The Rainbow Family - a worldwide, loosely knit group practicing the hippie values of peace and love - has moved from the backwoods to the front lines among a coalition of private organizations providing hurricane relief in the Gulf region.
It's a natural mission for the family, whose members annually carry portable kitchens and clinics in psychedelic buses to their fabled weeks-long summer gatherings on mountains and national forests, says Eugene lawyer Brian Michaels.
"It's second nature for us to do it together. It's relatively easy for us to drop into an area and feed people - without any politics, without any proselytizing, without any exclusions. And it turns out to be fun," says Michaels, who returned last week from 10 days as a Rainbow Family volunteer in Waveland, Miss.
The Rainbow Family, operating as the Rainbow Emergency Management Assembly, set up its portable kitchen and a medical clinic in cooperation with an evangelical Christian group from Texas on a parking lot across the street from Waveland's devastated police department days after the hurricane.
According to Internet accounts posted by REMA volunteers, the kitchen - dubbed the New Waveland Cafe - cooked between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day at the height of the relief effort. Truckloads of donated food and goods arrived at the cafe site along with government relief supplies.
"The kitchen crew is so together. It's that attitude of we can do it and we can do it well. They did it with grace, dignity, softness and no attitude," says Michaels, who has attended 20 Rainbow gatherings and does legal work for the Family.
Responding to phone calls and e-mails, Rainbow volunteers, totaling 30 to 40 at a time, went to Waveland from across the country to work for a few days or weeks. REMA also operates a similar relief effort in New Orleans, dubbed the Welcome Home Cafe.
So widespread is the devastation in coastal Mississippi that until recently the New Waveland Cafe was essential to survival for some and to the local relief effort in general. It served residents who nearly perished in the disaster alongside workers from the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government groups, Michaels says.
"The environment of a hurricane is a humbling experience," he says. "Until you drive for miles and miles and see the same devastation in these communities - 90 days later - you don't really get it."
With the Waveland area gradually stabilizing, REMA has joined an umbrella group called Emergency Communities with a plan to relocate its relief effort to a park in St. Bernard Parish near the devastated Ninth Ward in New Orleans beginning today, according to Michaels and to Internet accounts.
REMA marked its last day in Waveland with a Thanksgiving Day feast, followed by a day of rest and a "Thanks-for-Giving Parade" that Michaels helped organize and promote.
In that role, Michaels attended a Waveland City Council meeting during which local residents took FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to task over their relief effort. For all the public criticism of FEMA, the REMA volunteers found the agency cooperative and helpful - in the same spirit as the Bastrop (Texas) Ministerial Alliance that REMA teamed with in Waveland.
"Once they (FEMA) saw us succeed, they were very helpful. Ultimately, they were allies," Michaels says.
REMA volunteers also saw Waveland's overwhelmingly conservative citizens give up their instinctive misgivings about the hippie volunteers - their colorful clothing, rampant hugging and bouts of bizarre humor. Michaels says he often saw local residents drop their looks of disdain at a group of hippies and thank them after learning they were REMA volunteers.
"These are white, right-wing Christians. These are people who are not used to taking handouts. You can tell," he says.
Their need is still great, he adds.
"Where the New Waveland Cafe is, the people were told it would be safe because it was 15 feet above sea level. Seventeen people died. The stores are gutted. The bank is half-collapsed. The police and fire departments are reduced to tents. The entire coastal community is flat. No gutted houses ... flattened. Where there are homes, they are empty. The new business is, literally, house gutting."