Volunteers lift hearts in MS

BY SUSAN KIM | BILOXI, MS | July 2, 1999


BILOXI, MS (July 2, 1999) -- Mary Jean Harris wasn't

sure when -- or if -- she'd ever be able to return to her

home in Moss Point after it was severely damaged when

Hurricane Georges' swept the Mississippi coast last

September.

But several weeks ago she and her children moved back.

Harris said the volunteers who came to lift up her

sagging home also lifted up her heart. "They were my

angels," she remembers. "They came to my rescue."

One volunteer, Donald Dokter, said her house "was in poor

shape. In two places, the foundation beams were sagging,

so we had to jack the floor up and put underlying

supports in every room." Then Dokter, with other

volunteers from the Christian Reformed World Relief

Committee (CRWRC), installed vinyl tile, repainted the

entire interior, and replaced latches and broken glass.

Dokter, a retired architect, and his wife stayed in

Mississippi for three-and-a-half weeks after towing their

30-foot trailer 1,000 miles from Michigan.

There have been a lot of 'angels' in Mississippi. They've

logged more than 21,000 volunteer hours helping hurricane

survivors rebuild and repair their homes. But the

caseload at the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster

Recovery Center shows more 'angels' are needed,

especially skilled construction workers, caseworkers,

home inspectors, and chain saw groups.

"We've had 801 cases, and 500 are still active," said the

Dr. Carolyn Tyler, executive director. "Three or four

hundred of those will be home rebuilds." A high

percentage are single mothers and elderly people.

Hurricane Georges, known for looming over huge areas,

left its signature span of destruction up the Mississippi

coast. The recovery center handles unmet needs in a

90-mile coastal stretch along Highway 90 -- in total, an

1,800-square-mile area full of people with damaged homes,

massive trees hanging precariously over rooftops, mental

health issues, or simply trouble making ends meet.

Tornadoes which spun off Hurricane Georges also caused

severe pockets of damage.

For Lucille Durden, it was a leaky roof - ripped by

Hurricane Georges' high winds -- causing extensive water

damage in her home. "The roof was literally sinking in,"

she said. "Then the volunteer teams came, even a group of

young people. I asked them why they came - I said didn't

they want to take a vacation - but they said they wanted

to help people like me."

Durden said she met volunteers of all ages. "Another

group of older adults came. I looked up and there were

two elderly women painting my bedroom ceiling! I asked

one man if he wanted me to get the newspapers out here to

write a story, and he said, 'no, all I want is a hug.' I

said, well you can have that right now."

Now, Durden said, "thank God, when it rains, the water

stays out."

Durden's story of people helping people has transpired in

many Mississippi homes this summer. Bill Kaysen, a Church

of the Brethren volunteer, helped repair 10 homes when he

traveled to Biloxi from Washington state. He and his wife

spend at least three months of each year volunteering.

"People are really appreciative. That's where you get the

reward," he said.

Tyler herself is also no stranger to disaster response,

having led interfaith efforts in her home state of

Arkansas, and in Kentucky and Tennessee before she

answered the call to come to Mississippi. "I have come on

a faith journey here," she said. "I don't know what's

going to happen next, but the people we work with are

people really in need. We've got people here who still

have needs left from two hurricanes ago."

Sometimes it's hard to address only the hurricane-related

needs on which the recovery center is meant to focus.

"Many areas are predominantly poor, and we get into some

homes and realize that living conditions were bad even

before the storm hit," said Earlene Harper, who

coordinates field operations and casework for the center.

"It can be very difficult when there is deferred

maintenance. You can't nail new wood to rotted wood."

Tyler said that, at times, she feels their work is only a

"band-aid on the area's larger social need. When you

start to address hurricane damage, you open up the door

to view all the social ills. A lot of my challenge comes

from asking 'what is hurricane damage here?' "

Nevertheless, the center stays focused on its mission by

referring needs that aren't storm-related to other local

organizations, mission teams, churches, or Habitat for

Humanity.

Meanwhile, the center continues to manage both long-term

and short-term volunteer teams, as well as financial

support, from CRWRC, Church of the Brethren, United

Church of Christ, United Methodist Committee on Relief

teams from the Western North Carolina Conference,

Lutheran Disaster Response, Presbyterian Disaster

Assistance, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),

Episcopal Church, Church World Service, B'Nai B'Rith

Jewish Community, Mennonites, and the Knight Ridder

Foundation.

The center also works closely with the American Red

Cross, Salvation Army, and federal and state emergency

management leaders.

Even with an army of volunteers and solid organizational

partnerships, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster

Recovery Center has a full plate. As Harper puts it,

"We're like a terrier-bulldog. We grabbed an ankle and

ended up with a whole leg."

Updated July 2, 1999


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