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'I want everyone to return'

Only 80% of Father Dong Phan's congregation has returned to the neighborhood.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BILOXI, Miss. | March 31, 2006

"Volunteers are so good to have."

—Father Dong Phan

Only 80% of Father Dong Phan's congregation has returned to the neighborhood now seven months after Hurricane Katrina. He's hoping the others will return soon.

"We're trying to recover and rebuild as much as possible," said Phan, the priest of the Vietnamese Church of the Martyrs. "I want everyone to return."

The neighborhood around the Vietnamese Church of the Martyrs was under a 20 to 25 foot tidal surge during Katrina. Homes were knocked off their foundations and destroyed. Others completely collapsed on top of themselves. The storm also destroyed the boats of many Vietnamese shrimpers in the city. Many jobs also disappeared with Katrina as casinos and tourism sites suffered severe damage.

Phan said his parishioners are holding up well despite how many are still waiting to hear from insurers or for home rebuilds to happen. "I think more will return as the casinos open up, many worked there," he said.

He worries that many have forgotten the plight of the shrimpers and other local populations in poverty. "Everybody needs help rebuilding. Some had insurance, some did not. Some will need help elevating their homes if they rebuild. It's different for poor people; they may have to move away because of this."

Phan is also helping his parishioners and community recover spiritually. "I tell them faith first, food second," he laughs. "Katrina is a challenge for us, we need to rely on a superior power."

A welcome influx to the community is the volunteer crews. Phan spent part of his day recently chatting with members of three Minnesota Catholic churches in town as part of a Catholic Disaster Response Team.

"Thank you for coming, volunteers are so good to have," he said to the crew.

The crew is made up of 11 members representing the Rochester, Minn., churches: St. Pious X, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Francis of Assisi. "Every day is different," said Ann Freund, one of the volunteers. Freund said the team has done cleanup in Bay St. Louis, helped a family whose home was destroyed by flooding and worked at a Boy Scouts Camp setting up housing for future volunteers.

All of the Minnesota volunteers said they came because they knew the need was great in the area. "I saw the need and was so moved by it," said Bob Maegerlein, adding that it was easy to recruit volunteers for this trip. "A lot more people want to come down to help in the future, too."

Bill Doucette said everyone is motivated to be more hands-on than just send a check. "It's a chance to really do something instead of just donating. We have a lot to be thankful for - so why not share?"

The volunteers have also been moved by the survivors stories, noting that just being a listening ear is often the best thing they can do for a person. "It's about helping and listening to them," said Mary Vlazny.

"The destruction is unbelievable, you see it on TV, but it doesn't hit you until you get here. You see what it looks like down here seven months later and you know why it will take ten years for everyone to recover."

Phan says the volunteers help keep the survivors positive and looking ahead to brighter times. To him, it's necessary for everyone to help however they are able to.

"People need to share their blessings now."

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