Katrina survivor going on faith

Stuffing as much as she could into one car, the Rev. Maddy Harper drove with her family away from her home in Gulfport shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck.

BY SHARON DUNTEN | GULFPORT, Mississippi | January 29, 2007



"My biggest fear was how we were going to make it, especially with the children."

—Rev. Maddy Harper


Stuffing as much as she could into one car, the Rev. Maddy Harper drove with her family away from her home in Gulfport shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck.

She never expected to see her home again. Her church - Victory Temple Worship Center - was devastated as well.

Her faith has kept her going, Harper said - that and the volunteers who came to help.

In December 2006, Hurricane Katrina volunteers from The Journey, a new church supported by Southport United Methodist Church based in Indianapolis, Ind., loaded into a mini-bus for the 14-hour trip to the Gulf Coast.

The volunteers stepped into the Harpers' life on 32nd Street to take down the rotted walls of their home and give hope to a family uprooted for 16 months after America's worst natural disaster.

The volunteers were sobered by the reality of what they saw but they saw hope for the future as well. "It has depressed me that this is still going on, but there is a lot of hope it will be rebuilt," said Libby Byrum, a junior at Indianapolis-based Butler University on her second trip to the Gulf Coast.

The Harpers' journey to rebuild their lives had a slow start. Two and half months after the storm, Harper and her family were still living in tents near their home. The Harpers received a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer on the home site on Nov. 8, 2005.

Harper said FEMA officials expressed concern about her small children living in tents and expedited the paperwork to receive a trailer.

"My biggest fear was how we were going to make it, especially with the children," said Harper.

The next blow faced by the Harpers was fraudulent activity in her checking account. Harper said that after receiving some immediate aid after the storm from the government, she tried to write a check but non-sufficient funds were tagged on her account. Puzzled, she investigated with the bank and found another person had accessed her account and was withdrawing funds. The perpetrator was found but disappeared soon after with thousands of dollars still unreturned to Harper. Her means to rebuild had been diminished.

By the end of the week, The Journey volunteers had gutted Harper's home, and were able to start replacing the drywall.

Many volunteers visiting the Harper home expressed disappointment in leaving the home unfinished, and they agreed their trip changed their life perspective.

Nick Buck, a senior at Indiana University, said "being in the moment" as well as connecting with the Harper children "had defining effects on me." Byrum and Buck led Harper's daughter, Nena - her eyes closed - into her newly repaired bedroom.  Her response was, simply, "Wow!"

Buck said he remembered in the Bible when Jesus cherished time with children and the sacrament of a moment with them.

Her home is on its way to repair, and Harper's church reopened in September 2006 with 17 members and one Sunday service.

Harper's last hurdle for her home is at the end of February: the deadline for the use of her FEMA trailer is Feb. 28.  According to FEMA, a homeowner may use the trailer while actively working on a permanent housing plan. If the trailer is needed beyond 18 months, FEMA will charge the fair market rent for the one- bedroom unit. Many Gulfport homes are processed for a month-by-month extension. The extension dates are clearly marked by black Sharpie pens on the FEMA trailers.

"Not everyone is as fortunate as we have been," said Harper. "There are still so many impoverished."

According to FEMA, 102,000 families are displaced in trailers throughout Mississippi and Louisiana with an additional 33,000 living in apartments still paid for by FEMA.


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