'Nicest people in the world'

Dorothy Johnson lost her house twice to major hurricanes - and had it rebuilt twice by Mennonite Disaster Service.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. | October 25, 2006

Dorothy Johnson lost her house twice to major hurricanes - and had it rebuilt twice by Mennonite Disaster Service.

Hurricane Camille leveled her home in 1969 - and last fall Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again.

Seated in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer on her front lawn, Johnson said she never expected to receive such generosity twice. "It was a marvelous little house," said Johnson of her first MDS home. "And I didn't know they'd help me again."

Johnson said she had planned on staying in her home during Hurricane Katrina, but her daughter helped her make a wiser decision. "She said 'get your bags,' and I did. You just don't stay for a Category 5," laughed Johnson.

When she returned, the home was in ruins. Everything inside was lost. "It was gutted. I tell people it looked like someone put an egg beater in there and churned it around."

Then some volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service stopped by one day, and the rebuild process began shortly after. Johnson's new home was prefabricated to an extent. The builders brought it by and then MDS helped raise it up on stilts. MDS teams also finished the inside - and only a few final touches remain before Johnson can move in. And to help the elderly and disabled Johnson access the house more easily, MDS volunteers built a long ramp wrapped around the house to provide an easy slope for her to ascend on her wheelchair.

"Oh, it's wonderful," said Johnson. "I've been in there to see it once so far and I love it. The nicest people in the world built it."

MDS Construction Foreman Nick Nicholls said when Johnson said MDS built her last home, it became a fun fact they now like to share with everyone.

MDS has 106 projects either completed or in progress around Pass Christian. Housing as many as 45 volunteers at a time in a new facility in town, MDS's work is moving along steadily as work orders come in from the local long-term recovery organizations.

"We're thinking we'll be here at least five years," said Ralph Metzler, MDS project director for Pass Christian.

MDS has already built four entirely new homes for affected families in the area, while helping many others with major repairs. Metzler said he hopes the steady stream of volunteers will continue, since he knows the work will last for some time.

"We hope people don't forget about Hurricane Katrina for a long time."

Metzler and Nicholls both enjoy their work, saying it's not just the sight of rebuilt homes that inspires them.

"The families are very grateful, it's an emotional time for them and us," said Nicholls. "We relish the opportunity to talk to them."

Metzler said he encourages volunteers to not just work on a client's home, but to also talk with the clients if the opportunity presents itself. "It's more important to let them talk," he explained. "We don't always have the answers, but we can listen."

Metzler said many clients came into the MDS office in Pass Christian with cards and donations to be sent to families affected by the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania last month. MDS' national office is currently working with that Amish community and has set up a fund for those affected.

"It's really neat to see all these different groups and people working together," he said.

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