Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Rebuilding Lives After Katrina

Written for the Roanoke Times Summer 2006 (some parts have been cut for this posting)

It will soon be one year since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Most of us will take a moment out of our busy lives to look or listen to one of the many follow up stories now in the news. But for the victims of Katrina the thought of that day has never gone away. Until you see the devastation with your own eyes you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the damage and the effect it has had on the lives of its victims. I would never have understood this situation if had not been for the persistence of two of my friends.

This adventure began with a phone call from a friend in Staunton, Janet. She told me that she was getting a group of people together to go to Mississippi "to rebuild houses" and that I "just had to go". After I got off the phone my wife asked me who had called. I explained that it was Janet and that she wanted me to go to Mississippi to rebuild houses. My wife then asked what I had told her. I said that I would try to go but that I was really busy with two houses. Several weeks went by and I had all but forgotten Janet's call until one Saturday morning there was a knock at my door. It was Doug, Janet's husband, stopping by to try and talk me into going on their trip. He explained that since losing their home in a fire, they truly understood what it was like to lost everything you own. He said it was an experience I would never forget. How could I say no to a couple that were without their own home but still willing to find time to help others. I started packing that night and my life will never be the same.

Our trip was to take us to Pass Christian, a small coast town located in Harrison County, Mississippi. It had the misfortune of being in the direct path of the two most intense hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Hurricane Camille had hit in 1969 and Katrina on August 29, 2005. Both storms caused the near total destruction of the city. To save time, I decided to fly into Gulfport, Mississippi. As I drove my rental van down Route 90 to Pass Christian, I could not believe the devastation. With tears in my eyes, I drove through 15 miles of land devoid of all buildings. What had been several beach side communities was now a ghost town. Where shopping centers, stores, restaurants, and homes had stood, only concrete slabs remained. The only hint of what had been there was a McDonald's sign that had somehow survived. The rest of the group arrived and we began to get organized. Jim explained what we would be doing the rest of the week and told us about the family we would be helping. His main point was that just being there to help the family and show we cared was much more important than how much work we would get done.

The house we were to work on had been covered by the storm surge, estimated to be 31 feet. The efforts of our small group would be a family we worked with purchased most of the materials [with FEMA and insurance money] and we supplied the labor. After hearing what was expected of us during our short visit I looked around at our collection of volunteers and said to myself "what have I gotten myself into". Here I was with a dozen men and women, non of which had any construction experience. This group was supposed to help rebuild someones home. All I could do was act positive and pray for a miracle. All team members were eager to work in the ninety-degree heat and willing to learn.

Our project was with Mr. and Mrs. Jordan. They are a working class couple with several grown children and their youngest son in college. They greeted us warmly and supported us at all times. They opened the door to their temporary FEMA trailer as a place for us to cool off or to use the restroom. They would clean up after us every evening and be waiting on us they next morning with a smile. They Jordan's made every effort to make us feel appreciated and wanted. Soon, I was called the "boss man" and they would come to me with questions or comments. Our goal for the week was to replace all the windows and exterior doors, repair the vinyl siding, install insulation, hang & finish drywall, install the interior doors, and rebuild the bathroom. We somehow divided into specialty groups. None of the team members had much experience in what they were attempting but with some coaching and additional guidance, took complete ownership of the work and saw it to completion. By the end of the first day, for the first time I began to think we might make it.

On the third day, God showed his light on us again. Janet had made a supply run back to Restoration Point when she saw someone with a tool belt standing in the driveway. It turned out to be Wendy from California, a volunteer with over thirty years of carpentry experience. She was looking to join up with a group and was drafted by Janet and on her way to our project. Wendy turned out to be an angel in disguise with many skills and a get it done attitude. Since we didn't need a carpenter she became our plumber doing a great job of rebuilding the bathroom. Within an hour, Wendy had become a key member of our team.

On Friday, our last day, the Jordan's had a big surprised for us. They and their extended family prepared one of the best meals I have ever had. They served barbecue ribs, shrimp, cat fish, red beans & rice, macaroni salad, potato salad, coleslaw, and cake all washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea. At the end of the meal, Mrs. Jordan gave us a hand written note which said it all: "On behalf of the Jordan family we would like to thank you for helping rebuild our home and lifting our spirits. May your life be as blessed as you have helped ours to be."

We had gone to Mississippi to rebuild a house but ended up helping to rebuild lives. Due to this experience, the story of Katrina will never be over for me.
Moneta, Virginia
May 2006

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