02-19-2017  6:06 pm      •     

Pictured front page: The Rev. Overstreet-Smith's home in Gulfport, Miss.
Pictured left: The Rev. Overstreet-Smith's Arizona home, which she sold to help Hurricane Katrina survivors.

When the Rev. Mary Overstreet-Smith heard the news that Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast, no doubt clouded her mind. She knew exactly what she needed to do.

She immediately put her winter home in Arizona — where she was staying at the time — on the market. It sold within a day, and every dime of the proceeds to date have gone to help Katrina's survivors.

"I have two daughters who live in Tennessee," said Overstreet-Smith, who leads the congregation at Powerhouse Temple Church of God in Christ. "I told my oldest one to quit her job, rent a van, go down (to the Gulf area) and start bringing people out."

Overstreet-Smith's efforts to help Katrina's victims have not gone unnoticed, nor has her ministerial work among Oregon prison inmates. On Dec. 12, she will receive the Certificate of Appreciation, one of four annual awards offered by the Portland Police Chief's Forum. The awards honor exemplary individual and group contributions to the Portland community.

When the sale of her home was complete, Overstreet-Smith — who has garnered the nickname "Hurricane Mary" — put the money in the bank and headed back to her permanent home in Portland. She transferred some funds to her daughters to start their rescue van operation, got her affairs in order and set off for the Gulf.

What she saw when she got there hit home — literally. Overstreet-Smith is a native of Gulfport, Miss., one of the communities hit hardest by Katrina. She knew then that the decision to throw her resources and energy into relief work had been the right one.

"When I saw people living in these shelters, laying on cots, it hurt my heart," she said. "I decided to use this money that I had received from selling my house to bring these people out of the flood area."

In doing so, she became part of the extraordinary movement of hurricane victims from the affected areas — particularly New Orleans — to communities all over the United States. She rented almost 50 apartments here in Portland and Vancouver, in her name, and used her home sale proceeds to pay three months' rent in advance.

"I wanted to give these people a key and not a cot," Hurricane Mary said. "I told the managers of these apartment units, 'Rent me the apartments. Use my name, use my credit status, use my credibility.' And each manager was willing to work with me. It was amazing."

So far, Overstreet-Smith said, between 25 and 30 families have used the apartments she rented. Some have managed to move out on their own; others still remain. Her congregation has gotten in on the act, too, helping with the influx of survivors that made their way to Portland.

"The community support we've received has been amazing," she said.

She has since made a return trip to assess conditions in Houston, New Orleans, Algiers, La. And her hometown of Gulfport. Overstreet-Smith said the destruction she saw in the hurricane's wake was at times overwhelming.

During the first few days after the storm, she said, the government response — particularly at the federal level — was anemic. What assistance there was came mostly from efforts like her own, a fact that still makes her angry, she said.

"When President Bush was contemplating what he was going to do, my group was already in there," she said. "What we have seen on TV, as bad as that was, is not reality. Those places are ghost towns down there."

She was particularly struck by the devastation she saw in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, the poor, predominantly Black neighborhood that was inundated by the storm.

"It looks like people haven't lived there in a hundred years," she said. "There's a smell that still lingers in the air. There are so many people who are still outdoors and don't have a place to stay."

Despite the frenzy of activity that has characterized her life since the storm hit, Overstreet-Smith seems happy that she was able to help and gratified that her work and that of her parishioners has had such a noticeable effect. Some of the people she helped to relocate have decided to make Portland their permanent home, she said, and have even enlisted in classes at Portland Community College's Cascade Campus.

So what's next for Hurricane Mary? She's going to keep helping Katrina survivors get back on their feet, and she has plans to help open a free medical clinic for the people of North and Northeast Portland. She's got her eye on a building a block away from Powerhouse Temple, on North Williams Avenue.

And the fact that, after all that has happened, she's still short one pleasant, warm-weather retreat in Arizona, doesn't bother her at all.

"I came into this world with nothing; I'm going to leave this world with nothing," Overstreet-Smith said.

"I felt like that, maybe in the process of time — maybe not in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren to come — somebody along the way will give them a helping hand."

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