly a security guard showed up to chase them off the Bechtel property. Ellen asked him, "Can we talk to your supervisor?" He said, "George Bush is my supervisor. If you have a question, call him."

In addition to anecdotes such as these, Through the Eye of the Storm is chock-full of shocking statistics, and offers a special section of stats called "Katrina by the Numbers." (The area affected by Katrina covers 90,000 miles; percentage of FEMA contracts that went to firms in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi: 12.) Among the most appalling is the fact that 200,000 homes destroyed by breaches in the federally maintained levees are not covered in the federal housing recovery plan.

In her slender, reader-friendly volume, Espinoza presents the plight of Mississippi's abandoned citizens in its fullness. Along the way she also brings in aspects of her own life experience, with varying degrees of success. One suspects that there are three books in this one hastily produced paperback, as Espinoza ties in her experiences at the Air Force Academy, the war in Iraq and her own spiritual journey. The thread of the spiritual journey woven throughout the book comes off as a bit preachy, however earnestly heartfelt it appears to be. But don't let that stop you; this book is a concise portrait of the shameful treatment of American citizens and an illustration of their still-unmet needs, and one well worth reading.

Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan.com, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.

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